Alarm as nation's fattest grow fatter

Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday 31 December 2003
By Julie Robotham, Medical Editor

Australia's weight gain epidemic has entered a crisis stage, with figures showing the proportion of people deemed morbidly obese has doubled in six years.

The data, from the Bureau of Statistics, shows the explosion in morbid obesity - when people weigh about twice as much as a normally slim person - is a new phenomenon.

Between 1989 and 1995, the situation was stable, with 0.6 per cent of the population in the category in both years.

However, between 1995 and 2001 the proportion of such grossly overweight people nearly doubled to 1 per cent of all adults, with women aged 40 to 59 accounting for much of the increase.

One in 50 women in that age group is morbidly obese. The data shows there were 144,000 such people in Australia in 2001, up from 84,000 six years earlier.

Among men, 1.2 per cent of those aged 60 to 69 were morbidly obese, but the condition barely affected any men aged over 70 - an indication that most men with such high body weights are dying early.

People are considered morbidly obese when their body mass index - a measure of weight for height - exceeds 40. That is the equivalent of a person 165 centimetres tall weighing 110 kilograms, or a 185 centimetre person weighing 140 kilograms.

Clare Collins, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle, said once people become severely obese it is much harder for them to
regain a healthy body weight.

Stabilising their weight is the first step for any obese person, Dr Collins said. Very obese people should also take heart from the potential health
gains of losing even a moderate amount of weight. However, usual forms of weight control are unsuitable.

"There's no point telling them to go to the gym. There's too much strain on their joints. Often people don't even own a pair of swimmers, but if they
can swim at a public pool at a time when there are few other people there, that can be very beneficial."

Dr Collins said the continuing rise in obesity warrants action, but many politicians still held the view that the obesity epidemic was caused by
"gluttony and sloth." People must consider "how much extra taxation are we prepared to accept to fix up the health problems of people whose health has been badly affected by obesity".

Gary Wittert, president of the Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity, said people have a genetically pre-programmed maximum weight that
they must not exceed.

While more people are moving towards that weight, it is not clear how many people are at risk of extreme weight gain if they do not follow a healthy
lifestyle.

He said the human body was designed to "defend" the maximum weight it had reached - a system evolved to help people survive times of famine.

Associate Professor Wittert said morbidly obese people suffer "major mechanical problems in relation to the respiratory system," and can die suddenly from lung problems.

Most people with such high body weights also suffer from sleep apnoea, reproductive problems and severe psychological distress.