HEALTH ministers are planning a national strategy to combat obesity, as new research shows almost half the population of Australia is overweight. Experts say obesity will overtake smoking as the biggest health problem of the decade. They are predicting a quarter of the population will be suffering from weight-related diabetes by 2013.
Doctors have coined the phrase "diabesity" to describe the condition which is affecting a rising number of chronically overweight adults and children. Health problems linked to weight are now believed to be costing taxpayers at least $3 billion a year.
Researchers at Westmead Children's Hospital say four out of 10 Australian children will be overweight within 10 years as an epidemic of obesity continues to spread. Australian health ministers will meet next month to consider a national strategy to tackle obesity, The Sunday Telegraph has learned. It includes a proposal to issue new parents with training kits, and assistance to child-care centres to provide space for exercise for pre-school children.
Researchers at Westmead Children's Hospital say the proportion of children who are overweight is growing by at least 1% a year.
"Unless the trend reverses, we will run into perception problems because that is going to be the way half the kids look," Westmead Adolescence Health Research Centre executive director Dr Michael Booth said.
The average weight of Australian adults has increased 5% in the past decade, to 74.3kg, according to a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics report, More than half of all men (58%) and 42% of women are overweight. Queensland has the highest number of obese adults (17%), followed by NSW, South Australia and Tasmania, on 15%. The findings were based on body mass index (BMI), which is calculated using weight and height.
A Newspoll survey found many adults underestimate the severity of their own weight problems. Around 1.5 million Australians who are clinically obese consider themselves a healthy weight or only a little heavy, according to the research.
"They do not recognise they are in the obese level, so of course they do not recognise their child is overweight," a Monash University obesity researcher said. "It is very hard to educate people who maybe don't see it or want to change."
The National Health and Medical Research Council is developing guidelines for doctors on how to care for overweight adults and children. GPs will be encouraged to assess levels of physical activity, family eating patterns and even television viewing habits.
Australian Medical Association eating behaviour and weight management spokesman Dr Rick Kausman said doctors should avoid using the words "fat" and "obese".
"Those words are charged with emotion," he said. "The word fat is not just a description anymore — It's laden with guilt and judgment."
Diabetes Australia NSW spokeswoman Angie Middlehurst said children as young as six were being treated for mature-onset diabetes, a condition once commonly affecting overweight adults aged in their 40s.
Fatty diets and a lack of exercise has also seen 10-year-olds treated for cardiovascular disease.
"People do not understand the seriousness of diabetes," Ms Middlehurst said. "These children are going to have complications such as eye, kidney, circulation and heart problems by the time they are 20. We've got to get the message across to parents to encourage more physical activity and not let their kids sit in front of the computer."
In a separate initiative, the Australian Sports Commission and state governments are developing a new national junior sport framework which will motivate younger children to play and offer more encouragement for novice athletes.