Cook Islands Has Highest Obesity Rate In The World

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Nutritionist: "Highly complex issue to deal with’

By Cameron Scott

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, May 14, 2015) – The Cook Islands has the highest levels of obesity in the world.

That’s according to the latest World Health Organisation figures which show that 50.8 per cent of Cook Islanders are obese, as are 45 per cent of the inhabitants of Palau and Nauru and 43 per cent of those of Samoa, Tonga and Niue.

Cook Islands Public Health Department nutritionist Karen Tairea says the fact that this country has high obesity levels is no surprise, though in the past, this country has been edged out by other Pacific countries such as Nauru and in an earlier survey this year, was rated third.

She says obesity is a huge problem in the Cook Islands, complicated by the fact that it is a highly complex issue to deal with.

That’s because it involves so many different components including peoples’ attitudes towards food and eating. There are also physiological and lifestyle issues, Tairea says.

"Over the years there has been a huge shift to eating more convenience foods and really, it is unrealistic to expect people to slip back to more healthy eating habits.

"The thing is, you’re not just dealing with one product like tobacco or with one provider. It involves a whole lot of products and you can’t just remove one and make any difference.

"Manufacturers are adding things to foods to make them more appealing, and that contributes to obesity as well.

"The local food environment comes into it as well. For instance some of the meals sold at the market and various places for fundraising are big enough for two or three people. But people buy them, then they feel they have to eat everything on the plate."

And Tairea says the Cook Islands is certainly not alone in having to deal with high obesity levels.

"I read a magazine article the other day which said not one country in the world has so far managed to reduce its obesity levels.

"Worldwide, countries are struggling for answers."

Public Health holds regular campaigns to raise awareness of the health issues surrounding obesity and to help Cook Islanders make healthier food choices, Tairea says.

"But it seems as soon as food products are given a ‘healthy’ tag, the food industry takes advantage of it and the price goes up. For instance nu has now become known as a ‘super food’, so the price increases. It’s all about marketing.

"But in fact, if you have a generally healthy diet, it’s all you need; you don’t need the so-called ‘super foods’."

Tairea says changing peoples’ thinking regarding diet requires long term lifestyle and attitude changes.

"If it is going to be successful, it’s a journey that isn’t going to end. What actually happens is that people start eating healthy food for a while, but then they quit. We’re good at starting to eat healthy food, but we’re not so good at keeping at it."

While Public Health is at the forefront of combatting obesity in the Cook Islands, Tairea says the Ministry of Education is also very active in promoting healthy living from a young age.

"There are programmes in schools to promote healthy foods and healthy living is included in the school curriculum. The Red Cross is also involved.

"But we still need more people to come aboard so help spread the word."

Meanwhile, WHO says the Pacific now is in the midst of an NCD (non-communicable disease) crisis and the problem appears to be intensifying.

Earlier this week the organisation’s Pacific Health Systems and policy team leader, Dr Ezekiel Nukuro, told Radio New Zealand that NCDs now account for about three out of every four deaths reported in the Pacific Islands.

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