What does the future for Australia’s most overweight generations look like? People who are overweight or obese are at higher risk of severe health complications and chronic illnesses. Although public awareness campaigns have emphasised healthy eating, recent statistics indicate a higher likelihood of obesity in younger generations compared to those who grew up before these campaigns were widespread.

Alarming statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that 15% of people born in the mid-1990s were obese between the ages 18 to 21. This rate is almost double that of those born two decades earlier. An equally concerning statistic shows that 9% of people born in the early 2010s were obese by the time they reached 2-5 years old, two decades ago this was at only 4%. Nowadays fewer adults are within a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI). The reality is that being overweight is becoming increasingly common and unhealthy eating is becoming the norm.

Is Junk Food Advertising to Blame for the Lack of Impact of Healthy Diet Messaging?

Research shows that junk food advertising targets children more than adults. The University of Adelaide published research in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health showing that junk food ads are more prevalent at times during peak viewing hours for children and during school holidays. A child who watches 80 minutes of television a day is likely to see more than 800 junk food ads each year.

Advertisers target children because they are aware of the influencing power children have on their parent’s purchasing decisions. As lead researcher Lisa Smithers says, “Diet-related problems are the leading cause of disease in Australia, and the World Health Organisation has concluded that food marketing influences the types of foods that children prefer to eat, ask their parents for and ultimately consume,”.

Some food companies offer products marketed as ‘healthy’ alternatives, though it’s important to consider their nutritional content as they may have similar caloric values to standard products. See our post about how artificial sweeteners can sabotage weight loss.

Although Australia’s Children’s Television Standards exist to protect children from possible harmful effects of television, ads for snack foods, crumbed/battered meats, sugary beverages and fast food meals are frequently shown during children’s TV programs.

Is the Penchant for Fatty foods Genetic?

A study recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that we cannot attribute the taste for unhealthy foods to genetics. The study involving 44 sets of twins in Australia showed that if you eat fatty food often enough you will become desensitised to it. The Deakin University study found that diet has more impact on sensitivity to fatty foods than genetics or body weight. “There’s this idea that maybe some people are just not as good at sensing high levels of fat and that they’re born that way,”. Russell Keast, Director of Deakin’s Centre for Advanced Sensory Science and the lead researcher in the study, explains, “what we found is that genetics does not provide any protection against the dietary influence of fat. If we eat a high-fat diet, we lose our ability to sense fat. That’s why it’s vitally important we’re careful with what we’re eating, otherwise, we will get in a bad cycle of our bodies becoming accustomed to high levels of fat and requiring higher levels of fat to become satisfied.”

Junk Food Tax

Imposing taxes on unhealthy foods is a subject of regular debate. Studies in The Lancet a leading health journal, make a strong case that taxes on soft drinks, alcohol and tobacco can help limit non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Overweight and obesity ultimately lead to diseases like stroke, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

Australia has used higher tobacco taxes to reduce the smoking rate. However, the government is yet to accept the proposed sugar tax to make less healthy soft drinks less affordable despite the push from health groups.

Imposing taxes on unhealthy food raises concern that it’s the poor that would be penalised the most. However, studies on the impact of price hikes in 13 countries found that lower-income households are the first to cut back, resulting in improvements in population health.

There has been an increased interest in surgical procedures such as liposuction in recent years. However, it’s important to note that these procedures might not be accessible to everyone. Unfortunately once a person is obese it can be a real struggle to lose weight and maintain a healthy weight long term, this is due to the insulin-producing junk food that has become part of the average diet, making weight loss more complicated than just energy in versus energy out.