Why Australians Are So Fat (And How To Fix It)

Why Australians Are So Fat (And How To Fix It)
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In 1980 just 10 per cent of Australian adults were obese; by 2012 this figure had risen to 25 per cent, among the highest in the world. The food industry lobby and their friends in government would have us believe this comes down to reduced personal responsibility for what we eat and how much we move.

Junk food picture from Shutterstock

We might, then, expect to find evidence that people are becoming less responsible. But statistics show the opposite: we are much more likely to drive more safely, drive sober, and not smoke, for example.

Yet when it comes to food, something is different. Our changing food environment has undermined our capacity to be responsible in the first place.

Commercialisation of food

Once, not so long ago, food was scarce. As humans we were programmed to over-consume calories when food was plentiful and to store it as fat for when it was not.

So we have to acknowledge that in our hunter-gatherer past, consuming as much food as possible was personally responsible — those who didn’t would likely perish. And this has been hard-wired into our DNA.

Today, our environment is fundamentally different — cheap, energy-dense foods are abundant. In this light, obesity is just the superficial and normal human response to an increasingly “obesogenic” food environment. One with deeply-rooted commercial and political drivers.

There is nothing more obesogenic than our commercial food supply. Today, industrial agriculture produces raw food ingredients at very low cost per calorie output. With globalisation, ingredients can be sourced from wherever in the world production costs are lowest (such as Malaysian palm oil) or heavily subsidised (American sugar).

Food science has been harnessed by “Big Food” companies to produce highly palatable and durable foods rich in sugar, salt and fat. Serving sizes have grown remarkably — good for our wallets, perhaps, but not so good for our waistlines.

On the retail end, supermarkets have proliferated as the purveyors of processed foods, driving down prices through their buying power and using data-driven product promotion.

We also have less time for sourcing, preparing and eating food. And the food industry has responded with “ready-to-heat” meals, “ready-to-eat” snack foods and “fast-food” restaurants (see graph).

The McDonaldisation of our society stems not only from our biological drive to crave energy dense food, but from our need to compress the time in which we source and consume it.

Information asymmetry

The concept of information symmetry states that markets work best when both sellers and buyers have full information about the costs and benefits of their buying and selling behaviours. And when it comes to Australian processed food labels, information is stacked heavily in favour of the seller.

Food companies collect reams of information about consumers (just think of supermarket loyalty cards), allowing for targeted advertising, pricing points and product placement. Yet most Australians find existing food labels confusing. To make an “informed choice” we have to interpret not only nutrition information panels, but also an array of (sometimes misleading) health claims.

Junk food advertising is also big business in Australia: in 2009 A$402 million and $149 million was spent on advertising food and non-alcoholic beverages respectively. McDonald’s alone increased its advertising spend from $6 million in 1983 to $55 million in 2005.

Why do companies advertise? Because it drives consumer behaviour in powerful ways. Especially when it comes to children and their pester power, much to the disdain of many parents.

Coming back to information asymmetry, advertising is less about communicating information as it is about conveying symbolic and social meaning — products come to be associated with fun, happiness, sex appeal and prestige rather than information about their underlying costs and benefits in terms of health.

The end result is we’re trying to exercise personal responsibility in a food environment that’s engineered to undermine it. Food is available everywhere at any time. It is full of sugar, fat and salt — nutrients we’re hard-wired to crave. Per calorie, it has never been cheaper.

The information we have to inform our choices is heavily skewed by advertising and confusing labels. Government has done little about it. And we — as a nation — are fat.

Reducing our collective waistline

Here are some ideas — for us as citizens and for government — to turn the situation around.

1. Re-think the role of government

The conceptual cousin of the personal responsibility mantra is the “nanny-state” argument, that there is no role for government intervention that restricts the freedoms of Australian citizens. In reality, such arguments are nothing to do with regulating us as individuals. It’s just Orwellian doublespeak to oppose food industry regulation.

The true role of government is not to restrict individual freedoms, it is to enable them by creating an environment — through policy and legislation — in which we are truly free to exercise our personal responsibility.

