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Big, fat problem nationwide

Opinion

Big, fat problem nationwide

Jane Stephens believes authorities must give more weight to addressing a long-term epidemic that is having widespread, devastating effects.

Obesity is now recognised as Australia’s biggest health problem – at long last. A new report says the number of Australians living with obesity has nearly doubled in the past decade, meaning three-in-five Australians are classified as overweight or obese.

Serious moves to address the epidemic have always been hamstrung by fears of stigma and upsetting the politically correct, despite obesity being a leading cause of death and disability. The federal government has always been loathe to weigh in, choosing not to implement a sugar tax, restrict junk food advertising and sponsorship or subsidise exercise programs as fully as in other afflicted nations.

But The Obesity Collective report found people in the unhealthy weight range are suffering – and so is our health system – with consequential chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and dementia overwhelming our hospitals and ambulance services. The time for pussy footing around has passed. And with so many kids now obese, it is clear more healthy habits and approaches are needed.

The evidence is mounting up: new research led by the Cancer Council of Australia suggests more than three times as many cancer cases are attributable to physical inactivity than previously thought.

A study by the University of Sydney, published last year in JAMA Oncology and involving 22,000 people, showed that only four-and-a-half minutes of exercise was enough to reduce rates of cancer by a third.

Tiny changes could lead to vast improvements and a better life and community. Preventing the problem is as vital as aiding those who want to reverse their condition. Along with addressing over-reliance on energy-rich, nutrient-poor food, we should applaud opportunities to get moving in workplaces, for example. We should praise the healthy such as our Premier Steven Miles, who made the internet go wild recently with Instagram images of helping out at a working bee in his electorate – biceps bulging. Too often criticism and judgment are levelled unfairly at the active and fit – in a shrinking minority.

Obesity is preventable, reversible and actionable. But just as a person does not become obese overnight, the process of turning the tide will take time – something that is ticking needlessly away for too many.

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Jane Stephens is a USC journalism lecturer, media commentator and writer.

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