We must belly up to the fat epidemic if we are to be fit for purpose

Have you ever noticed how slim and fit our world leaders are? Our own Prime Minister has made a virtue of being fit. Basketballing Barack Obama is a lanky 185 centimetres tall and just 75 kilograms. His British counterpart, the tennis-playing David Cameron, 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. Basketballing Barack Obama is a lanky 185 centimetres tall and just 75 kilograms. His British counterpart, the tennis-playing David Cameron, 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 he brought down with a tranquilliser gun after it got loose in the Ussuri National Park during the president's official visit. He's 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.

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 2012, about 60 per cent of Australian adults were classified as overweight or obese. At the present rate, close to 80 per cent of Australians will be overweight or obese by 2025. 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 antidepressant 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 that is very hard to lose.

This is a column about business and performance and 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. 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 for - dare I say it? - the Parma United Party, a two-day conference in Canberra this week was trying to grapple with the problem.

It brought together experts from all over the world and raised many matters I am sure will interest all levels of government in Australia. We need a serious effort if our children are to be fit enough to lead the country in a competitive world that demands that we be at our best.

The simple truth is that obesity is bad for our health and our wealth.

"You just spoilt the Christmas party," says Louise.

Harold Mitchell is an executive director of Aegis.