A report out today on Māori obesity levels 'Challenges to addressing Obesity for Maori in Aotearoa-New Zealand', published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, points to the need for more government intervention to help Māori make better and healthier food choices.
The two leading causes of health inequality between Māori and non-Māori are diabetes and vascular disorders, which are often brought on by obesity.
The 2008/9 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey found that nearly half of all Māori adults were obese.
The report was co-authored by Dr Lisa Te Morenga, Dr Rachael McLean and Dr Reremoana Theodore, from Otago University's Departments of Human Nutrition and Preventive and Social Medicine.
The survey showed that Māori are significantly more likely to experience obesity-related illnesses including pre-diabetes, high-blood pressure and heart attacks that non-Māori and non-Pacific Islanders.
The report out today said the issue of obesity as a health problem for tāngata whenua warranted urgent attention, and obesity and related illnesses looked to become an increasingly significant burden on New Zealand, with a greater burden on Māori communities.
Report co-lead Dr Lisa Te Morenga, from the University of Otago, said improving the health of Māori required a reduction in the socio-economic gap between them and non-Māori.
She said New Zealanders lived in an environment which was really designed to encourage people to buy lots of unhealthy food.
"This restricts the ability to make healthier choices - when healthy foods and drinks are really expensive, it is much harder to choose those when there is a whole plethora of really cheap, high-calorie foods out there being marketed.
"We need to look at the costs of healthy foods and the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children."
She said it was difficult to make healthy choices when constrained by poverty, lack of education, lack of personal resources and a lack of food literacy.
Dr Te Morenga said it was in the best interests of all New Zealanders to close the gap.
"The people who are going to be paying taxes in 20 to 30 years time are going to be our Māori rangitahi (young people) really.
"They are the people who are going to be looking after everyone who is going to be retired, so it is in everyone's best interests to make sure that our young people have the best start in life with the best health," she said
Dr Te Morenga said there was a groundswell within the Māori health community to improve lifestyle-choices, but it required more Government support.
She said over the last 10 to 15 years there had been a number of interventions in Māori communities targeting obesity prevention and high-risk diseases caused by obesity.
"Most of them have had elements that have been successful, but what we seem to see once the research is finished [is that] there is no permanent support of these initiatives at Government or DHB funding level, and it is very hard for the communities to sustain these sorts of interventions without any further financial input."
She said it then fell on overcommitted individuals to try and keep it going and that was very difficult to do.
Dr Te Morenga said society needed to move away from blaming Māori for their own ill-health.
"The people who are most able to make healthier lifestyle choices and therefore improve their health are the people who are the most well-off," she said.
She said the Healthier Families intervention that the Government had been rolling out to get communities working together to tackle healthy lifestyles and obesity prevention was an example of interventions focusing on individuals to make better choices, and the programme could be enhanced if it was also able to look at how the Government could intervene.
She said public health nutritionists would love to see some commitment made by the Government towards ensuring health food policies were in schools.
"We are modelling the sorts of foods we want our children to chose and limiting the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children and families."
She also wanted the Government to tax sugary drinks.
"We need to send a clear message that sugary drinks are something that should not be consumed every day," she said.
Dr Te Morenga said if the message was continually made and made loudly and strongly enough, then eventually the Government would come on board.
"They did it with tobacco legislation, didn't they?"
The Ministry of Health said in a statement in response that the establishment of Healthy Families NZ communities in 10 locations across New Zealand is designed to encourage families to live healthy lives - by making good food choices, being physically active, sustaining a healthy weight, being smokefree and drinking alcohol only in moderation.
It said it was part of the government's approach to promoting good health.
In the statement, the Ministry said Healthy Families NZ was a new initiative that aimed to bring together the right mix of leadership, encouragement, information and resources to help people make healthier choices for themselves and their families.