Why are Aussies gaining weight faster than anyone else?

Aussie overweight getting measured

Australians will soon be as BIG as Americans and it’s time for action!

Have you noticed a gradual tightening of your dress or pants each year? Or maybe you are having to let out another notch in your belt? Well if so, you are not alone. People all over the world are getting bigger than previous generations.

Despite Australia’s reputation for athleticism and outdoor living, we are currently the 5th largest nation on the planet, behind only Tonga, the US, Samoa and Kuwait.

Not only that, obesity rates in Australia have climbed faster than anywhere else in the world. According to a study in The Lancet, since 1980 our obesity rates have risen from 16% to 29%, which is the largest absolute increase compared to every other county.

The critical questions are why are we getting bigger at such an alarming pace and what can we do to reverse the trend.

Are you trying to lose weight? Read our comprehensive guide on weight loss to understand where to begin, what happens when you lose weight, and what doesn't work when it comes to dieting.

The drivers of obesity

A complex interplay between genetics and the environment has contributed to our ever-increasing girth since the 1980s. Dr Manny Noakes, author of the Total Wellbeing Diet, points out that 90% of us are genetically pre-disposed to weight gain. She also believes the following environmental culprits play a key role.

XXX-sized portions

If you always eat a large serve, then it is hard to be satisfied with less. The oversized meal or snack becomes the new normal and that’s what it takes to fill you up. “Muffins and sandwiches are enormous these days!” she says.

Overeating indulgence foods  

“For many people, as many as 35% of their daily calories comes from indulgence foods full of fat and sugar, like pastries and soft drinks.”

Eating all day long

Food is available wherever we go and we can eat whenever we want. “We live in an era of 24/7 eating.”

Unstructured daily eating

“Many of us don’t have set meal times, as they do in other countries with less obesity like France, where eating patterns are more uniform.”

Eating mindlessly

We eat while we’re walking, at the cinema or when sitting in front of the computer. We are less focused on what we’re eating and, according to Dr Noakes, this makes us less satisfied.“There is no savouring. People eat quickly without noticing what they’re doing.”

Sedentary living

Being sedentary at work and play reduces our requirement for food. But few of us modify our eating behaviours to match. Calories in far exceed calories out.

The health risks of being overweight

But what of the human dimension behind these numbers?

Being overweight or obese is not about fitting into skinny jeans or not having a beach body. It carries the real risk of poor physical and mental health. For example, depression is nearly twice as common in persons who are obese than those of a normal weight.

A report by Obesity Australia called No Time to Weight identified these common conditions associated with weight gain:

  • depression and cognitive impairment (the prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders increases with BMI)
  • obstructive sleep apnoea (70% of obese individuals endure poor sleep)
  • type 2 diabetes (half of the obese population develop this complex condition)
  • cardiovascular disease (excess weight may be responsible for hypertension in 78% of men and 65% of women)
  • kidney disease (hypertension and diabetes also contribute to renal dysfunction)
  • cancer (in particular of the colon, breast and kidney)
  • non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (69% to 100% of NAFLD patients are obese)
  • osteorthritis (due to increased force exerted on joints)

All these conditions inevitably result in a poor quality of life as well as a shorter one!

Weight gain and sustainability

There is a troubling new dimension to the serious nature of the problem of large-scale obesity. It is the strain on resources and the availability of food as a result of the expanding human biomass (that is the combined weight of everyone living on earth).

Simply put, large people (like Americans and Australians) consume more resources and more energy than small people.

A research article published in BMC Public Health in 2012 called Weight of nations: an estimation of adult human biomass estimated that the number of people around the world who were overweight or obese are carrying 15 million tonnes in excess fat. Their research found that “If you somehow drained off all that excess fat … you'd have an extra 317 million humans.” Another country the size of the US.

How can we bring about change?

Everyone can improve the nutritional quality of what they eat whether they are overweight or not. A study by Professor Noakes team has shown that 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in the Australian diet comes from junk foods, so eating fewer of these foods can help both health as well as the environment.

Individuals who want to improve their health and to lose weight need to take action today! Well-designed programs like the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet can assist them to reach and maintain a healthy weight, reduce disease risk and learn sustainable eating behaviours.

Dr Noakes accepts that making changes in our current food environment requires a concerted effort on the part of government policies as well as the individual. “But healthy eating doesn’t have to be draconian,” she says. Change lies in reconnecting with the sensory aspects of good food, appreciating tastes, being satisfied with less and substituting quality for volume.

“The TWD focuses on the right foods in the right amounts. It provides structure for those who need it, but it also incorporates wonderful recipes that are as palatable and as enjoyable as possible, including a daily indulgence. The food is fabulous and our thousands of members can attest to that!” she says.

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