2. Change the food environment

Without changing food environments through hard policy and legislation, it’s unlikely we will make any progress tackling obesity. Successful tobacco control efforts demonstrate that a variety of intertwining measures need to be taken.

3. Tax the junk

We need to change the economics of our food supply. A tax on sugary, salty and fatty processed foods is one way forward. Following the lead of many countries overseas we could begin with a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — relatively simple to implement, and likely to be effective.

4. Improve food labelling

We need a food labelling system that enables personal responsibility. Let’s compare three options.

First is the food industry’s current “daily intake guide” (which it continues to push), calculated as the percentage one product serving contributes to the daily intake of an average adult of 8,700 kilojoules.

But food manufacturers are allowed to set the serving sizes, which are often unrealistic. And because the measure isn’t standardised, it’s difficult to make any meaningful comparison between products.

Second is the proposed star system. It’s a half-way point between what industry and public health advocates want, although its future is uncertain.

Third is the traffic light system. Research indicates that nine-out-of-ten Australians support such a scheme. It was designed by health experts to promote an easy-to-understand message that encourages consumers to buy more food items with green lights and fewer items with amber and red lights.

Which one do you think will make it easier for consumers, especially less educated ones, to make an informed and personally responsible choice?

5. Ditch junk food advertising to kids

Over 75 per cent of Australians support a ban on junk food advertising in children’s television, and nearly 20 per cent support a total ban. We know from tobacco control that this will be a key step in curbing obesity and evidence supports this.

6. Change the political environment

Perhaps the most potent way our food system undermines personal responsibility is when the food industry lobbies against the policies that would enable it in the first place.

Government needs to ensure our regulatory institutions are not conflicted. And it’s now time to recognise that industry self-regulation doesn’t work.

Finally, we, as citizens, can become politically active. Addressing this conflict brings into play not only the important roles of public health advocacy groups like the Obesity Policy Coalition, but also citizen’s movements like the Parents Jury, to demand action.

Phillip Baker is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Australian National University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The ConversationThis article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  • Dont be stupid, don’t eat junk and you will be fine. If you do eat junk, then enjoy being a fatty because its only your own health you are risking. Price increases should not be considered as familys who have no other choice with there low incomes will become one again even more deprived, sure they should be more responsible and make healthier meals for the family but rising prices is not in anyway a viable solution imo.

    • poor people shouldn’t be having children anyway. but eating crap will make you look like crap. it isn’t Rocket science. take some responsibility people.

      • poor people shouldn’t be having children anyway WTF are you talking about ? Apart from the fact you’ve obviously either not read, or cannot comprehend the article above, your arrogant self-centred comment shows that you need assistance getting back to your village…

        • So you are advocating that people that cannot afford to have children should have them, feed them cheap crap and further strain our welfare and health systems?

          OK then.

          • So your advocating forced abortions and mandatory sterilisation for anyone earning below 75K??……..maybe we could ban sex without a government licence from the tax department, that sounds good.

          • It’s a bit of a jump to accuse him of suggesting forced abortions. Not Just because someone is advocating something doesn’t mean they want the government to intervene, and certainly not like that.

          • forced abortions wtf? and 75k? OR you could just keep your legs closed or heck how about a condom? the pill? I agree. Don’t have kids if you can’t afford it. It’s not fair on them. However sometimes things happen. But in this day and age with all the contraceptive measures we have

          • I have a kid and planning for another next year. I don’t make 75k but I can afford to feed my child healthy food.

            Nice extrapolating there.

          • Why are you taking things to this extreme level?

            In the west we have moved into encouraging poor people, especielly single parents to have more kids by giving out more welfare. So people that are not standing on their own feet can have children.

            Today you see generation of welfare families where work is a foreign concept.

            I think all these welfare payments are paved with good intention, but it enables reckless and irresponsible behavior.

          • You’ll see that I’m neither advocating nor prosecuting the idea.
            The point was that it is not for some smug middle class 20 year old (or anyone actually) to make that call, because apart from being outright offensive, it also fails logically and is devoid of basic human empathy.
            If poor people wish to have children, it is actually their right, whether we agree on it or not.

