9 Nov 2020

Researcher calls for more action as NZ and Pacific struggles with obesity epidemic

2:25 pm on 9 November 2020

A leading New Zealand health researcher says the country needs an overarching public health programme to tackle the obesity epidemic impacting Pasifika at high rates.

A new global study has shown children in New Zealand, especially Pasifika children, are becoming more obese, more quickly, than just about anywhere in the world.

illustration of obesity

Photo: 123rf

The study, published in the Lancet, was co-written by Professor Jim Mann, who is director of Otago University's Healthier Lives National Science Challenge.

Professor Mann welcomed the government's creation of a minister of public health, and he hoped this led to a more comprehensive push to overcome what is an obesity epidemic.

"Exactly the same kind of epidemic we have in Covid, except for the fact that it's come on very slowly. And in fact in the Pacific and in New Zealand it's got far worse consequences in terms of long risks than Covid has. Of course Covid has to be taken very seriously but we need an over-arching programme. We need to look at it as an epidemic," he said.

Professor Mann said the government should start by curtailing advertising by large food companies.

University of Otago Professor of Medicine and Human Nutrition Jim Mann.

Professor Jim Mann Photo: Supplied

"We need to look again at the sugar levy, which the last government didn't want to look at but it's been successfully implemented in a number of countries," he said.

"And perhaps most immediately, and with no risk of any criticisms, we need to be looking at the kind of programmes we set up all those years ago, under the Clark government, the Healthy Eating Healthy Action Programme," Professor Mann said

The 35 year study pooled data from more than 2,000 population-based studies, with measurements of height and weight in 65 million participants in 200 countries.

The study found unhealthy growth trends - with too little height gain and/or excess weight gains - in several countries, including New Zealand.

Unhealthiest changes - gaining too little height, or too much weight for their height, compared with children in other countries, or both of these - occurred in many countries, including for boys and girls in New Zealand, and for boys in some Pacific Island nations.

This study follows hard on the heels of UNICEF's annual Innocenti report card which named New Zealand adolescents as some of the most overweight in the OECD.

Out of 41 OECD and EU countries, New Zealand was ranked second-to-worst for childhood obesity.