Obesity is a health condition that occurs as a result of accumulation of excess body fat . This results from energy imbalance where energy consumption far exceeds disbursement and this in time results to weight gain. This imbalance is as result of several factors, including but not limited to: unwarranted ingestion of energy rich foods, lack of physical activities and genetic predisposition. Obesity makes the body susceptible to a wide range of health disorders such as cardiovascular disorders, certain strains of cancer, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and psychological problems. Obesity is expressed by Body Mass Index (BMI); a measurement that relates weight to height. BMIs ranging between 25 and 30 kg/m2 are categorized as being overweight or pre-obese while BMIs of over 30 kg/m2 are termed as being obese. Obesity is viewed globally as one of the predominant health conditions of the 21st century; a manageable and indiscriminate (affects both adults and children equally) cause of death.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2007, 68% of Australian adults were overweight of which 20% were out rightly obese. On the other hand, 23 % to 24% of Australian children under the age of 18 are termed as overweight of which only 6% are obese. As a result of this, Australia is ranked 21st in the globally as far as obesity and overweight are concerned. Should the situation escalate at the present day degree, the pervasiveness of obesity could more than increase two fold to as many as 7.2 million obese Australians by 2025 (28.9% of the population). This alarming statistics calls for expedient action in averting the current and future obesity “epidemic”. Therefore there is need to increase research and further preventive intervention with regard to obesity in Australia. This paper shall review the current policy efforts on obesity in Australia as well as make further policy recommendations.
2.0 Importance of a policy on obesity
According to Diabetes Australia, a national diabetes sensitization and prevention body, obesity cost the government an estimated US$ 20 billion in May 2008, this figure rose to US$46billion by August of the same year. This figures reflect lost revenue due loss of manpower hours, revenue spent in the health sector and the consequent deteriorated collective living conditions. In addition to this, the number of type2 diabetes cases hit nearly a million in 2003 for the very first time; of which by 2007 242,000 of these cases were directly caused by obesity (representing a 137% increase from the past year).
If the obesity scourge is ignored the catastrophe shall spiral to the crunch of health, social and most importantly economic systems. Therefore, concerted efforts at local, regional, national and international levels need to be directed toward deterring the current situation. Hence, the solution to obesity is multipronged affair; it involves policy makers (legislators), politicians, the private sector, non-governmental organization, scholars and the public at large, working jointly in order to secure the present and future Australian generations as afar as overweight and obesity are concerned.
In this spirit, there was a Commonwealth Parliamentary Inquiry into Obesity in Australia held on the 8th of May 2008, purposely to forestall the catastrophic effects of obesity in Australia. A Submission by the Department of Health, Western Australia, revealed that to reverse the current effects of obesity, it is paramount to formulate continued long term strategies covering a period of 10 to 20 years, which are all inclusive in approach. The submission was based on the Australian obesity case, the challenges and efforts (policy strategies) in dealing with obesity, recommendations and finally the initiatives already in place in Western Australia to tackle obesity(Hardy, et al., 2010).
First and foremost, the Preventative Health Taskforce pinpointed the already existing discrepancy between policy and its (their) subsequent implementation, and hence they recommended evaluation of existing strategic polices based on cost effectiveness and the urge to develop on instead of repeating already done work; to harmonize between former and present policies on obesity thus avoiding incomplete and stalled implementation in the respective strategies. This also allows for synchronization of former and present outcomes, and suggestions of former projects into current one; this gives more insight on the current obesity situation.
4.0 Policy on obesity
As a result of the well known link between obesity and diet, it is important to focus on correcting the nation’s inclination towards fast food. This takes participation of all the major stakeholders involved. To begin with the government needs to put in place education from as early as kindergarten in order to sensitize the younger generation on the need to consume healthy foods as compared to consuming fast, fat drenched food that is served in most school cafeterias. Studies have shown that 20 to 25% of children aged between 5 and 17% are considered obese (Hardy, et al., 2010). This figure is expected to be on the rise due to the increase in intake of fast food which translates into an adult population that has a myriad of health problems such as cardiovascular diseases. The educational measures should not only be part of the school curriculum but they should also be done at the community level. In the United States, the expansion of the national waistline has drastically been reduced by the introduction of guidelines the food provided in school canteens. States such as California and Colorado require that food vendors provide nutritional information on the food sold on the school website for both the parents and the students.
