Story: Body shape and dieting

Page 4. Obesity and health concerns

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Some people became obsessed with dieting, exercise and appearance; others rejected or ignored these concerns. However, being inactive, eating the wrong foods and not moderating food intake could lead to weight gain. The connection between obesity and serious health problems began to be made more strongly in the 1970s.

The typical New Zealand diet, which included plenty of red meat, home baking and full-fat dairy products, was shown to lead to high cholesterol levels and excessive weight. Obesity, in particular, was proven to be a risk factor for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea and reproductive abnormalities.

Bonny babies

Obesity in babies was once considered desirable. When baby contests were first held, in the 1860s, prizes often went to the chubbiest child on display. By the early 1900s doctors and nurses associated with the Plunket Society were increasingly called upon to judge the contests, and awarded prizes to babies who were breast-fed and conformed to Plunket’s ideal age and weight scale. Plunket even ran its own baby contests to make sure that the right type of bodies were rewarded.

Children and obesity

By 1980 reports on children’s heights and weights noted that children were not getting taller, but they were getting heavier. Childhood obesity was becoming a worry. The 2002 National Children’s Nutrition Survey confirmed the fear: 21.3% of children were overweight and another 9.8% were obese. The 2011/12 New Zealand Health Survey delivered the same news, noting that obesity rates among children were continuing to rise. The obesity rate for Māori children was twice that of non-Māori children; the rate for Pacific children was three times the rate of non-Pacific children.

Adult obesity

By 2011–12, according to a Health Department survey, 35% of the population were overweight and another 28% were obese. Obesity rates for Māori and Pacific New Zealanders were even higher: 44% for Māori and 62% for Pacific people.

What’s my BMI?

BMI or Body Mass Index is used internationally to assess people’s weight in relation to their height. It is calculated by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres squared. People with a BMI score of 25.00 to 29.99 are overweight; those over 30.00 are obese. However, the BMI has been criticised as being simplistic and not an accurate measure of actual health.

The ‘obesity epidemic’

An alarming trend was the rapid increase in obesity – the rate for males jumped from 17% to 28% between 1997 and 2011–12, and from 20.6% to 29% for females. While some people are genetically more susceptible to weight gain, the increase could not be attributed to genetic factors. Experts believed that the problem was an ‘obesogenic’ environment, in which people were encouraged to overeat calorific foods and had limited opportunities for physical exercise. In 2013 the health-care cost to New Zealand of obesity and overweight was said to be $722 million a year.

Junk food

A complicating factor in attempts to combat obesity, especially among low-income people, was the ready availability of cheap fast and snack foods containing high levels of fat and sugar. In homes where meals such as breakfast and lunch were not provided, family members would often fill up on ‘junk food’.

Surgical solution

In the 2000s bariatric surgery (sometimes called gastric bypass or stomach stapling) was increasingly advocated as the only certain way of dramatically reducing weight in very obese people. However, at over $20,000 per operation it was an expensive solution. In 2010 extra government funding was provided for bariatric surgery.

An alternative viewpoint

Facing disapproval from the health profession, and stigmatised by a society fixated on body image, some large people began asserting their right to be treated with dignity and respect. By 2013 the academic field of fat studies had emerged, challenging negative assumptions about fat people’s health and fitness, and promoting ‘fat pride’.

How to cite this page:

Caroline Daley, 'Body shape and dieting - Obesity and health concerns', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/body-shape-and-dieting/page-4 (accessed 30 March 2017)

Story by Caroline Daley, published 5 Sep 2013