Alarming jump in obesity rates poses wealth as well as health problem

Have you ever noticed how slim and fit our world leaders are? Our own Prime Minister has made a virtue of being fit, but he's not alone. Basketballing Barack Obama is a lanky 189 centimetres tall and just 75 kilograms, and his British counterpart, the tennis-playing David Cameron, keeps in shape these days after a bit of needling by the British press. He looks fit enough to open the bowling for England.

Have you ever noticed how slim and fit our world leaders are? Our own Prime Minister has made a virtue of being fit, but he's not alone. Basketballing Barack Obama is a lanky 189 centimetres tall and just 75 kilograms, and his British counterpart, the tennis-playing David Cameron, keeps in shape these days after a bit of needling by the British press. He looks fit enough to open the bowling for England.

"Not a bad idea," says Charlie.

And then there is the Man from St Petersburg, Vladimir Putin, who they say can bench-press 188 kilograms - about the weight of the tiger that he brought down with a tranquilliser gun after it got loose in the Ussuri National Park during the president's official visit. He certainly is a super-fit action man at the helm of a resurgent economic power.

"What about Angela Merkel?" chimes in Louise.

We had to think a minute until Charlie said, "Well, she is German".

"What has that got to do with it?" says Louise.

"Well, to the Germans she is positively schlank," says Charlie.

And back in the business world there are few fitter than the former head of BHP Billiton, Marius Kloppers, or our boy from the northern suburbs of Melbourne, Jac Nasser, who makes an Armani suit look really good. But sadly, the average Australian is falling way short of these standards. Obesity rates in Australia have more than doubled over the past 20 years and Australia is ranked as one of the fattest developed nations.

At the end of last year, around 60 per cent of Australian adults were classified as overweight or obese. At the current rate, close to 80 per cent of Australians will be overweight or obese by 2025. And most worrying of all, one in every four children is obese now.

Health experts fear the next generation could be the first to live shorter lives than their parents if nothing is done. And you can't just take a pill to fix it. Even so, an OECD report found that Australians are given more cholesterol medication than anywhere else in the OECD. Australia is the second-highest provider of anti-depressant medication and the rate has doubled over the past decade. More than 13 million scripts were written in 2010-11 and, as almost everyone on those medications knows, they put on weight which is very hard to lose.

It's plain that if we don't do something soon, our economy will be dealt a body blow. The extra cost incurred by obesity in Australia in terms of healthcare, ancillary services and lost productivity was estimated to be $58 billion in 2008. That's about the size of the economy of Syria. In fact we could balance the budget with better-balanced eating and exercise. But what to do about it?

My own case is fairly well known. I went from 165 kilograms to 92 kilograms some four years ago with the help of lap-band surgery. James Packer and Joe Hockey have had similar success.

And of course, there is the heavyweight of all heavyweights: Clive Palmer, who has apparently lost 40 kilograms on a diet that he says includes red wine and plenty of cheese. He is planning on losing another 20 kilograms by Christmas and we wish him well. But he did make the point that "Australia has more fat people than skinny ones ... and they're all united by one thing - food and fatness".

While Clive was probably imagining them as a political force to be harnessed, dare I say it for the Parma United Party, a two-day conference in Canberra this week was trying to grapple with the problem.

The conference raised many matters that I am sure will get the interest of all levels of government in Australia.

We need a serious effort in this area if our children are to be fit enough to lead the country in a competitive world that demands that we be our best in order to succeed.

The simple truth of the matter is that obesity is bad for our health and our wealth. "You just spoilt the Christmas party," says Louise.

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