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If you pick up the pizza, pick up your trainers

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Experts Clash Over Fat Stats

Published: 26/09/2008

Australians are currently being bombarded with claims that we are the fattest nation in the world, surpassing the United States. Have we really turned into a generation of outdoors-hating, shut-the-curtains, video game-playing slobs, or are there other factors at work? 3rd Degree investigates why a cheeseburger is cheaper than a banana.

Earlier this month The Greens introduced a bill into Parliament to ban junk food advertisements from televisions during children's viewing times.

In late August, the Federal Government unveiled its GROCERYchoice website informing consumers where the cheapest groceries in their area are sold.

But according to leading industry experts, these attempts are just band-aids that fail to address the real causes of overweight and obese Australians.

Current research by Associate Professor Katherine Samaras, an obesity expert from St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, indicates that nearly 60 per cent of Australians are overweight or obese. A recent report by Access Economics estimates this costs taxpayers $58 billion a year.

Prof Samaras said obesity was the "underlying cause" of many individual health complaints treated by public hospitals.

Professor Rob Newton, Foundation Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at Edith Cowan University, confirmed that Australia was in the grip of an obesity crisis. However, he disagreed with Prof Samaras' view on health.

"Obesity is not the disease, it's just the symptom. The cause of our problems is lack of physical activity," he said.

Prof Newton said better public transport meant fewer people were walking and biking to work, and modern machines eliminating labour intensive jobs all had larger metabolic implications.

Prof Newton has been researching the effects of physical activity on health and wellness for over 20 years and sees the demands placed on Australia's health system.

"The Federal Government just wants to give [obese people] drugs or dive in, cut them open, and get some surgery done. But there's no Medicare rebate or financial support from the government if they want to change their lifestyle," he said.

Prof Newton also said the problem was exercise being treated as physical activity, not medicine.

"There's too much focus on fatness, when the focus should be on fitness," he said.

"All research suggests our current approach of medicine whereby you get sick then fix the problem is expensive and ineffective."

Vanessa Brenninger, a senior dietician from a NSW hospital, said obese patients were a "big strain" financially on the health system. The Royal North Shore Hospital recently spent $57,000 in intensive care costs for an obese 54-year-old patient weighing 254kg - over three times the weight of an average Australian male.

Prof Newton said despite Australia vying for the title of fattest nation in the world against the US, it was misguided to blame fast food outlets because current levels of obesity were not due to a sudden spike in calorie intake.

"Most research indicates the actual energy that we eat - the calories that we take in - is not higher than it was 20 or even 50 years ago," he said.

"Plus now we have better access to higher quality food because we can transport and store them better."

Spiralling obesity rates in the US prompted an unusual solution from a surgeon at Creighton University, Nebraska.

Dr Charles Filipi designed an adjustable hospital bed with a built-in treadmill allowing patients to exercise on their own without placing demands on busy hospital staff.

But Professor Newton is sceptical about the invention's effectiveness.

"My concern is that it's just another way to make exercise gimmick easier - it's doing exercise without doing exercise. At end of day, there's no benefit."

But Professor Newton sees hope for Australians struggling with their health and lifestyle. He says the Federal Government is slowly starting to make changes, that he hopes will embrace "a wellness model, not an illness model".

But unfortunately, there will always be temptations Australians have to be wary of.

"Because of McDonald's size and well-developed channels of distribution, they can offer an icecream for 50c or a cheeseburger for $1.25," Professor Newton said.

"You couldn’t buy a banana for that."