The number of obese Australian adults is estimated to be as high as 3.3 million and the number of overweight but not obese around 5.6 million, according to a bulletin released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
And the prevalence of obesity rose alarmingly in only 10 years over the 1990s-by 71% for men, and 80% for women.
The bulletin, A growing problem: Trends and patterns in overweight and obesity 1980 to 2001, draws together data from all relevant national surveys conducted since 1980.
It shows that at least 16% of men and 17% of women aged 18 and over were obese, with a further 42% of men and 25% of women being overweight but not obese.
Report co-author Anne-Marie Waters said that these percentages underestimated the true extent of the problem because they were based on self-reported height and weight data.
'We know that people tend to overestimate their height, and underestimate their weight', Ms Waters said.
'The raw self-reported figure shows 2.4 million Aussies as obese, but we estimate that the actual figure is 3.3 million.'
'This estimate is backed up by survey data based on measured height and weight, which show an 80% increase in prevalence of obesity in men aged 25-64 years in just over two decades (the 1980s and 90s), and a 150% increase for women.'
The AIHW bulletin also gives trends in abdominal obesity between 1989 and 2001, as measured by waist circumference. It shows similar sharp rises in the prevalence of abdominal obesity over the 12 years (50% rise in male prevalence, 75% rise in female prevalence). Excess weight accumulated in the abdominal region is a good indicator of increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease.
The AIHW's Medical Adviser, Dr Paul Magnus, said that Australians should be concerned at the magnitude and speed of the rises in overweight and obesity in recent years, because of their significant health, social and economic impacts.
'But there is enormous scope to reverse the trend through environmental and lifestyle changes that enable and encourage increased physical activity and a healthier diet', Dr Magnus said.
'In terms of obesity and overweight we are now at the point where the USA was in 1995. Their self-reported obesity prevalence is now 21% compared to our 16%. We shouldn't allow ourselves to go down the same path'.
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