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Our experts weigh in on World Obesity Day

11 October 2016
Childhood obesity under the spotlight amid calls for action

As we mark World Obesity Day on Tuesday 11 October, University of Sydney experts share their views on the obesity epidemic and what action needs to be done to tackle this growing problem.

We must urgently address childhood obesity 

"Obesity is now the most common chronic disease in children and young people. In 2016, paediatricians see children still in primary school who have type 2 diabetes, who have abnormal liver function, who require knee or hip surgery, or who are on CPAP (breathing masks) for their sleep apnoea - just because they have obesity," says Professor Louise Baur AM, a paediatrician and world-renowned childhood obesity expert.

"In particular, adolescents affected by obesity are more at risk of a range of health complications. Importantly, psychosocial distress - poor self-esteem, experiencing bullying and stigmatisation, and depression - is also more common."

Professor Baur is Director of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood (EPOCH), housed at the Charles Perkins Centre. Bringing together expertise from around the globe, this world-first centre pursues cutting-edge research into the prevention of childhood obesity.

"Governments and communities should invest far, far more in strategies to prevent obesity across the life-span. Let us make it easier for children, young people - indeed all of us - to eat well and be active," says Professor Baur.

"Why can't we regulate marketing of junk foods to children, have easy-to-read food labelling, have a soft drink tax, provide affordable public transport for all and ensure access to green space and pedestrian-friendly spaces?"

Professor Timothy Gill from the Boden Institute at the Charles Perkins Centre agrees that urgent action on childhood obesity is essential in order to stem the growth in global obesity rates.

"Childhood obesity remains an enormous health issue within Australia, with the latest surveys indicating that between one in five or one in four children has an unacceptably high weight," he says. 

"If we truly wish to address the problem of childhood obesity we must be prepared to make some hard decisions now that will enable our children to grow and develop in an environment which supports better eating behaviours and a more active lifestyle. We can no longer continue with the current environment which has perpetuated this problem by promoting inappropriate food behaviours and sedentary behaviour.

"Instead, we must take action on food marketing to children, the availability, access to and price of high sugar/fat foods and beverages, the unnecessary use of our cars and the amount of time we allocate to keeping our kids active at school and home."

Why increasing physical activity is essential in fighting obesity

"We know that physical inactivity is one of the main causes of obesity and dozens of other conditions, and like many other high income countries, Australia does very badly in terms of how much daily exercise adults undertake," explains Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis from the School of Public Health and Charles Perkins Centre.

"Physical inactivity is by far the most dominant risk factor for obesity, with an estimated prevalence of 85 percent in the Australian adult population. It's hard to imagine any other health risk factor reaching a prevalence of 85 percent, yet our healthcare system and political priorities have not mobilised to find an effective solution, or at least try to test some solutions.

"After more than 30 years of intensive research we still implement hardly any of these findings to inverse this uncomfortable reality. We must realise that neither obesity nor type 2 diabetes nor cardiovascular disease trends will be reversed without first addressing physical inactivity at both the environmental and individual patient level."

How a multifaceted approach will help

According to Associate Professor Amanda Salis from the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise & Eating Disorders at the Charles Perkins Centre, current approaches to obesity prevention are insufficient in tackling the crisis.

"It's important to put obesity under the spotlight on World Obesity Day to recognise that it is a major and complex issue that needs to be addressed, but which will not be solved with simple solutions or trying to place the blame or onus on any one factor, such as 'personal responsibility'", she says.

"There are many contributors to obesity – environmental factors, gene-environment interactions, psychological factors and more – and solutions will need to be multi-pronged in order to tackle these multiple contributors."

Associate Professor Amanda Salis and her colleagues are currently recruiting participants for clinical weight loss trials at the University of Sydney. For more information or to register your interest, visit the Boden Insitute's website.

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