            The idea of the welfare system is that is for all to use, and I suspect a vast amount of overweight people do not actually use the health system, simply because they have gained a few extra pounds. So if there is a strain on the healthcare system (and by all accounts there is) then maybe we should look at why people are needing to use it more than ever, despite the increase in exercise, longevity and pharmaceuticals.

            Which, I believe, is in part what this article was about.

  • Now show me a socioeconomic scale showing the income of the majority of those who are obese…! That is something that would be quite informative. This issue is being written to death, without any real change in the problem, which, in reality is mostly due to the amount of sugar in… well… everything…!! Back in the early days of mass food processing, there was a kickback about the increasing weight of those eating it, and they thought the culprit was fat..! So, they removed most of it and realised that the food tasted like crap without it. The answer they figured was to replace it with sugar, which made it taste nice, and was appealing to the masses…! Now, we have a lot of cheap crap that the masses are pretty much hooked on. The answer, educate people to cook their own food and find a balance of nutrients that taste good, but don’t kill of the customers in the end….! I can see processed food companies being pilloried like the Cigarette companies if they don’t wake up soon…!

  • No problems. eat junk then enjoy being a fatty…. so what happens when the fatty gets type 2 diabetes, CHD, etc. and needs to constantly go to the GP, Pathology Test, AHP Consults, etc. ?? who ends up paying for the universal health care scheme called Medicare???
    Fatty is affecting every single Tax Payer.

    • Or when they keep going in to radiography and saying, “We’re really hoping to find out what’s wrong with my knees and back! The doctors can’t seem to figure it out!”
      (Yeah they fucking can, you just don’t want to hear it. “You need to lose weight,” has lost all meaning to some people, to the point that it has all the impact of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was nice?” as opposed to, “I am a medical professional telling you something important about your health.”)

  • What a load of crap. Taxes can’t fix everything. Fast food will always be cheaper in comparison. A tax isn’t going to do shit. Not to mention you’re going to make enjoyable things more expensive for the 75% of us who aren’t unhealthily fat.

    It’s up to people to change their unhealthy habits. Trying to stop them from eating crap isn’t going to do a damn thing. You need to make them want to not be fat to the point that they actually try, because the thing is that obese people just don’t try hard enough.

    • If it’s done tax neutral it could benefit responsible people. Imagine that you would bundle a lower GST and a higher tax on junk food. If you have a good diet you end up paying less tax. If you eat a lot of junk food you pay more and it’s fair because you will end up using more medical services.

  • I’m sorry but if someone can not interpret the basic information on a pack of food they are of exceedingly low intelligence, my guess is most don’t even look.

    Its quite simply really, ignore everything except the per 100G, the serving sizes are stupid and range from a single biscuit to an entire pack. The most important part is obviously the KJ, don’t exceed your limit and you won’t put on weight that literally all there is too it.

    Hell even something as simple as a 400ml glass of Ribena syrup with water (depending on sweetness) is about 10% of your basic energy intake even a pack of MnM’s the 200g one is over 4000 KJ. All you need to do really is look at this basic information, work out which foods are low KJ/high portion so you are still full and then you are golden. This doesn’t even mean you have to stop eating fast food, I go to KFC quite often and I grab the 5 crispy strips, as is, its only 1800KJ and is more than enough for a meal compared with a single large KFc chips which is not filling and also over 2000KJ.

    All this blame shifting is rather ridiculous feeding a family at Macca’s actually cost a lot more than simply making a healthy meal and is a weak excuse in most cases. But I also agree that in the shopping center healthy food is more expensive in most cases and there are SOME (by no means the majority) that are unable to buy the better food when a box of fruit loots is always on special and health cereal’s aren’t. Or that 1KG bag of chips for $3 compared with 400G of 5* meat that is $10. So for these people taxing junk food would only worsen their personal food situation.

    Really it all comes down to your own responsibility trying to claim anything else is such a disgusting cop out and I pity, really do pity those that have revoltingly obese parents who are making their children just as fat. IMO it should be grounds for child abuse and to have them taken away.
    Because just the other day i saw a parent and his two children at the movies, the dad was easily 150KG and the son about 8 was fatter than he was tall and weighed more than I do. the daughter who was around 11 was even worse she was about 5 foot tall and easily over 100KG, clearly they weren’t poor or they wouldn’t be able to afford the $50 tickets plus another $50 in food.

