Obesity is taking a toll on our island neighbours
Travelling to the Pacific always intensifies my relationship with food.
Every visit is accompanied by unsurpassed hospitality which yields an avalanche of food. The only way of avoiding the fate of a French force-fed goose is to develop the capacity to say “no”. And, sadly, my record of saying “no” to food is less than impressive.
Bravely I struggle with mountains of yam cake and roasted pork. I wade through rivers of boiled taro and raw fish in coconut sauce. And in the great contest between denying myself culinary gratification and yielding to the joy of eating, the result is always the same: a greatly expanded girth.
There have been times when this would have been seen as an asset in the Pacific. Traditions of power used to bestow the lion’s share of it on the very large. King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV, the longest serving King of Tonga, at his peak weighed 209kg, setting a record for the world’s heaviest monarch. He was very big, very powerful and very loved.
But times change and well they should. As the deleterious health effects of obesity became apparent King Taufa’ahau went on a diet. In the process he led a campaign of better eating and exercise which saw him shrink to a mere 130kg. He went on to live a long life of 88 years.
Yet tragically, King Taufa’ahau’s example has not been replicated throughout the Pacific, for the Pacific has become more and more obese. Non-communicable diseases are the new scourge of the region.
Nauru has within its tiny population the highest rate of diabetes in the world. The average life expectancy for men is just 49 years of age.
The problem is traditional unprocessed foods are being replaced by processed foods where the nutritional value has been destroyed through the process of sterilisation and preservation.
Taro, yam and fresh fish are not the issue. Poor quality processed food is.
This food is cheap and the result is that it has left the Pacific literally eating itself to death.
Of course the problem of diets based increasingly on processed food is not unique to the Pacific or the developing world. The prevalence of NCD’s is a major problem in Australia as we grapple with an alarming increase in childhood obesity.
But relative affluence and choice provide options for those of us living in urban Australia. When there is only one shop and price means everything, the choices – which do exist in the Pacific – are harder to make.
The solutions to this problem are neither easy nor quick. Yet there are elements of culture which can help.
The Pacific is a sports loving part of the world. In Australia’s development assistance we engage in sports outreach. Be it netball, rugby or cricket, the emphasis of our work is on encouraging people to get active and encouraging governments to make the link between sports policy and health policy.
Some of the best fruit in the world is grown in the Pacific and there are efforts afoot to try have people eat more of it. In Pohnpei, Australia is supporting the fresh fruit and vegetable initiative which is a campaign that aims to reincorporate the amazing bounty of local fruit and vegetables back into the local diet.
Part of the solution lies also in better food regulation. For example, in Australia, folic acid is added to our bread. Folic acid supplements have been shown to signficantly reduce infant mortality and disability.
Likewise mandating mineral and vitamin additives such as iodine into food bound for the Pacific could help. So too could better standards around the content of fat in imported meat and tinned food.
If the Millennium Development Goals around health are to be met in the Pacific then NCD’s have to be licked. In the midst of public campaigns and public policy, personal responsibility also has a role to play. Limping along with my own diet, I am certainly familiar with all the challenges associated with that.
While this may be the biggest barrier standing between me and my fitness, let’s hope the Pacific fares better.
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