Obesity won’t be solved by health policy alone

Professor Louise Baur wants obesity taken out of the health portfolio and put in the laps of PM Anthony Albanese and his Cabinet colleagues. 

“Sometimes I think the best approach would be to take [obesity] out of the responsibility of the Minister of Health and put it squarely in the Prime Minister and Cabinet, because the solutions don't lie, in general, with health,” Professor Baur told TMR

“Or put it in Treasury, because it's something that costs,” she said. 

Professor Baur is president of the World Obesity Federation, and director of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood-Translate at the University of Sydney.  

Recently the World Obesity Federation published the World Obesity Atlas 2023 report recently, including some sobering news for Australians. Forty-seven percent of Australian adults will be obese by 2035, an annual increase of 2.2% between 2020 and 2035. Childhood obesity will increase at 2.6% per year. The impact on the national GDP of overweight will come in at 2.5%. 

It’s a conversation that has been going on for decades in Australia, with seemingly little action or commitment despite the presence of the National Obesity Strategy.  

“In 1997, Australia was the first country in the world to have a national obesity strategy,” Professor Baur told TMR. 

“It was called ‘Acting on Australia's weight’. One of my colleagues now refers to it as ‘Waiting on Australia's act’. 

“We tend to say just eat less and exercise more – we certainly still see it as an individual responsibility.  

“We can't seem to see it as a whole community – as something that relates to broader policies. We as human beings are responding physiologically to what is a pathological environment.  

“We say to people, oh, just eat less and exercise more, but then we don't change the environment in which they live.” 

And what would Professor Baur say to PM Albo? 

“Let's implement the national obesity strategy and the previous versions of that beforehand,” she said. “A sugar-sweetened beverage tax would be a really good way to go. We could do much more to restrict unhealthy food marketing directed towards kids. We could look at innovative solutions to get healthy, lower cost foods to communities that need that.  

“And then I'd also really like to see improvements in the way that we treat people. 

“People living with obesity say that if they're treated with respect and if their concerns are met appropriately; if they're not just judged as someone who is big but as someone who has a range of strengths and challenges in their life; and if their health issues aren't just all subscribed to obesity, then they feel that they can come back to that GP, or to that health service.  

“So, our approach to people living with obesity is really important. We can make or break this person. In one sense, we can help support or encourage them even if their weight on the scales doesn't change.  

“Their life might be much better because of the way that you treat them as a GP.” 

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