    No, this is entirely on the shoulders of those parents there are no excuses. Yes we live in an age where it is easy to get fat IF YOU LET IT, but that just means you need to be more careful the government can not police your tables and food choices.

  • Putting the fat tax in the wrong place. If a doctor identifies someone as obese then they should have to pay an extra bit towards the Medicare Levy – Not Obese, Don’t get tax.

  • After reading all this, and taking into account my own experiences with losing weight loss, I think that a tax on sugar would just be nothing more than a cash grab for the Government. Even healthy food contains natural sugar, which technically would be taxed under that blanket idea; making already expensive health foods even more expensive.

    If you want people to eat healthy, then make the healthy option more affordable to the less financially enabled. I go to get a healthy salad and chicken for 1 day and it costs me nearly $15 where as I can go get a Chicken Burger meal (with Garden Salad and bottle of water) for less than $10 from McDonalds. That’s just the “normal” side of healthy foods; with more specialized health options used in muscle growth, you’re spending $50 for a week of protein powders, plus more on fish/chicken/beef each week, then if you want a snack its like $7 for a protein bar.

    The other solution, other than the financial, is education. Get school programs in place that teach healthy food is a good thing and get the kids out more doing physical activities during school hours. Also get the parents involved. A lot of reasons that kids are finding it ok to be overweight is because the parents are either lazy, didn’t learn good food habits themselves, or don’t want to bother getting kids away from the TV and into the sunshine doing sports or exercise.

    • How does a healthy salad and chicken cost you $15/day? This week, for example, I bought a bag of baby spinach ($3), a punnet of cherry tomatoes ($4 – I like the fancy ones), a Lebanese cucumber (approx $1), a 400g can of corn ($1), a 400g can of four bean mix ($1), and about 1kg of chicken breast ($10). That’s $20 (prices from ColesOnline) and that is easily four days worth of food.

  • All of the above. I agree with the article but also agree with most of the comments. The final responsibility is with the consumer who actually buys and eats the stuff. Caveat emptor “buyer beware” applies fully here. However, there is also a need to motivate everyone involved to do the right thing. Motivate ‘Big Food’ to sell healthy products, motivate government to educate the masses properly, and motivate the health profession to encourage good eating habits.

    Equally, there is a case for taxing junk food, and there is a case for making bad eaters pay more for their diet-related healthcare.

    But the corruption starts with government allowing the food industry to get its way for short-term economic reasons. It is then compounded by the combination of drug companies, health insurance companies and the medical profession who don’t want to lose the huge profits they make out of treatments by promoting preventative & healthy practices. The money is in treatments not prevention, so there is no incentive for them to change. Combine that with relentless and misleading advertising and general public ignorance – and guess what, you have a recipe (pun intended) for disaster.

    Finally, we have weak and cowardly governments that don’t dare take on the large industries, so nothing changes. The political parties are in the pockets of big business to such an extent that not just individual ministerial jobs can be lost, but whole governments toppled.

    It’s all about the money……. it always was, and until that changes, the obesity problem will get worse and worse.

    • Pretty much spot on, our government is about as spineless and in big business pocket as one can possibly be without being on a legitimate payroll within the company that and as you said even if some of these changes would benefit society there is no money in it.

  • I feel like a lot of the commentator’s here are missing the complexity of the problem. Obviously, an individuals weight and diet is their own responsibility, but when you have a massive population shift in weight, it’s probably due to some sort of population level change. It might be increased wealth, it might be new technologies, it might be the commercialization of food. Regardless, the population level problem can only be changed through population level interventions.

    A junk food tax seems pretty sensible to me. It worked pretty well for cigarettes (though not so well for booze), but regardless of whether it pushes people to eat better, it at least recuperates some of the expenses that poor diet has on the health system.

    • Exactly. It’s all well and good to say, “Don’t fix the problem, it’s up to people to do on their own,” but the very real and horrifying fact is that people are not fixing this problem on their own. So regardless of HOW you do it, something needs to be done.

