On our first recent trip to Australia, I could hardly wait sighting our first kangaroo, hopefully with a joey (baby) in its pouch. They did not disappoint, nor did the adorable but totally inert Koala bears, cockatoos with designer plumage (who talked back to me), wombats which looked like horizontal furry fireplugs and the platypus, first seen in a 2nd grade book on mammals that lay eggs.
But what I did not expect to see were obese Australians. My uninformed image of the sheep rancher in the outback, the crocodile wrestler, or surfer barely escaping shark attacks made me assume that all Australians were lean, muscular, vigorous, tall and wind-burned. And in the first city we visited, Sydney, this was largely true. No sheep ranchers were in sight but the crowds of men and women going off to work in their suits, briefcases, and sleek hairdos were by and large thin or of normal weight. They walked fast and looked like they spent some of their leisure time in gyms, or running or biking.
However, in conversations with some health writers, including physicians, at meetings my husband and I attended, I quickly learned that the low BMIs (body mass indexes) of Sydney residents were atypical. “Just wait until you get into the suburbs, small towns and other cities,” they told me. “Then you will see how fat we Australians are becoming.” And indeed, not only were their observations accurate, they were also reinforced by daily newspaper accounts about the obesity race Australians were about to win. Even though we Americans still rank number one in our prevalence of obese adults and children, the reports stated that obesity was increasing at a much higher rate in Australia than in the States. And children, according to one long weekend newspaper article, were becoming so heavy, that it was hard for some of them to walk.
One of the reasons given for the rapid rise in weight gain was to enable Australians to disguise themselves as Americans when they traveled abroad, but my nutritionist /health writer acquaintances described other causes as well:
• Too large portion sizes (although not as large as ours)
• Little awareness that excessive calorie intake will caused weight gain.” People seem not to understand that eating a fast-food lunch of 2500 calories will affect their weight,” one health journalist told me. “People just think they are getting more for their money.”
• Too much sugar in their beverages, both hot and cold. Australians love their coffee, which is understandable as it is superb, and are more likely to add sugar to their drink rather than a non-calorie sweetener. And they drink many fizzy, sugar and fruit-flavored drinks along with sugar- filled sodas.
• Butter is consumed like water. “Watch how we eat our bread and rolls,” another told me. “We slather it on, carefully covering the entire surface of a piece of toast or roll and would be horrified if bread were not served with butter. “ She was right. At the various dinner-lecture evenings we attended, I noticed that everyone split opened their roll and carefully used up the two pats of butter placed next to their plate. And at the ubiquitous breakfast buffets, the toast had a thick layer of butter before being layered with several slices of fatty bacon and/or sausage.
• Snack foods are very high in fat as well as sugar. Our low or fat-free starchy snacks like pretzels, rice crackers, and popcorn are not that common and people will, for example, eat scones, pastry tarts, doughnuts, and turnovers with an afternoon cup of coffee.
• As in the U.S., too little exercise is also linked to obesity among adults and children. Long commuting times and work hours, lack of physical education in schools, and disinterest in playtime for children adds up to a sedentary life style.
Advice on stopping and reverse obesity was similar to those in the States: cut out sugar, increase physical activity, and eat less meat (they are great meat consumers). Also, consume more fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products and low- fat dairy foods. But none of these recommendations addressed what I was told was the major contributing factor to obesity: alcohol intake.
Everyone I asked told me that many Australians might drink a bottle of wine every night at dinner and then really drink over weekends. A physician friend said that binge drinking was common and not just among the young.
A young female wellness advocate said that she is pressured to drink excessively when out with friends. She went on to tell me that no one talks about the calories people consume from alcohol. It is rarely mentioned as a cause of obesity. And no attempt is made to decrease alcohol intake to promote weight loss. “The reason,” she went on before I could ask, “is that drinking is a cultural thing. It is who we are, what we do, and people are not willing to change. They focus on cutting out sugar even though that has 4 calories per gram and alcohol has 7. ”
She was right. Scanning articles suggesting ways of losing weight, I found all the familiar 21st century recommendations such as eating gluten-free foods, drinking smoothies made of lemon juice, kale, and kangaroo tail (no, not really), avoiding all sugar, fasting and feasting diets, and lap banding, an increasingly popular form of bariatric surgery to shrink the stomach.
After spending only two weeks in Australia, I hardly qualify as an expert on any aspect of their obesity problems. It took me almost this long to learn how to order coffee (black, white, long, flat white). But I suspect that just as with the U.S., the medical and financial costs of obesity will bring about changes, even in the current untouchable aspects of their butter, meat and alcohol intake. If not, most of the population will end up looking like wombats.