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The flabby country

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Children are continuing to pack on the pounds even though the pace of weight gain among adults appears to be slowing, underlining concerns that a combination of poor diet and inactivity is putting millions at heightened risk of heart disease, diabetes and other serious lifestyle-related health problems.

There has been a small but notable slowing in weight gain among adults – particularly women – since the global financial crisis struck in 2007-08. The proportion considered overweight or obese increased by just 0.6 of a percentage point to 63.4 per cent in the last three years after jumping more than 6.5 percentage points in the previous 15 years.

But Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that children are putting on weight much more rapidly. The proportion who are overweight or obese leapt 1.7 percentage points in the last three years.

Overall, the country continues to have a severe weight problem.

Last financial year, more than 63 per cent of adults were overweight or obese, including more than 70 per cent of men, while more than a quarter of all children (27.4 per cent) are carrying too much weight.

The results mean Australia retains the unenviable status of having some of the highest rates of overweight and obesity in the world. By comparison, the World Health Organisation calculates that 39 per cent of adults worldwide are overweight, and 13 per cent obese.

The nation’s waistline has continued to bulge against a background of poor eating and exercise habits.

The ABS found that although half of all adults, and 70 per cent of children, eat two or more serves of fruit a day, Australians are not getting enough vegetables in their diet – just 7 per cent of adults and 5.4 per cent of children meet dietary guidelines for the consumption of vegetables.

Just as concerning, a large proportion of Australians are not getting enough exercise. While 55 per cent of adults reported doing at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week, 30 per cent did not manage to do even this much, and almost 15 per cent said they did none.

AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis said the findings showed much more needed to be done on health prevention.

“The message from this survey is clear – Australians have to get moving,” Dr Parnis said.

He said while it was heartening that rates of smoking and risky drinking were declining, the incidence of preventable disease highlighted the need to do more.

The ABS, which surveyed 19,000 people for its report, found that just 14.5 per cent of adults smoke on a daily basis – down from 16 per cent in 2011-12 – while the proportion who drink excessively has slipped to 17.4 per cent, a 2 percentage point decline over the same period.

Dr Parnis said the results showed the effectiveness of Australia’s tobacco control measures, including its plain packaging laws, but warned that alcohol continued to “wreak havoc” on families and communities.

“We cannot be complacent about alcohol because one in four men and one in 10 women are still exceeding the lifetime risk guidelines [for consumption],” he said.

The effects of excessive drinking, poor diet and relative inactivity are showing up in persistent rates of lifestyle-related illnesses identified in the ABS report, National Health Survey: 2014-15.

It found that rates of diabetes and heart disease (both affecting about 1.2 million people) are continuing to grow, while 2.6 million have hypertension and 1.6 million suffer from high cholesterol.

Dr Parnis said that, amidst the flurry of reviews of Medicare, primary care and private health insurance, the ABS report showed the “urgent need” for greater attention on preventive health measures.

“Investing in prevention pays big dividends. It keeps people healthy and away from costly hospital care,” he said. “We need to do more to make Australians more aware of their diets, their exercise regime, and the serious health risks of smoking and excessive or irresponsible alcohol consumption.”

Adrian Rollins