      And it needs to be an intervention, not just ‘putting information out there’ which no-one will bloody use. If that means screwing up the market to tax cheaply-made foods of no nutritional value, there IS a merit to that.

      Yes, people buy the cheapest option, and the cheapest option is usually the least healthy. Taxing the cheap options so there ARE no cheap options does not mean people won’t eat, however. Just that they’ll continue spend more money on the easier-to-prepare options, and have less for anything else.

      But maybe healthier foods could be subsidized? Sure… but the problem with that is, there’s not exactly a silver-bullet ‘healthy food’. You need variety, it doesn’t matter how healthy one individual food type is, if it’s all you eat because it’s the perfect combination of price, value, and ease-of-preparation, then it’ll be overdosed on. Mince meat can be very cheap AND healthy, if prepared correctly. But if all you do is top it with tomato sauce and spaghetti, not so much.

      It’s a complex problem without an easy solution.

      • Denmark tried a junk food tax, and all it did is boost sales in neighbouring Germany. The lefties are our in force on this one. In a free society if you want to consume ‘legal’ junk food and get fat that is your right.

  • To correct the statistic at he beginning of the article. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011-12, 70% of males and 56% of females in Australia aged 18 years and over were overweight or obese.

  • The writer argues that the ultimate solution to the issue is not personal responsibility.

    No sale.

  • Jesus, you are all high and mighty today.
    Everyone is ignorant, just about different things. You might all be well up on kj daily allowances, be able to track it and plan your eating, and have the willpower to avoid the constant bombardment of high kj foods, but not everyone is.

    Not everyone is as well educated as you all obviously are, many people are pretty trusting, and healthy food choices are shrinking.

    Many people are swayed heavily by advertising, and they get a hell of a lot more of Bad Food advertising than they do good health messages.

    There are constant adverts telling parents that LCMs are the healthy choice for your kid’s lunchbox. That Nutri-Grain will make your kid into a healthy iron-man.
    The serving size on most cereal would barely cover the bottom of a cereal bowl.

    So you get trusting people having a bowl of cereal, that is around 3-4 serving sizes, but thinking they are having a relatively low kj meal.

    Kellogs, just took their old 93% wholegrain, healthy mini-wheats off the market, and replaced them with a much higher sugar, much less grain product also called mini-wheats.

    If you struggle with willpower to not eat sugary foods, you have to say NO so many times a day.
    Everywhere sells junk, and often at massively discounted prices. The post office, servos, supermarkets, news-agents, basically anywhere that sells anything, also sells products that have 5x the kj they used to in the 70s.

    Saying that it is purely personal responsibility is fine, but not everyone is so strong. You could say the same thing about gambling, drug use, STi’s, almost any of societies woes. We would have a perfect society if people could always just ‘do the right thing’ but the truth is it is harder for many than others and many people need extra help.

    Governments have become weak and let companies take liberties that they never should have been allowed to do. They hire child psychologists to work out how to hit children hardest, they want to push for more advertising based at kids. They make a single serve product that has over half your daily kj needs.

    I’m not currently overweight, but for the first time in my life it is getting difficult to keep to the weight I think is healthy. I used to bag out ‘fatties’ but I have become more understanding as I get older, my lifestyle has become much harder, and it gets more difficult.

    The facts are there in the numbers, the obesity is out of control, and isn’t going to fix itself, so some discussion about what might help, rather than villifying people who struggle with their weight would be more constructive.

    • Amen. And not everyone is fat because of what they eat. I am fat because of a medication side effect, and now I have insulin resistance. That means that on my uber healthy (high protein, low carb) 1500 Cals a day, I am still putting on weight.
      A bit of empathy is important here- And you can be sure that 99% of fat people don’t want to be fat either.