Health camps can be organized where information on healthy eating habits is conveyed by nutritionists during interactive sessions. Recommendations for healthy eating in Australia are derived from several published documents including the Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults which was recently revised and the Dietary Guidelines for Children and Adolescents in Australia which incorporates the Infant Feeding Guidelines for Health Workers.
In addition to educating the public, it is also important for the government to monitor the nutritional habits of the citizens. This will enable the task force charged with executing the policy on obesity to pinpoint what people are eating, their physical activity and how this is leading to obesity. In doing this, the measures to educate the public will be directed to a specific cause. In 2001, the Department of Health and Ageing funded a National Food and Nutrition Monitoring Project came up with a series on reports on national food and nutrition information framework. This report served as a bridge for some vital gaps in the general picture of nutrition surveillance and monitoring in Australia.
The current rise in the incidence of obesity has been linked to the sedentary lifestyle of most urban dwellers. Surveys have shown that not just Australians but even urban dwellers elsewhere are involved in any form on exercise. Hours are spent either at work or school sitting after which most people drive home to sit in front of the television sets or computers in order to continue working. Physical activity has several advantages: it improves socialization skills; it improves mental alertness and reduces the chances of becoming obese. For the older generation, it reduces the risk of falls and enhances the independence of the individual. For this reason, the policy should focus on designing sustainable exercise programs that are specific for both the young and the old.
Screening camps for the masses are vital in order to diagnose otherwise undetected cases of obesity ad therefore stage the necessary intervention measures. For most individuals, they are ignorant of the body mass index and the risks they expose themselves by eating foods that are high in energy and have a high fat content. This would reduce the burden placed upon the government in dealing with the hefty health bills accrued when treating complications as a result of obesity.
The messages conveyed through the media play a vital role in determining the food choices that individuals make. While the ultimate choice on what to eat does not entirely rest with the media, the media sways the choice of the individual through enticing adverts that are placed on print and audio visual media. It is therefore crucial for the government to put a limit to the adverts on candy, pizza, potato chips e.t.c. Studies have shown that restrictions may not entirely eliminate the poor nutritional choices but help in diverting the attention towards looking for healthier alternatives (Hardy, et al., 2010). This is especially important for children and teenagers whose opinion is mostly shaped by external factors such as television and the internet.
An increase in the price of snack foods could form an integral component of the fight against obesity. An increase in the amount of tax charged on foods such as pizza, potato chips, burgers e.t.c would help in discouraging the frequent consumption of these foods. In so doing, the individual who regularly consume these foods will be forced to go for healthier alternatives which in the end are healthier and less harmful to their health. The tax base however has to e sufficient to induce a change in consumers’ behaviour i.e. it has to include a broad range of foods in order to induce a change of behavior. For instance increasing the tax on chips and leaving the tax on burgers at the same level could simply trigger substitution of chips with hamburgers. For the tax change to have an impact, it has to be a significant amount e.g. 30% for the consumers to feel the effect when it is passed down to them by the manufacturers.
While the law requires that the manufacturers clearly outline the nutritional content of the food they pack on the packet. However this requirement does not extend to take away food. The consumers are therefore likely to consume copious amounts of food that is high in energy when they purchase take away food. There is therefore a need for guidelines to be put in place which require that the information on the nutritional content of take away food be included on the packets. This might help the consumers keen on improving their food choices to make informed choices on how often they will take fast food and the quantities that they shall consume.
Incentives can also be given to restaurants in order to help them improve the quality of the food that they serve. This can be done by giving them a tax break or allowing them to enjoy certain privileges such as zero rating their land rates or free garbage collection. In so doing, the restaurant owners of healthy food restaurants can focus on marketing their services and therefore encouraging a shift in the eating patterns of the consumers.
Obesity remains a crucial concern not only in Australia but also in other Western countries. A policy that addresses mitigation measures in addition to dealing with the current situation is vital. Such a policy should be all encompassing in terms of participants in the formulation and the implementation as well as the approaches. Such a policy could touch on education, incentive to whole food processors and health clubs, nutritional surveillance, increase taxation and pricing on snacks and fast foods, regulating the advertisement on snacks and fast food and others. However for it to be successfully implemented, it takes participation from all stake holders in order to come up with a realistic policy that can be implemented. However, it is important to remember that the cost of implementing the policy should be overlooked given the lives that will be saved if obesity is successfully kept at bay.
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