To tackle obesity, Australia needs to look to culture

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Before our waistlines shift, we need a culture shift.

The obesity epidemic in Australia has had no significant reduction in the past six years.

In 2011-2012, the ABS indicated that 62.8 per cent of adults were classified as overweight or obese. The figure has not changed dramatically with around 60 per cent of adults classified as obese or overweight today. 

Whenever there is an epidemic, we cry out for government intervention. Terms such as "obesity crisis" and "epidemic" get thrown around and governments get pressured to intervene. It's not all sensationalism though, the problem of obesity is staring us in the face (or waistline). Economists estimate that the epidemic is costing our health system billions of dollars every year.

Health groups understand the urgency and importance of fixing the problem — even if that something may not make a speck of difference in getting to the crux of the obesity problem.

A common approach undertaken is the "restrictive approach", which usually involves taxing the bad behaviour. The obesity policy the Coalition, as part of their "Tipping the Scales" program, has considered taxing sugary drinks as one approach to combat the issue. Australia has a history of trying to control bad behaviour by taxing individuals who engage in that behaviour and who can blame us? Plain packaging for cigarettes, putting taxes on tobacco products and scary government advertisements have all worked to some degree in reducing smoking in Australia. 

Individual choice and autonomy have little room in the restrictive approach. It essentially works to punish us like naughty children for indulging in high calorie, low nutritional food. The premise underlying it is that we are too stupid to make our own food choices. 

Another recommendation was to restrict junk food advertisements aimed at children at peak television viewing times. The ideology is that if they cannot see the junk food advertisement, they will not consume the junk food. Again, this approach is too simplistic and doesn't get to the crux of the issue. Junk food advertisements aimed at children were around long before obesity levels soared.

The approach lacks imagination. It also doesn't prevent children from seeing junk food advertisements aimed at adults or when outside the home. Restricting junk food at the canteen is bubble-wrapping children and leaves them ill-prepared for junk food temptations. A better approach may be to educate them on making good choices. The approach also underestimates children's lack of power when it comes to food choice in the home, since it's usually their parents who are buying the food week to week. 

Obesity is not a simple problem with a simple solution (like it is often painted out to be). The common assumption is that the onus is on the individual who eats too much and exercises too little. While, to some degree, there may be some truth to that reasoning, it doesn't tell us the full picture of why we are obese. Neither does the existence of sugary drinks or junk food advertisements.

The obesity issue is a complex one with a myriad of reasons behind it — if it were that simple, we would have solved it by now.

Obesity is entrenched in our culture and that's why we struggle to eradicate it. To some degree, we have normalised obesity. Movements such as the #bodypositive movement on social media have worked to teach individuals to not be ashamed of their "less than perfect" bodies and, in doing so, have helped normalise obesity. A person can have a healthy self-esteem towards their body but it doesn't mean their body is healthy. 

There is also the normalisation of obesity in "packs". Motivational speaker Jim Rohn believes that you are the average of your closest five friends. If your closest five friends are obese, you may then start to think that there is nothing wrong with your weight. That your weight is "normal". Once again, the obesity problem becomes normalised. 

Fat-shaming is not the answer either, but both of these approaches are taken personally. That's the trouble, we take obesity personally rather than clinically or factually.

There are environmental factors intrinsic to Australia that work against obesity and these are often overlooked. Australia's sport-loving culture is juxtapositioned against our working culture. We appear to be a sport and recreational loving nation. Historically, our industrial relations laws meant that we had eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours of recreation, but in 2018, that is a distant dream for most. 

Aussies work hard. We work long hours and take pride in that. Long hours mean little time for recreational activity. Combine that with family responsibilities and exercise takes a back seat. While the die-hards could say, that's just an excuse, the reality is, it doesn't leave ample opportunity for the majority. 

Workplace cultures have a role to play in addressing obesity. With employees sitting sedentary for eight hours or more every day, the hard-working culture in us has overtaken our health needs. Culture can only change from the top down — from management encouraging employees to take their full lunch break and to enable conditions so that employees can be healthy (that is, ensuring they are not understaffed or overworked). Stress is often overlooked and plays a part in weight gain

There's also another fly in the ointment that prevents us from fully addressing obesity — that's our love of the drink. Heavy drinking is still embedded in our culture. Perhaps we drink to counteract the number of hours we work? Contrary to the assumptions of most, the up and coming youth have not engaged in the culture of binge drinking as much as previous generations. The problematic drinking habits lie in the labour force age group.

The other factor working against obesity is the fact that, like smoking, the effects of obesity don't always show up immediately. People don't become obese overnight. People are still living, even if they are significantly overweight. The health issues that come with obesity don't always appear immediately, so, often when the health issues appear, it is too late to take action. Just like a smoker can habitually smoke for 20 years before they feel the effects of emphysema, or worse, the symptoms of lung cancer. 

Until we change our workplace culture, value our recreational time, drink for social enjoyment rather than intoxication, stop normalising obesity, treat it as a serious health condition, without trivialising it by fat-shaming or blaming, and certainly not normalising it, we won't ever eradicate it. 

If it were that easy, we would have solved it by now. 

You can follow Jacinta Coelho on Twitter @jacintacoelho8.

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