      • have to tell you most people are obese because they eat too much and of the wrong foods, a lot of weight gain is through psychological issues most have not worked out yet, people not really paying attention to their health one little bit, people not asking WHY finding solutions, yes granted some people it is unavoidable for weight gain through health reasons however asking people to have empathy for the reason most people fill their shopping trolleys full of junk food as if normal is a bit rich, even people with health problems are encouraged to lose weight WHY because a healthy body is actually a healthy mind, to dance around a subject and not confront people with their weight gain is also very mis-guided and one of the reasons weight gain is so extreme in the west is because of all this mushy lets all feel good and make people feel good about themselves and tell people with weight gain straight out lies of empowerment with gee it looks like you have lost a bit of weight , sorry it does not work, society needs to stop lying to each other and causing psychological problems , you know people will respect you more in life if you tell them the truth if they take offense still dont want to hang around i could not care less i could not care less either if you call someone names because they want to get all mushy and empathetic, as well look up what empathetic peoples traits are, it is said people who show empathy it also frequently leads to morally bankrupt behaviour, think about it to be empathetic to one group of people you have to morally bankrupt yourself against another group, sorry you need people actually confronting people that suffer from obesity but confronting people in a constructive way hard work yes it is, you need to let people know that soft drink they are drinking that one glass is 9 teaspoons of sugar the daily reccomended dose, you need to let people know in your own search for health what you have uncovered by talking about it getting people interested, a mushy scenario where we all sit around holding hands singing kumbaya is unrealistic the worlds a rubbish place with people treating each other like rubbish that is reality sooner people learn to cope that the worlds crap the better off they and will be

  • It’s such a complex problem to tackle. I think education is so incredibly important. You’ll see Instagram accounts where people post ‘healthy’ recipes, like “Cheat’s Ice Cream” – blend up five frozen bananas and drizzle some blended berries over it. Sure, bananas are healthy, but five in one sitting is too many, let alone as an after-meal dessert.

    There’s an overwhelming amount of information available and not all of it is going to be accurate, and we need a way to funnel scientific research into schools and centralise the data somewhere trustworthy and accessible.

    But also yeah, take the junk food ads down a notch, and promote/provide better options (such as fast family meals that are high-protein – ie filling! – and are real contenders for fast food and frozen pizza.) Promote self-exploration (what works for you, what doesn’t? Try new things and see if you feel better!) Move the focus away from the aesthetics of being overweight and into the massive energy boost and general well-being from eating fresh food and being active.

    And it really would not kill us to only have one McDonalds per council.

  • Or how about starting with the most fundamental problem – the fact that the majority of society doesn’t understand nutrition. People still think dietary fat is bad for you when in reality the health epidemics of modern society are the result of the development and introduction of carbohydrate rich foods to a staple diet. Even this article makes that mistake “It is full of sugar, fat and salt — nutrients we’re hard-wired to crave.” When did sugar become a part of the natural diet of a human? The article opens with an evolutionary argument and fails to acknowledge that evolutionarily speaking, we’re designed to eat meat and vegetables (protein, fat and micronutrients – not carbs).

    When people are actually educated in nutrition, we’ll start seeing some changes. Instead, I get clients asking me for nutritional advice who still think there’s no carbs in bread, who think low-fat products are good for them (like the 90% carb rice crackers) and then complain they can’t tone up even though they drastically cut their fat intake.

    Teach the mind and the body will follow.


  • My issue with this article is that it suggests that the claims of ‘nanny state’ are some Orwellian trick but then goes on to suggest such things as fat and sugar taxes, advertising bans etc and points to tobacco control as a good example.

    Whether you think those policies should be pursued or not, they are the very policies that the nanny state label is and should be applied to. I’m not inherently opposed to internalising externalities but the policies aren’t built in that fashion.

    These policies are specifically aimed at disincentivising or restricting certain types of food. That is how they would work. To pretend this is about some ‘true free choice’ is a disturbing ‘false consciousness’ style argument.

    As you can guess I’m biased against these policies, but let us call a spade a spade.

    My personal opinion is that the present research is showing very encouraging intervention by simple exercise, even in the face of obesity. This (health intervention within the framework of obesity) is not a comprehensively studied field yet but it is looking more and more that a not unreasonable amount of exercise can yield big improvements.

    Another interesting thing is that the proportion of obese children in Australia has actually remained stagnant for the last two decades. The increase has been entirely in adult cohorts. From there we can tailor some interventions.

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