National Health Survey results lead to calls for new food legislation

Posted by Editorial on 13th May 2009

The National Health Survey of 2007-08, released on Monday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has again heightened calls for new food legislation.

The research suggested that Australian waistlines had expanded considerably since the last ABS survey of this depth in 1995.

Overweight and Obesity
More adult Australians were overweight or obese in 2007-08 compared with 1995, with the Body Mass Index (BMI) approach discovering 68% of adult men and 55% of adult women were overweight or obese. In 1995, 64% of men and 49% of women were considered overweight or obese.

When looking at the age pattern of obesity in adults, the highest proportion who were overweight or obese were in the middle to older age groups (peaking at 65-74 years of age – 79% for men, and 55-64 years for women – 68%).

For children, there was a significant increase in the proportion obese from 5.2% in 1995 to 7.8% in 2007/8. The proportion of boys who were obese more than doubled from 4.5% to 9.7% while girls remained unchanged at 5.8%.

Alcohol consumption
Approximately 68% of men and 51% of women consumed alcohol in the week prior to the 2007-08 National Health Survey. Most of these adults (79%) consumed alcohol at a level that poses a low health risk.

However, approximately 13% of adults in 2007-08 consumed alcohol at a level, which if continued, would place them at significantly increased health risk. This is a slight reduction from the level measured in 2004-05 when 14% of adults were in this risk group.

The highest proportion of risky drinkers was found amongst men between the ages of 25 and 34 and 55-64 (both at 17%). While for women the age groups with the highest proportions were 45-54 and 55-64 where 13% were drinking at high or risky levels.

Amongst teenagers children, the ABS found that 24% of 15-17 year old boys and 16% of girls had consumed alcohol in the week prior to the survey. This is the first time the National Health Survey has focussed on children’s alcohol consumption. Of those children who drank in the week prior to the survey, 5.9% of boys and 6.6% of girls did so at a risky or high risk level.

Fruit and vegie intake

Information was collected in the survey about the usual intake of fruit and vegetables by people aged 5 years or more*. Results of the survey indicated that in 2007-08 females were more likely to adopt healthier dietary behaviours than males as females consumed higher levels of fruit and vegetables than males.

The proportion of people aged 15 years and over who reported they usually consumed 5 or more serves of vegetables every day (the recommend daily intake) was 10% for females compared with 7% for males. The proportion of females who usually consumed two or more serves of fruit per day (the recommended daily intake) was 56% compared with 46% for males. The highest proportion of people usually having the recommended number of serves of fruit and vegetables per day were recorded in the 65-74 year and older age groups.

The proportion of children meeting the recommended intake of vegetables is even lower than adults with only 6% of children aged 5-17 consuming 5 or more serves of vegetables a day with those aged 5-7 years consuming the least (4%). However for fruit consumption 61% of children aged 5-17 years reported meeting the recommended intake of fruit with children aged 8-11 years having the highest proportion meeting the guidelines (71%).

Statistics skewed?

A question over the accuracy of the BMI approach has been raised recently, with some suggesting that, while a good guide, many people are being unfairly labelled as overweight or obese.

Stories have been rife of the growth of obesity and the threat to health it poses but recent books such as The Obesity Epidemic written by Australian academics Jan Wright and Michael Gard and The Obesity Myth by American Paul Campos question whether the ‘moral battle’ has gone too far – perhaps even fuelled by vested interests. Obesity rates are not soaring and those with above average BMI scores can often be healthier than their ‘healthy’ counterparts, they contend. Mr Campos grabbed attention early in his book by claiming that, by BMI standards, Brad Pitt could be considered overweight and George Clooney obese.

Research released at the beginning of the year by the University of South Australia also suggested childhood obesity rates may have plateaud.

Health concerns

Professor Ian Olver, Chair of the Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance, argues that the numbers of obese boys has now reached alarming levels.

“What is particularly alarming is that obesity rates in boys have more than doubled to 9.7% since 1995, in contrast to girls amongst whom obesity rates have remained stable at 5.8%,” he noted. “The data also shows that 94% of Australians do not meet recommended consumption levels for fruit and vegetables and over two thirds of Australians are sedentary or exercise at only low levels.”

A coalition of health groups, including the Heart Foundation and the Cancer Council, believe the data requires action from the government.

“We simply can’t afford to delay taking some hard decisions on obesity control if we are going to avert a future legacy of escalating rates of chronic disease,” Professor Olver suggested. “We need to implement a comprehensive obesity control strategy, that addresses the many factors which contribute to rising obesity rates, as proposed by the Government’s National Preventative Health Task Force.”

“The strategy will need to include a range of measures to encourage increased physical activity and improve nutrition and will need to take a hard line on issues such as restricting advertising of unhealthy food to children.”

The National Preventative Health Taskforce in Australia is currently finalising their recommendations for presentation to the Federal Government in coming months.

* The ABS advised that “some care should be taken in interpreting the data on fruit and vegetable intake due to the difficulties respondents had in estimating the quantities consumed.”