Dangers in war on fat, says expert
July 4, 2004
by Rebecca Walsh, NZ Herald

New Zealand's anti-obesity message risks encouraging dangerous dieting among women and could increase eating disorders, a researcher says.

Dr Maree Burns, who completed her PhD research in psychology at Auckland University and now works in England, said women who were already concerned with being thin justified their radical diets as healthy because they were getting rid of fat.

"By focusing on the 'appearance of health' - that is, being a certain weight - health promotion messages are unintentionally supporting unhealthy behaviour," she said.

About one in three New Zealand children is overweight or obese. The figure for adults is about one in two.

Excess weight is associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and some types of cancer.

Dr Burns, whose research has been published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, studied the public health messages aimed at tackling the obesity epidemic with media coverage and material promoted by the food, fashion and cosmetic industries.

She interviewed health workers and 15 women with bulimia.

"What emerged from my study was that women believe a healthy body is slender and 'fat-free'. These women with bulimia were meticulous in regulating their body's energy intake and expenditure and despite undertaking unhealthy practices to do this, they rationalised such practices as healthy because they were getting rid of fat."

Dr Burns said public health messages focused on the danger to the individual and the national health of being overweight.

But in the rush to get the message out the advice had been oversimplified and the emphasis on weight loss for health was often interpreted as a dieting message. It was also used by commercial industries to sell products.

"These messages around obesity don't just affect people with eating difficulties. They affect all of us. They make people who are fat feel terrible about being fat and make others who aren't, afraid of becoming fat."

Jane Tyrer, co-ordinator of the Eating Difficulties Education Network in Auckland, said it was seeing increasing numbers of young women who claimed not to be dieting but to be eating "healthily" - that sometimes meant half an apple, some yoghurt and raisins.

Last month the Christchurch-based Eating Awareness Team reported a 50 per cent rise in the past year in the number of people seeking help for eating disorders and attributed much of that to the "scare tactics" used in relation to obesity.

Dr Robyn Toomath, spokeswoman for Fight the Obesity Epidemic, said her group supported change at a "higher level", for example by removing advertising for high-calorie foods from television and taxing fatty foods.

Celia Murphy, executive director of the Obesity Action Coalition, said obesity had serious consequences and the issue had to be dealt with.

Growing problem
About one in two New Zealand adults and one in three children are overweight or obese.

Overseas studies suggest the number of young women who suffer bulimia is 3 to 5 per cent of the population.

A Christchurch-based study found bulimia affected 4.5 per cent of women aged 18-24.