Only seven per cent of Australians are healthy. Why?
According to a 2017 study of almost 5000 Australians aged 19-85 by academics at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), very few Australians could be classified as ‘healthy’.
Using a Health Behaviour Score (HBS) measuring five health-related factors – three established (whether you’ve ever smoked; your diet; and your physical activity); and two emerging (sedentary time and hours of sleep) – the study measured overall health status by giving participants either a 1 or a 0 (and corresponding total out of 5) for each factor.
Only seven per cent of study participants achieved a perfect 5, and only around 30 per cent managed to achieve what is considered a “good” result (3 or 4 out of 5).
What isn’t explored in the study – but is strongly hinted at by the distribution of its results – is that a higher HBS score may be correlated with higher levels of education, and higher incomes.
Indeed, the seven per cent of perfect scores tended strongly to be university-educated young women in well-paying professions who had grown up a normal weight.
That education and income can have such a profound effect on an individual’s likelihood to be and remain healthy should be cause for alarm.
It shouldn’t be so difficult for 93 per cent of our population to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
And yet the reality of growing inequality, combined with a multi-billion-dollar weight-loss industry predicated on false hope, lies, and dodgy science, increasingly makes it so.
The latest data on obesity prevalence in Australia suggest there are increasing patterns of social disparities in obesity trends.
According to the National Preventive Health Agency (NPHA), the average Australian adult is now above a healthy weight. But this is not distributed evenly amongst the population.
Men are more likely than women to be overweight, but men and women have similar rates of obesity, suggesting that more women than men are likely to progress from being overweight to being obese.
Although the data is inconclusive, the NPHA suggest factors such as pregnancy, child-care responsibilities, as well as the onset of menopause all impact a woman’s ability to maintain a healthy lifestyle and weight.
The NPHA also found stark divides in terms of urban/rural, Indigenous/non-Indigenous, and high/low socioeconomic status.
That those with additional time, money, and access were more likely to be healthy should come as no surprise.
Costs associated with healthy eating can be a prohibitive barrier.
And that’s before we even get to the cost of a gym membership, or into a discussion of the fact that exercising itself requires a lot of free time, since it suggests you have enough free time in which to fit both workout- and leisure-time.
A 2010 Healthy Food Basket survey, for example, found that the estimated cost of a basket of healthy foods in different parts of Queensland was 26 per cent higher in remote areas than it was in major cities.
With less access to affordable fresh and healthy food, remote and rural Australians face real barriers to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Though these discrepancies should not be a surprise, they should still be cause for concern. Not only because increasing rates of obesity place a strain on Australia as a whole, but because we simply don’t seem to be putting two and two together.
Even the NPHA conclude that “obesity is caused by an imbalance between the amount of energy taken in through food and drink, and the amount of energy used by activities of daily life”.
But the limited view of energy in = energy out and that individuals are solely responsible for their own health is woefully inadequate considering the reality for 93 per cent of our population that healthy living is expensive, time-consuming, and confusing. That it is, in a word, unachievable.
Obscuring this fact attributes poor health to a wilful decision on the part of those who cannot access it.
This underlies the contempt most people have for obese and overweight people: “Why do they choose to be unhealthy?”
It underlies the inability of so many GPs to see past a patient’s weight and listen to what they are saying, and it intersects with and contributes to other ways of marginalising poor, Indigenous, rural, and women Australians.
By not focusing our studies of obesity on social disparity, we continue to see health as nothing more than a primary school-level equation rather than a complex reflection and perpetuation of the inequalities that already exist in our society. And that doesn’t add up to anything good.