The battle of the bulge: life expectancy is up but we’re still getting fat

EXPANDING WAISTLINES: More than 70 per cent of men and 56 per cent of men are considered overweight or obese.
EXPANDING WAISTLINES: More than 70 per cent of men and 56 per cent of men are considered overweight or obese.

The life expectancy of Australians is up and the amount of smokers is down but we’re still fatter than ever, new data has revealed.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s latest biennial report card on the nation's health shows obesity has more than doubled in Australia in the past 20 years. 

In the south-west, Warrnambool and Corangamite have a significantly higher rate of obesity in adults compared to the state average and more than 30 per cent of Moyne children are on a trajectory to being obese.

Leading surgeon Charles Pilgrim, who will speak at Warrnambool's St John of God on Sunday, said obesity was one of the biggest problems facing surgeons today. 

“It makes simple operations such as the removal of gall bladders and hernias increasingly difficult and heightens the risk of post operative infections and other complications,” he said. 

The biennial report also revealed more than half of adults and 92 per cent of kids aged 13 to 17 weren’t sufficiently active. 

Warrnambool physiotherapist Sarah Richards from Physio Freedom said with more people becoming sedentary, weight gain and injury risk was increasing. 

“Obesity increases the load through the spine and larger joints like the knees and hips,” she said.  “The amount of knee replacements has increased dramatically even though research strongly supports exercise as the best treatment modality.”

Fortunately, Warrnambool residents are spoiled for choice when it comes to exercise, with the city home to 14 gyms and 31 sporting clubs. 

Personal trainer Jaymee Hope from Anytime Fitness Warrnambool said member numbers were increasing weekly.

“We’re a very community based team and the numbers show that fitness is a priority for a lot of people,” she said.

But as the health and fitness industry in Warrnambool continues to grow, the rest of the region appears to suffer.

Ms Hope said there was a small group of members who spent more than half-an-hour traveling to the gym.

“We’ve got members from Terang, Mortlake and Lismore who don’t have a gym or anything that really promotes fitness in their area,” she said. 

“A lot of people who want to go to the gym, but live outside of Warrnambool, have to travel half-an-hour or more and a lot of the time they just won’t.” 

In good news, the number of daily adult smokers has been trending favorably over the last 10 years.

This may have attributed to the nation’s increase in life expectancy, with those born in 2016 now expected to live well into their eighties. 

The results show Australia now ranks fifth for life expectancy for males and eighth for females compared with countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Going under to cut the fat

The number of Australians going under the knife to reduce the size of their stomach has surpassed the number of gallbladders removed, says bariatric surgeon Douraid Abbas.

In 2017, Dr Abbas performed around 200 sleeve gastrectomies and gastric bypasses – procedures that reduce the size of the stomach – on patients from all over Victoria, including Camperdown, Colac and Apollo Bay. 

He said more than 33,000 Australians underwent the procedure, while only 25,000 people had their gallbladder removed. 

Dr Abbas said Australians were also choosing the procedure over the previously popular laparoscopic gastric banding, where a band is placed around the upper part of the stomach to create a small pouch to hold food. 

“Surgeons are now doing less than 1000 lap-band surgeries per year, because the sleeve gastrectomy has become a much safer operation,” he said.

“The surgery is not something we advise to do right away but we wait six months and if diet and exercise isn’t working we’ll ask the patient to consider the surgery.”

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s latest biennial report card on the nation's health shows there were more than 124,600 procedures relating to weight-loss surgery billed to Medicare – in public and private hospitals, and in non-hospital settings – in a 12 month period across the nation.

Bariatric surgeon Douraid Abbas.

Bariatric surgeon Douraid Abbas.

The estimated total cost was about $62.8 million, with about $25.7 million in benefits paid by Medicare, and about $37.1 million paid in out-of-pocket costs by patients and health insurers.

Dr Abbas said reducing the size of the stomach resulted in significant weight loss which in turn saw an increase in energy, reduced blood pressure and better overall health. 

He said it also helped to prevent chronic illnesses.

“The surgery dramatically decreases the number of people suffering from glucose impairments, which leads to diabetes,” he said. 

“It’s also very common for people to think they need a kidney or liver transplant but after the procedure is done and the weight is gone, 70 to 80 per cent of people don’t need the transplant at all, they just need to lose the weight.

“Obesity triggers a lot of inflammation and that inflammation is what can cause cancer and a lot of other problems for the body, which is why we are doing these surgeries.”

Dr Abbas said it was important to be open about obesity.

“People are worried they will upset someone or it will be uncomfortable, but if we start talking and say you’ve got a disease that we need to treat, then we will win the fight.”

Drop the diet fad, eat like your grandma

Warrnambool dietitian Ruth Walker says there’s a lot to learn from our grandmother’s diet. 

Ms Walker said as people’s waistlines continue to expand, so does the knowledge gap in terms of food. 

“I get a lot of people asking about diet fads because they are confused and I understand because I’m confused too,” she said. 

“Some fad diets do work, but nine out of 10 times there’s weight rebound and people come away feeling confused and disorientated.” 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Dietitian Ruth Walker from Middle Island Medical Clinic says it's time to get back to grandma's way of eating. Picture: Rob Gunstone

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Dietitian Ruth Walker from Middle Island Medical Clinic says it's time to get back to grandma's way of eating. Picture: Rob Gunstone

As of May 1, all fast food and supermarket chains in Victoria were required to display the kilojoule content of ready-to-eat food and drinks as well as the average adult daily energy intake of 8700 kilojoules.

Ms Walker said while the requirements were a positive step, more needed to be done in terms of marketing healthy food.

“You look at some of the meal deals that might say 3400 kilojoules and I think to myself, noone should be having that for one meal,” she said. 

“It’s good to see the difference in kilojoule content when comparing a small or large chips but there’s not much in terms of the meal’s nutrients. It’s probably not feasible for fast food places to write how much vitamin A and C there is in every item of food, but it’s good to be aware of what you’re consuming”.

Ms Walker said when eating healthy, common sense was often the best option. 

“Everyone is different but when you look back to what our grandma’s used to do, they’d plan meals every week, they’d put food on smaller plates, nothing was processed and they’d have cakes and treats only on special occasions,” she said.

“It might not sound very glamorous, but that old fashioned approach to dieting works well because if something is too extreme and you can’t maintain it, it won’t work.”