Australia’s Rate Of Severe Obesity Has Doubled

The obesity epidemic has become a "major" public health issue, but some argue it is largely being ignored.

The number of Australian adults deemed severely obese has almost doubled in the last two decades, ranking the nation the fifth worst in the developed world.

The latest bi-annual report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare was released on Wednesday as politicians and health professionals grapple to see eye-to-eye on a “major” public health issue that is a “leading contributor to disease”.

More than 70 percent of Australian men are now considered overweight or obese, with rates for women sitting at about 56 percent.

Of increasing concern is the one in five toddlers, aged two to four, and the one in four children, aged five to 17, who fall under both categories.

This reflects a growing trend over the past 20 years that has seen a “complex interplay” of individual, environment and societal factors shift the distribution of BMI (Body Mass Index) from the healthy to the obese weight range.

The report found that change was most notable among young adults, aged 18 to 21, with 15 percent of the age group now obese compared to 7.2 percent in 1995.

Further, the proportion of adults with a BMI in the severe obesity range has also almost doubled in that time period. 

According to the report, this places Australia “well above” the average obesity rate of 19.4 percent among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

The flow-on effects are “costly”, with being overweight or obese being linked to 22 diseases including 11 types of cancer, gallbladder disease, back pain and asthma.

More than half of Australian adults aren't meeting the recommended guidelines of physical activity. Image: Getty

Of these, the report found excess weight contributed to 52 percent of the disease burden of diabetes, 45 percent of osteoarthritis and 38 percent of chronic kidney disease.  

Many of these chronic conditions share “largely preventable or treatable” risk factors, such as smoking, physical inactivity, diet or high blood pressure.

“Almost one third of the overall disease burden in Australia could be prevented by reducing exposure to modifiable risk factors."

The recent health card paints a worrying picture of the nation’s obesity epidemic, though some argue it is being largely ignored.

Health professionals have made repeated calls for a national strategy to curb the crisis, targeting processed food reforms, a levy on sugary drinks and public access to management services such as weight loss surgery -- where the number of procedures doubled from about 9300 to 22,700 from 2006 to 2014-15. Seven in eight of those were performed in private hospitals. 

A senate inquiry into the obesity epidemic is due to report in August.