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Australia’s Obesity Problems

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Obesity is one of our nation’s leading contributors to the burden of disease and shows no signs of diminishing any time soon. According to the Australian Heart Foundation over the last twenty years the proportion of obese Australians has increased by 49%.

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Recently, a proposal has been put forward that graphic images should be placed on junk food, like those placed on cigarette packages, to deter people from purchasing processed foods. Grotesque and confronting images of fatty and diseased organs, such as the one displayed here, would be placed on the external packaging of food deemed to contain an excessive number of kilojoules. I believe the intention to reduce obesity rates in Australia is admirable, but warning labels are not the way to address this concerning issue. Shock warning labels do not fix the lack of education Australians have regarding their nutrition. People need to be educated to enable them to take control of their health.

Instead of labelling food this way, the Australian Government could make more of an effort to advertise nationwide on mainstream media the Australian Dietary Guidelines, as well as the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. These food models encourage healthy eating patterns, clearly outline what a serving size is, and how many serves should be consumed from each of the 5 food groups based on age and gender. These excellent resources are readily available online and the average Australian does not know about them, because no one is telling them they exist.

It is not junk food, but often overeating that leads to weight gain. The average dinner plate has grown from 25cm in diameter to 30-40cm meaning portions of healthy homemade meals are leading to overconsumption and obesity without a serving of junk food in sight. Education is the key to decreasing obesity rates, not warnings, and certainly not on junk food packaging.

Schools should be doing more to encourage healthy eating that goes beyond the food served in school canteens. Programs like the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program teach Primary School children how to grow and prepare their own healthy meals in a fun interactive environment. Having enjoyable firsthand experiences with healthy, organic food is going to be a lot more beneficial for children in the long run than shock labels placed on junk food.

An additional part of the education process would involve re-educating those who believe buying fast food is cheaper than cooking a more nutritious meal at home. As shown in this slide, a McDonald’s McFavourites box costs $27.95 and a Nando’s share platter is even more expensive at $35.95; both with little nutritional value. A homemade meal, with the ingredients purchased from Coles, costs only $12.68 and can be made by anyone with basic cooking skills.

If people were educated about the costs associated with proper purchasing of food, junk food would not be bought with the intent of saving money. It’s clear that education in its many forms is the key to reducing obesity rates, not warning labels. An alternative solution to lowering obesity instead of warning labels would be the government putting a stop to the blatant targeting of impressionable young children during children’s television programs.

Studies have found that during children’s peak viewing times, twice as many adverts promoting unhealthy foods are aired. In 2011-2012 the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 26% of children aged 5–17 years were either overweight or obese, with a contributing factor possibly being overexposure to junk food commercials. For as long as I can remember, there has been an informal discussion about banning junk food advertisements on children’s channels, maybe it is time these ideas were put into action.

Another consideration within this argument, is that companies that make and distribute junk food should not be able to sponsor children’s sporting programs such as AusKick, Milo Cricket and Little Athletics. In the AFL alone 8 of their corporate sponsors are companies that sell junk food or alcohol. Both healthy and unhealthy eating habits are formed for life at a young age, if there was stricter control over the advertising of junk food, young children would not see it on an almost daily basis and would be less inclined to feel that fast foods and other sugary foods should be a regular part of their diet.

We’ve all seen these extremely powerful adverts on television where dangerous behaviours are formed due to children mimicking their parents. The importance of parents’ behaviour regarding alcohol, domestic violence and driving and how easily children imitate their parents has been made clear on television by the Victorian Government.

Similar advertisements should be aired to show parents that their eating habits also effect their children. Whilst these kinds of messages are confronting, it differs from having warnings on junk food as it would aim to encourage parents to eat more healthily for their children, encouraging good behaviour, rather than causing guilt for eating unhealthily. Finally, instead of putting warning labels on junk food, maybe supermarkets can stop selling 600ml bottles of coke for $3.55 and 2L bottles for only $2.90. People are regularly tricked into consuming more than an average serve of soft drink when they are marketed and priced this way.

The recommended daily sugar intake is 9 teaspoons for men or 6 teaspoons for women. The 600ml bottle has 15 teaspoons of sugar in it. That cheaper 2L bottle of Coke has 53 teaspoons of sugar in it.An alternative to warning labels on junk food could be clearly displaying more detailed and easy to interpret nutritional information on food packaging, with emphasis on the sugar, salt and fat content; or possibly visual representations showing the amount of sugar. Consumers could easily see this information and process what it means for the food’s nutritional value. Shoppers need to be able to make informed decisions, rather than having graphic images confronting them and their families as they do the weekly shop.

It is very clear that we cannot just slap a warning label on junk food and hope that it will miraculously decrease obesity rates in Australia. What if a warning label was put on everything that could potentially harm us or increase our weight? Let’s put a picture of a guy in his 30s sitting on a beanbag in his mother’s basement on the case of video games Let’s put images of car crashes on the side of cars. Let’s put pictures of obese people on all furniture.

Silly suggestions aren’t they, and that’s why graphic warning labels are not the solution to Australia’s obesity problems. We need to educate Australians about proper nutrition and make them aware of the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Advertising of junk food needs to be regulated more strictly and consumers need to be aware of what goes into the food they purchase. Only when these things happen will obesity rates decrease, not when warning labels are put on food packaging.

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