By the National Reporting Team’s Natasha Robinson
It is a national epidemic that leaves its sufferers trapped inside their own bodies; isolated, depressed and misunderstood.
Obesity affects almost a quarter of Australians, but help can be almost impossible to find.
Renee Gilbert and her sister Zoe cannot ever remember a time their weight was normal.
“I was bullied from basically kindergarten until I finished year 12, just because I wasn’t as skinny as all the other girls in my year,” Zoe said.
“It was bringing me down, I thought I was worthless and not worth anything, and it just got too much.”
Australia’s powerful coalition of presidents of medical colleges is issuing a call to arms — a coordinated national approach to combat obesity is needed, and it is needed now.
It is a message that Renee and Zoe strongly endorse.
“You can’t get any help from the Government or the community, there needs to be more facilities and more support,” Renee said.
Federal Government efforts in recent years have focussed on the promotion of physical activity and voluntary food star rating system criticised as heavily flawed.
Chair of the Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges (CPMC) Professor Nick Talley has authored an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia today that says the lack of a coordinated national policy is unacceptable.
“It’s been bits and pieces. We need a plan, we need a strategy, we need a multi-pronged approach to a difficult problem,” Professor Talley said.
The Council of Presidents of Medical Colleges of Australia, which incorporates Australia’s 15 specialist medical colleges, developed a six-point plan following a summit last November to deal with the obesity crisis.
But since then, the policy vacuum has still not been filled and the college presidents are now calling for the Federal Government to adopt the plan as national policy.
“We’re offering an idea, obviously it can be modified by Government — that’s fine,” he said.
“But we need to put something in place, it should be a national priority.”
Australia lacks national-level obesity strategy
Jane Martin, the executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition, welcomed the push from the medical colleges.
“Australia is really running behind on obesity prevention policy,” she said.
“We don’t have a strategy at a national level to deal with this really serious issue. Education campaigns alone are not enough.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull indicated last week that preventative health would be a renewed focus of the Federal Government, and newly-appointed Health Minister Greg Hunt was also indicating strong commitment to tackling obesity rates, particularly in children.
“As a parent, I know the challenges that mums and dads face each day to keep kids active and eating healthy food,” Mr Hunt said.
“If we don’t instil healthy habits in our children they will be putting their long-term health at risk.
“We all know that exercise and a healthy lifestyle have both physical and mental benefits.
“That’s why preventative health is a focus of the Turnbull Government and is a central part of my National Health Plan.”
Fast food restaurants everywhere
In Narellan in far south-western Sydney, Renee and Zoe are among the one-fifth of residents that are obese.
The region — 60 kilometres west of central Sydney — contains rates of overweight and obesity that soar above inner-city areas of all of Australia’s major cities.
The girls were brought up by a single mother who worked hard to put food on the table but that food was often take-away and cheap fast food.
“When you go out to a shopping centre you see all these fast food restaurants,” Zoe said.
“You might see one salad place, but the cost of it is more for the healthy option than it is for the unhealthy option.”
Late last year, Renee and Zoe’s mother — also obese — was told in plain terms that if she did not take action to reduce her weight, she faced the prospect of losing her job.
It galvanised the entire family to take action. Three months ago, they joined the Live Longer program run by the Southwest Wellness Centre in Narellan. Between them, they have lost 30 kilograms in three months.
Clients ‘scared, overwhelmed’ about starting
The program combines dietetics, personal training, physiotherapy, psychology, and occupational therapy to support obese clients who want to change their habits.
The services are bulk-billed under Medicare chronic disease and diabetes funding packages.
But coordinating the service with the public health system has been a frustrating task, said the centre’s manager Rebecca Styles.
A nearby obesity clinic in a public hospital has a two-year-long waiting list and despite the huge demand for services, its services have been scaled back in recent years by the State Government.
“The biggest challenge is, the Government has some great ideas at a policy level … but unfortunately the execution of those ideas isn’t getting down to the general person,” Ms Styles said.
“It’s extremely difficult for most of our clients to take that first step. Most people are petrified when they walk in here. They’re really scared and overwhelmed about starting.”
“We have a saying here that gold medals aren’t won without a team supporting the Olympians to get there, yet our everyday people and people suffering with chronic illness, they don’t tend to get that level of support.
“The reality is you need a team of people to really support them, like the Olympians winning gold, this is kind of their gold, and they need a team of people with them.”
Renee and Zoe said they were not focused on the scale but simply wanted to feel comfortable inside their own skin.
“This is the best thing I ever did,” Renee said.
“Yes, I was petrified when I first started because I tend to automatically think the worst of a situation I haven’t been in before.
“And I was thinking, ‘What if no-one likes me, what if it doesn’t work?’.
“It’s always the what-ifs that make me not want to do anything.
“Once I met all the lovely ladies and men in here, I felt comfortable and safe and it’s the best thing I ever did.”
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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