Obesity plagues the Pacific

Tuesday February 19, 2013 Written by Published in Raro on my mind

Non-communicable disease has reached epidemic proportions in our island paradise.

Pa Marie Ariki and Te Marae Ora are leading the charge to combat it, but it seems their pleas are falling on deaf ears.

People can significantly reduce their chances of contracting diabetes or cardiovascular disease, but they don’t. Granted, behavioural change doesn’t happen overnight, but the tough truth is that apathy is making the problem worse.

It’s expensive for taxpayers, who foot the medical bills for long-term care that can cost thousands of dollars per patient. It’s also devastating for families who face its fatal consequences.

The problem is readily explained and the solution is easily attained, at least in theory. People are getting sick and dying early because they’re eating too much, drinking too much, smoking too much, and not moving enough.

They’re piling plates to the brink of collapse and eating to the point of “bursting and burping,” as George George put it recently. People are driving to the shop five houses down to buy Coke and Rashuns for breakfast or snacking simultaneously on a doughnut, buttered popcorn, and an ice cream cone during a movie.

Obesity is a problem of worldwide proportions. Health experts have even coined a term for the global rise of obesity – they call it globesity.

Still, the fact remains that eight of the world’s top 10 fattest countries are Pacific Islands. The International Obesity Taskforce has labeled the region the “world’s capital of obesity.”

The World Health Organization classifies obesity according to a body mass index (BMI), or a measure based on a person’s weight and height.

People with a BMI of higher than 25 are considered overweight and those with a BMI over 30 are obese. Five years ago the average BMI for Cook Islands women was 33.93 (up from 26.36 in 1980) and for Cook Islands men, 32.64 (up from 26.19 in 1980).

The most recent Ministry of Health statistics reveal that 88 percent of the country is overweight and over 60 percent is obese. This is a pandemic.

Dozens of researchers have studied the particular prevalence of obesity in the Pacific and conclude the causes and contributing factors are a mixed bag.

The story starts with the islands’ rapid transition from a traditional to a cash economy, from crops to corned beef, from the vaevae express to vehicles.

Globalisation heralded an age of punupuakatoro, white rice, sugar, fizzy drinks, fatty meats, and beer. The switch to a commodity-based economy took people out of the fields and deposited them in offices.

Health experts have suggested Polynesian bodies are designed to store fat. They theorise that the early Polynesians adapted genetically to their isolated, remote, exposed islands. Their bodies retained fat because they had to – they relied on it for energy during cyclones and hard times.

But the problem is the genetic hard-wiring hasn’t yet adapted to fit the modern context – from a traditional to a Western-influenced diet and from a labour-intensive to a sedentary lifestyle.

The result is an outbreak of non-communicable disease.

The problem is complicated by economic realities. It’s just cheaper to eat corned beef, especially when there’s a shortage of fresh, reasonably priced fish.

Of course, it’s important to focus on the factors we can control. Education is key to curbing preventable diseases. Next week the Ministry of Health is waging a week-long war on obesity, running an awareness campaign and a carnival in Avarua. These are bold strides in the right direction.

The onus is on people to listen and take heed. Changing behaviours and habits is never easy and never comfortable, but in this case, it’s necessary to stem a rising tide of disease and death.

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