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  • A posed image of an unhealthy waistline in Brisbane, Wednesday, August 01, 2012. (AAP Image/John Pryke) NO ARCHIVING (AAP)Source: AAP
Obesity is one of the greatest health problems spreading across the globe, despite many research studies into its causes and treatment.Over half of Australia's population is overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of diabetes. Is our health only going to get worse?
Olga Klepova / SBS Radio

21 Sep 2015 - 3:04 PM  UPDATED 23 Sep 2015 - 1:57 PM


Obesity is one of the greatest health problems spreading across the globe, despite many research studies into its causes and treatment.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says over the last 25 years Australian cases of diabetes have more than doubled to four per cent of the population.

That represents almost a million people.

While rates of type 1 diabetes have remained relatively stable, rates for type 2 diabetes are on the rise.

Over half of Australia's population is overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of diabetes.

Is our health only going to get worse?
Olga Klepova investigates.

Diabetes has become a painful, complex and costly health problem in Australia.

While obvious factors such as accessibility of transport and availability of junk food impact our life style and mobility, researchers are trying to find the link between our genetic code and environmental impact.
University of Melbourne and Austin Health Professor Joseph Proietto says they are looking to explain the reaction of genetic codes to food components.

"There is evidence also from humans that much of obesity is caused by environmental factors either in the womb or following birth that can alter the expression of a gene, in other word, whether a gene is working or not."

A person's susceptibility to obesity can be determined in early childhood, sometimes even in their mother's womb.
University of NSW Head of Pharmacology Professor Margaret Morris is studying the impact of mother's weight on her child.

She says more mothers and newborn children are overweight.

"We know that childhood obesity has now increased dramatically since 1960s. Over 30 per cent of Australian children are now either overweight or obese.  During the same window mothers have become heavier. So now more than 40 per cent of Australian women are reaching pregnancy either overweight or obese. And that's a new phenomenon, it didn't really happen two generations ago."

The population's general appearance is also changing with more people gaining weight.
Barker IDI Hearts and Diabetes Institute Associate Professor Jonathan Shaw says, people growing bigger has been accepted by the retail market,

He says it started with adjusting clothing sizes.

"If we could turn the clock back 40 years, and you know, look at who is walking down the streets, I think you would immediately see the difference. If you looked at things like clothing sizes and what's on sale in the shops you would notice a difference. You may have to look at how many X's you now get on the XXX-Large. We used to just have small medium and large. Then we had XL, now we've got, XXL and you know multiple X's before the L because people are just bigger and bigger."

In his 12-year study Dr Shaw has shown that Australia's average waist circumference increased by 5.3 centimetres.

He says there's greater increase among women.

"It's likely that that's going to continue in the next 10 or 20 years. So we are seeing people who were normal becoming slightly overweight, people who are slightly overweight becoming more overweight and obese. And so if we're seeing still increases in the waist circumference that suggests that we are going to continue to see more diabetes resulting from this, perhaps more heart disease and many of the other complications of obesity that we know that it can cause."
If more people are diagnosed as overweight, the threshold for obesity might also change.
Dr Shaw says the average measurements of weight and circumference will have to be shifted to a new standard.
"On the one hand we want to say, 'well, once you are above something it will always increase your risk of diseases such as diabetes,' and on the other hand as the whole population gets bigger if we end up labelling everybody as obese or overweight, the label comes to mean nothing."

Statistics by McKinsey Global Institute suggest that by 2030 almost half of our population will be obese.

Diabetes remains the fastest growing chronic condition in Australia.

Professor Joseph Proietto says without research funding the future looks uncertain.

"I think research in obesity has progressed.  At the moment however I am fearful that many laboratories will close because of the lack of funding for research."

A physical chemist from University of Queensland, Doctor Gleb Yakubov says there is epidemiological evidence of a correlative link between dietary habits and conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and colonic cancers.
A report released in August 2015 by the Department of Health says half of all Australians have at least one chronic disease.

