“Obesity is markedly more prevalent amongst people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent compared to all Australians, with 25 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women being obese.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities need information that is culturally appropriate, evidence-based, easily understood, action-oriented and motivating. There is also the need to promote healthy eating to facilitate community ownership and does not undermining the cultural importance of family social events, the role of elders and traditional preferences for some foods. Food supply in Indigenous communities needs to ensure healthy, good quality food options are available at competitive prices.
Primary health care services have a central role in promoting and improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and the sector needs specialised training and resources to implement new initiatives and provide culturally appropriate advice.”
This is the final post for Australia’s Healthy Weight Week
Emotional eating plays a huge role in Australia’s obesity epidemic with 83 per cent of overweight or obese Australians eating emotionally, according to a recent survey.
- Emotional eating affects 83 per cent of people who struggle with their weight, study finds
- Psychologist urges mental health approach to obesity-prevention in addition to “eat less, exercise more” message
- Despite numerous public health compaigns obesity rate continues to grow
- Stress and depression major triggers for vicious cycle of emotional eating
The mental health side of obesity is not something that has been given much coverage.
Anti-obesity campaigns have mostly been based on a version of the old mantra “eat less, exercise more”, but is anyone in the country actually not aware of that?
If it is that simple why does the country keep getting fatter?
While the “eat less, exercise more” message is technically true psychologist Dr Ali Dale points out it is pretty simplistic.
“My hope would be that there’s a greater awareness of the complexity of our relationship with food and that we start to move away from the just ‘eat less, exercise more’ type messages,” she said.
“The same messages just aren’t effective; just telling people to eat less and exercise more, because there’s more to it than that.
“There’s a whole brain science behind what drives people to comfort eat and there’s a psychology to that relationship.
We’re up there in the countries that have a very high prevalence of overweight and obesity, this is a national tragedy.DAA spokeswoman Professor Clare Collins
“If it was that simple we wouldn’t have the challenges that we have.”
Australia’s war on obesity has, statistically, been a dramatic failure.
At last count the National Health Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found the proportion of Australians classified as overweight or obese continued to increase to 63 per cent. Around 71 per cent of men fall into this category and 53 per cent of women.
In the past two years alone the Federal Government has spent more than $100 million trying to get Australians to eat less and exercise more and address obesity and weight gain from a mental health point of view.
That does not include initiatives of the state and territory governments.
Scott Griffiths, a psychologist doing a PhD at the University of Sydney focusing on eating and body image, said the mental health aspects of obesity needed to be taken more seriously.
“Society cannot abide the obese,” he said.
“We deride them for being lazy and unmotivated, and resent them for having no willpower.
“Ultimately, these attitudes betray a deep lack of compassion.”
He said the old fashioned tough love approach was counterproductive.
“Tough love is undoubtedly useful in the context of obesity because, at the end of the day, a successful resolution to the obesity crisis will require that individuals initiate changes by themselves and for themselves,” he said.
Hormones responsible for ‘vicious cycle’
Dr Dale runs a specialist medical weight management clinic in WA and specialises in the relationship between the brain, emotions and eating.
She has quoted new data that suggests most overweight Australians were comfort or emotional eaters and stress and depression were major triggers.
“Over 90 per cent of Australian women who struggle with their weight comfort eat, we know that over 86 per cent of men again who struggle with their weight, they comfort eat,” she said.
“Even if it’s not a diagnosable mental health condition we know that if you’re overweight then you’re more likely to have certain hormones released into your system and you’re more likely to look for high fat, high sugar foods.
“If you’re eating high fat, high sugar foods you gain more weight.
“We know that society judges you, you don’t move as easily and so therefore you feel worse about yourself but then that releases those same hormones which drives us to comfort eat even more.”
She refers to this process as the “vicious cycle” of obesity.
Mr Griffiths said modern the commercial nature of Australian society made it difficult for people to escape the lure of comfort food.
“We live in a world designed to erode willpower. Chocolate bars are placed at the check-out of every supermarket,” he said.
“Artificial aromas of baked bread and other treats are pumped into the air surrounding consumers.
“Advertisers spend millions to link their food with images of attractive young people having fun and living enviable lives.
“Food companies spend millions on the science of food optimisation; the “bliss point” being the relative amounts of salt, sugar or fat in a food that optimises palatability.”
This research, carried out by Cambridge Weight Plan, was released to coincide with Healthy Weight Week which is being run by the Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA).
DAA spokeswoman Professor Clare Collins said weight loss and obesity issues were a “national tragedy”.
“It’s a trend we’ve seen for a long time, and that’s why we feel there’s a need to focus on healthy eating to help people get to a healthier weight,” she said.
“We’re up there in the countries that have a very high prevalence of overweight and obesity, this is a national tragedy.”
The DAA has put out some very doable guidelines like cooking more food at home and finding out what your portions sizes were supposed to be.
Obesity ‘most shameful experience’ person can have
But Dr Dale said emotional eating also needed to be addressed.
Research is showing that problems with managing your weight, or obesity, is ranked as the most shameful experience you can have in your life.Psychologist Dr Ali Dale
“Research says that there’s 221 food related decisions that we make every single day of those we know that less than 20 are made quite consciously,” she said.
“We make most of them out of habit and a lot of them are driven by our emotional state.
“If we can raise awareness of the role of emotions, the role of availability within our own homes of high fat, high sugar foods we can give people some strategies to reduce that.
Controlling emotional eating:
- Develop an eating plan (with the help of professionals) to reduce the number of food related decisions you have to make
- Get enough sleep: There is a strong relationship between fatigue and emotional eating
- Get exercise when you can: 5 to 10 minutes of walking a number of times a day can reduce stress, improve sleeping and reduce appetite.
Source: Dr Ali Dale
“Really simple strategies like, reduce the number of food related decisions you have to make every day, look for a structured program that helps you to reduce those food related decisions then we know that people have a much greater likelihood of success.”
Some state and territory funded health campaigns, have been accused of fat shaming and are unlikely to work, Mr Griffiths said.
“Is it surprising that people develop disordered thoughts and behaviours surrounding food in a world where the pressure to be physically attractive is increasing at a rate commensurate with the skill and reach of food marketers?” Mr Griffiths said.
“Continuing down the current path is likely to be counterproductive.
“Negative emotions surrounding food, such as shame and guilt, will be reinforced and magnified. Low self-esteem will be solidified.”
Dr Dale said the shame involved in weight problems also made the problem worse.
“Research is showing that problems with managing your weight, or obesity, is ranked as the most shameful experience you can have in your life,” she said.
“Far above just mental health concerns which traditionally are considered to be surrounded by a heap of shame.
“When people feel shame you engage in more secret eating you gain more weight.
“So whatever we can do to start to remove some of the stigma to accept that actually the majority of Australians are struggling with their weight we might start to have really honest conversations about weight and therefore we might remove the ‘eat less, exercise more’ messages.”