• Obese children have a 25-50 per cent chance of becoming obese adults with weight-related health issues. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
As a nation, Australia is growing – in trouser size, dress size and t-shirt size. And worryingly it’s starting at a young age.
Jo Hartley

27 Apr 2016 - 11:40 AM  UPDATED 28 Apr 2016 - 11:36 AM

As a nation Australia is growing. In fact, we’re growing so much that over half of us are statistically classified as overweight and we currently rank as 25th in the world for obesity. Worryingly, the problems are starting younger and younger.

According to the 2011-12 Australian Health Survey, one quarter of children aged 5–17 are now overweight or obese.  And the situation is similar for Indigenous communities.

Results from the 2012-2013 Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey revealed that overweight and obesity issues affected nearly one-third of these children aged between 2 and 14. 

With obese children having a 25-50 per cent chance of becoming obese adults with weight related health issues, these results provide a snapshot of a bigger, ongoing problem.

So are we doing enough to target those at risk at an early age?

“There are a lot of actions underway in a range of settings to improve the health of children, however it’s not enough to stem the rates of obesity,” says Jane Martin, Executive Director at The Obesity Policy Coalition.

Governments and communities must invest in effective childhood obesity prevention initiatives to protect our next generation.

“Governments and communities must invest in effective childhood obesity prevention initiatives to protect our next generation and give them the best chance of developing healthy habits and leading long and healthy lives.”

When it comes to prevention schemes Martin notes that most jurisdictions have guidelines and policies around the food supplied in schools and daycares, as well as encouraging physical activity.

“These settings are very important in establishing and supporting healthy and active lifestyles for children” she says.

“We've also seen great leadership from local organisations such as local councils, healthcare providers and groups like the YMCA to reduce the availability of unhealthy food and drink.”

However, despite this, Martin says that some schemes have proven harder to sustain or monitor because recommendations by peak bodies have not been actioned.

“Government continues to allow industry to self-regulate on unhealthy food marketing to children,” she tells SBS Life.

“For example, some large manufacturers have not adopted the healthy star rating scheme, making it harder for families to compare products in the supermarket and make a healthier choice.”

Martin adds that other schemes, such as the weight loss clinic run at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, are unable to keep up with demand.

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When it comes to the efficacy of prevention schemes for childhood obesity within Indigenous communities, more research is needed.

“While many programs have been implemented to encourage healthy behaviours among Indigenous people, there’s limited published evidence of their effectiveness and long-term impact on reducing obesity and chronic disease,” says Ms Katie Thurber, a PhD student at the Australian National University.

“The existing evidence suggests that programs that aim to improve healthy behaviours in isolation of the broader context – such as poverty and the food supply – have not been successful.”

So what is the answer moving forward? 

According to Martin, funding by the Government is the first issue that needs addressing.

“The federal government has reduced the funding across states and territories to improve healthy eating and physical activity, meaning Australia has one of the lowest proportions of funding in prevention in the developed world,” she says.

The federal government has reduced the funding across states and territories to improve healthy eating and physical activity.

Martin says that the management of obesity in young children should be one component of a multi strategy approach to prevent childhood obesity. 

Government restrictions on junk food marketing, imposing a tax on sugar sweetened drinks, and healthy food policies in day care and schools are all important elements to address the issue. 

Martin also considers labelling and health professional support that encourages healthier choices as vital.

“We have a serious and growing problem, and if the government is not prepared to put more investment into this, the economy and health system will face much higher costs from the burden of disease into the future.”

As far as Indigenous communities are concerned, Thurber says that sustainable, acceptable, and effective program implementation requires a “community-driven approach and partnership with Indigenous people and communities.”

But we’re not the only country that should be concerned about the future, because childhood obesity is on the rise worldwide.

According to the World Health Organisation, the number of overweight or obese infants and young children (aged 0 to 5 years) increased from 32 million globally in 1990 to 42 million in 2013.

The organisation estimates that by 2025 this number could reach 70 million - and that’s certainly a number that reflects a worrying and uncertain future for generations to come.

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