Environment, inflation contribute to ‘sharp increase’ in Pacific child obesity – researcher

Fifty-one per cent of Pacific children in New Zealand have been found to fall into the category of obese or overweight.

In an article published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, author Velia Men pulled together the evidence from international studies as well as local research.

She told RNZ Pacific that Pacific children were the focus of studies that they looked at in the article, and the article summarised the latest data in the New Zealand Health Survey.

“What this found is that Pacific children currently have the highest obesity rates out of all ethnic groups,” she said.

“Fifty-one percent of Pacific children currently fall into the category of obese or overweight – which is over 70,000 Pacific children.”

When compared to non-Pacific children, Men pointed out that the obesity rate among Pacific children is 2.6 times higher which highlights an important issue of health inequity.

On the challenges that Pacific families faced, Men said in research in the past few decades, it was recognised that obesity is primarily driven by the environment lived in, which has such a huge role in driving behaviours and the behaviours of Pacific families.

“And, unfortunately, we are surrounded by what we call an “obesogenic environment” where unhealthy foods are not only cheaper, but also widely available and heavily promoted.

“Unfortunately, we have seen that Pacific families have greater exposure to this ‘obesogenic environment’,” she said.

In an example, Men pointed out that currently, 50 percent of Pacific families live in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation which is where over half of New Zealand’s fast food outlets are currently located.

“In interviews with Pacific families, many parents say that the cost convenience of junk food is the biggest reason they see obesity in children, while healthier food is often seen as being more expensive and time-consuming to prepare,” she said.

What this means, Men adds, is that the issue isn’t in the individual behaviours, but the problem lies in the environment which is making it very hard for families to choose healthier options, and it’s a sad reality that many families can’t afford enough nutritious food.

She said almost 40 percent of Pacific children live with food insecurity, and what that means is not having enough regular access to enough food or food of an adequate nutritional quality to meet one’s basic needs.

Men said a big issue is the state of inflation and the affordability of a healthy diet for many New Zealand families.

“It’s really sad that Pacific families have the highest rates of food poverty in New Zealand and researchers told us that children in food insecure households tend to consume more fast food and sugary drinks,” Men said.

High rates of Pacific childhood obesity are nothing new, but Men said between 2019 and 2020, and up until now, a sharp increase in the rates of childhood obesity has been seen.

“And this could be to do with the Covid pandemic and the issue taking a back seat to other public health priorities,” she said.

Healthy Food Environment Policy Index Study

Men said the study index benchmarks how well the government has implemented policies to improve food environments compared to international standards.

“And this has found that over the past decade, over half of the policies have had low to very little implementation.

“So, New Zealand is falling short compared to other countries in many areas with its food environment, and we are falling short of our commitment to improving Pacific peoples’ health and health equity.”

In response to a question on a sugar tax already passed in New Caledonia and other Pacific nations, Men said restricting the sale of sugary drinks via taxation is one of the key policies that have been recommended by public health experts to the government – and it’s supported by international evidence such as guidelines by the World Health Organisation..

“We think this has a great potential to improve health equity for our Pacific populations, because a sugary beverage tax would have the greatest benefit on those who have the highest consumption of sugary drinks,” she said.

Some steps in the right direction

Men said on a systemic level, there were some really good initiatives that are steps in the right direction.

“For example, last year, the first-ever Pacific health strategy, Te Mana Ola was developed with the support of Pacific communities and healthcare workers throughout the country, and population health was the first priority area for Te Mana Ola,” she said.

Men highlighted this includes supporting initiatives to ensure all Pacific families have access to healthy affordable food, limiting the availability of fast food.

“On a community-led level, we have also seen some great initiatives in the Pacific community such as nutrition and exercise programmes involving schools, churches and local groups,” she said.

Men pointed out another policy she’s seen is the Healthy School Lunches programme, which provides free lunches to children in schools.

She hopes the programme will continue and that the outreach will be increased to cover more Pacific families.

She said when thinking about improving obesity in the Pacific population, there’s a need to design programmes that are tailored to Pacific populations.

“I guess the really important part of successful obesity intervention moving forward is the idea of empowering communities and empowering families to take control of their health and behaviours, and a really big part of that is engaging families and the communities.”

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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