New Zealand slashes obesity levels

Wellington, New Zealand - New Zealand has become one of the first developed countries in which obesity increases are slowing, senior health officials said on Wednesday, attributing the achievement to government programs that promote healthier diets and lifestyles.

More than half of New Zealand's 4 million people are either overweight or obese, including more than 30 percent of its children, according to a Health Ministry survey released on Wednesday.

The survey, titled "Portrait of Health," found a reduced growth in the rate of obesity from 2003 to 2007.

It said 26.5 percent of adults are now obese and 36.2 percent overweight. Only 36.1 percent were classified as being of average weight.

"We were anticipating a rapid increase" in obesity levels, Director General of Health Dr Stephen McKernan said.

"What this survey shows is that the rate of rapid increase is declining."

"We know other countries are looking at us with a high level of interest" because of the slowdown in obesity rates, he said.

The government has launched healthy eating programs - including purging school cafeterias of fat and sugar-laden food and drinks - as well as exercise and fitness programs, and has curbed advertising of soft drinks and fast food during children's TV viewing times.

The campaigns, launched in 2006, are part of a four-year effort to slash obesity levels.

Messages that good food and regular exercise are very important are beginning to affect people's attitudes, McKernan said, "but we can do a lot better."

Sandy Dawson, the Health Ministry's chief clinical adviser, said New Zealand "is among the first to report this degree of success in tackling the obesity epidemic."

He said Sweden recently reported a similar slowdown in the growth of obesity among children.

Health Minister David Cunliffe said the obesity slowdown was "good news, sort of."

"It's good that we are ahead of the international curve in slowing the rate of increase and it's almost stable," he said.

"We want it to go the other way. It's still too big."

McKernan said chronic diseases are the single biggest health issue the country faces in the next few decades, with several linked to obesity. - Sapa-AP

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