Australia bucks global weight trend, but it’s bad news for city dwellers

Rapid weight gain is an increasing health issue in Australian cities.

Rapid weight gain is an increasing health issue in Australian cities. Photo: Getty

Residents in Australia’s cities are getting fatter faster, compared to those in remote communities, one of the country’s leading health organisations has warned.

Two statistics released this week have shown that no matter where Australians live, they are gaining weight – just at different speeds and to different levels.

“A higher proportion of adults in major cities are overweight compared to outer regional and rural areas,” Heart Foundation health economist Bill Stavreski said.

“If the growth rate trend for overweight Australians continues to increase, this will place a significant burden on our current health resources and increase the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease.”

The comments follow the release of a global study on rising obesity rates published in Nature on Thursday, which in contrast found obesity is increasing more rapidly in the world’s rural areas than in cities.

“While Australian obesity rates reflect similar findings to this study, it is a different story for overweight Australians,” Mr Stavreski said.

Referencing Australian Health Survey data, the Heart Foundation says there has been a 25 per cent increase in overweight people in Australia’s cities between 2011 and 2018.

This is compared to only 5 per cent increase for those in outer regional and rural areas during the same period.  

“Obesity remains a pressing issue, whether you live in a city or in the country,” Mr Stavreski said.

“In nearly 30 years, the average Australian male has gained eight kilograms, with females adding an average six kilograms in weight,” he said.

The global study, led by Imperial College London with a network of 1000 global researchers, examined data from more than 112 million people from 200 countries and territories between 1985 and 2017.

More than half of the global rise in this 33-year period was due to increases in body mass index in rural areas, the authors wrote.

In some low- and middle-income countries, rural areas were responsible for more than 80 per cent of the increase.

The other main exception to this trend was sub-Sahara Africa, where women gained weight more rapidly in cities, “possibly because of more low-energy work” (such as office work) and “less need for physical domestic tasks,” the authors hypothesised.

The study’s senior author Professor Majid Ezzati of Imperial’s School of Public Health said the results “overturn commonly held perceptions” surrounding the main cause of obesity trends.

“This means that we need to rethink how we tackle this global health problem,” he said.

The Heart Foundation has called for a national nutrition strategy to address the issue of poor diets in Australia.

“We must take action now to reduce the enormous pressure on our health system,” Mr Stavreski said.

“Poor diet is one of the main risks for premature death in Australia, so that’s why we need to fund policies to target healthy eating initiatives.

“A national nutrition strategy is urgently needed to address the critical issue of rising obesity rates.”

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