The obesity epidemic is the biggest public health challenge facing Australia today. The most recent Australian Health Survey (2014-2015) indicated almost 2 in 3 adults and 1 in 4 children overweight or obese, and it is projected that these numbers will only increase in the future.

Genes + Environment + Psychology = It’s complicated

Obesity is typically defined in simple terms as excess body weight for height. However, the origins of the obesity epidemic are complex.  Obesity has a substantial genetic component, with up to 90% of the population predisposed to being overweight and obese.  The widespread abundance of energy dense food coupled with a sedentary lifestyle are also drivers of the condition.  Behavioural, psychological and socioeconomic factors often interplay too.

Associated comorbidities

Obesity greatly increases a person’s risk of having a chronic disease, such as:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular Disease
  • Renal Dysfunction
  • Cancer
  • Cognitive Impairment and Depression

A reduction of body weight of just 5-10% will have beneficial effects on both cardiovascular and metabolic outcomes.  Obesity often also comes with many other associated health burdens including osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea, poor mobility and reproductive difficulties.  In Australia, obesity is not currently considered a disease in its own right.

Discrimination manifests itself in illness and disease when a society does not adequately address it.

Weight stigma and exacerbation of obesity

Despite the fact that we know that stigma is counterproductive for health and that persons with obesity are already suffering from weight bias internally, society and the media continue to reinforce blame on obese persons for not taking appropriate responsibility for their health.

Weight stigmatization induces psychological stress, anxiety and negative mood, and significantly increases an obese person’s risk factor for depression, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction.  Australian medical and other health professionals would like to see obesity classified as a disease, as it has been rightfully acknowledged in America.  It is hoped that this would reduce the stigma associated with obesity.  Instead of being perceived as a lifestyle choice as a result of eating habits or physical inactivity, obesity would be acknowledged as a complex disease, and receive greater coverage from both public and private health insurance, making doctors more willing to address the issue, and affordable options more available to individuals – whether they are dietetics services, pharmaceuticals, surgical procedures or counselling services.

3 Ways to help manage obesity

Managing obesity can seem very complicated.  We do need a multi-pronged approach to achieve real success in managing a complex problem.

1. Nutrition

For best results, you should see an Accredited Practising Dietitian who specialises in the area of weight loss.  They will individually assess you and provide education and counselling based on your current personal, health and socioeconomic circumstances.  But below are some key nutrition tips to get you started:

  • 3 meals per day. Don’t skip meals.
  • Swap snacks for an activity you enjoy. Snacks are usually included if you exercise frequently and vigorously.  If you MUST snack choose low carbohydrate vegetables like carrot, cucumber and celery sticks to top you up in between meals.
  • Include 2 large handfuls of low carbohydrate vegetables with lunch and dinner. Low carb veggies include leafy greens, broccoli, capsicum, carrot, zucchini, asparagus and mushroom.
  • Replace sugary, sweetened beverages and alcohol with water or flavoured mineral water. Carry a drink bottle with you and sip throughout the day – aim for >2L water per day.

2. Movement

  • Use your phone or invest in a pedometer or Fitbit to track your physical activity habits.
  • Aim for 10,000 steps or more. Gradually build up to this if you haven’t broken the 2,000 mark.
  • Your level of physical activity will be dependent on your BMI, fitness level, comorbidities and age.
  • You should seek the advice and approval of your General Practitioner before undertaking a regular exercising regime.

3. Psychology / Behaviour

  • Mood greatly affects energy levels, which in turn affects our ability to prepare ourselves a healthy meal or engage in physical activity. Here are some tips to boost your mood:
    • Practise Mindfulness

      Find somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted for 10 minutes. Sit comfortably.  Using your mind, do a full scan of your body, from the top of your head to your toes.  Follow your breath as it moves in and out of your body.  Notice your thoughts, let them come and go.

    • Leave your house

      Go for a brisk walk outside.  No matter for how long, if you need to start with 5 minutes, do that and gradually increase to 15 minutes and then 30 minutes per day.  Try to get to a green space if you can.

    • Socialise

      Mood is likely to be low if you are feeling isolated.  Make sure you try to connect with a loved one or friend or locals.  If you live alone, reach out to a social group near you.

    • Support

      Going it alone simply will not do. Humans are social creatures that depend on each other to not only survive but thrive!  Enlist the help of others who are going through something similar to you. Trouble shared is trouble halved.

    • Reach out to a professional

      A doctor, dietitian, psychologist or exercise physiologist, will be able to provide you with individualised health advice that considers your current living situation, any medical conditions and psychosocial factors.

If nutrition and exercise are not getting you to where you want to be, there are alternative pathways such as pharmaceuticals and bariatric surgery.

Most importantly, never give up.