Treating these diseases leads to increased health costs.

In 2010 the direct cost of overweight and obesity in Australia rose to $21 billion dollars, doubling previous estimates,
Together with his research fellows Doctor Yakubov is studying the mechanisms of plant cell walls.
He says they can potentially create a whole range of fibre rich products.

"Having whole foods is very important and the mechanical properties of the plant cell walls are determining the rate of each breakdown within the digestive system. So, by understanding the very basic mechanical properties we can then build the whole link to how quickly these materials are digested within the system and how the glucose level is actually controlled in the blood."

The level of sugar we receive from high energy food varies.

Professor Margaret Morris says this source of energy has impacted certain ethnic groups' sensitivity to fat foods.

She says Indigenous Australians are three times more likely to have type 2 diabetes compared to non-Indigenous Australian.
"Indigenous populations who then changed their diet when that country was settled, so the genetic make-up isn't really suited to a western-refined diet, and there's greater risk of obesity and diabetes in those populations because of that shift in diet. It's largely because their traditional food sources have really been removed from them. They gain weight not because of their genes have changed but because their environment has changed."

But for different ethnic groups obesity is measured differently.

Diagnosing obesity by measuring waist circumference or body mass index - measures of weight corrected for height - in multicultural Australia is a real challenge.

Jonathan Shaw says for some a small amount of excess fat can lead to health problems.

"People from different parts of the world deposit their fat in a different way. Fat that gets deposited underneath the skin is not much of a problem for the heart or for the metabolism. Fat thats deposited deep inside, around the organs is a problem and does cause trouble. For example people from India, if they have to store some fat they are much more likely to store it deep inside around their organs than they are beneath their skin. And much less of extra total fat is required to those people to start causing problems like heart disease and diabetes."

Dr Proietto believes it's time to be more conscious about our health.
"We can try to avoid exposing our very young children to a lot of sugars, but at the moment it requires the cooperation of the people themselves and many people simply are not listening for whatever reason."

Dr Shaw says the issue of obesity should be tackled using population-wide interventions.

"If we keep the whole of our emphasis on the idea that people need to know that they need to know, that they need to take responsibility and need to make changes for themselves, we'll keep on failing, and we've been doing that for 20 years and it doesn't work very well. It's an important component. We need to do things at a societal level, at a population level. Things related to taxation. We need to find ways of pricing foods so that the healthy foods are the cheapest and the easiest rather than unhealthy food being the cheapest and the easiest."

Dr Yakubov believes our population growth demands us to take better care early on.
"There is only one option - 7 billion now. So in 40 years' time we probably will be 9 or even 12 billion. So, we definitely will be living longer and I wouldn't be surprised that in 40 years the retirement age will surpass 70 or even 75 years mark. So we have to spend the lifetime of our productive age, so we have to be healthy, to much more senior age compared to what it is now."

To feed the population of the planet we will have to increasingly rely on industrial production.
However, Dr Yakubov warns, that with mass produced food the emphasis needs to be on nutrition.

"We're gonna produce more and more and probably that would feed the population but that's not necessary that food is actually nutritionally rich. If it's tuned to be aware of the nutritional value of the processed food, I think we would be much better off."

Professor Morris is more optimistic about the future of our weight and health.

She suggests that it's never too late to make a positive change.
"At any time of your life you can improve your health. So, if you had a past when there was an unhealthy element or if your parents were obese, you can still change your health today. What you do today in terms of your diet and exercise can have a big impact and our studies show that very clearly."

Perhaps it's time to look at the impact of our behaviour and environment on our well-being.

Jonathan Shaw recommends we ask ourselves, what are you doing at this very moment?

"I'm sitting down at the moment, you are probably sitting down, most people listening to this will be probably sitting down, so the normal activities of the day now involve sitting for the most of the time whether it's for work or for entertainment."