Australia vies with Pacific, U.S. to be fattest

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia is on track to become the fattest nation, although experts questioned on Friday whether it had overtaken the United States and small Pacific countries for the unenviable title.

A woman eats her lunch at an outdoor cafe in Sydney, September 6, 2005. REUTERS/Will Burgess

Around 4 million Australian adults, or 26 percent of the population, were obese, eclipsing the 25 percent rate in the United States, a study by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute released in Melbourne said.

“If we ran a fat Olympics we’d be gold medal winners as the fattest people on earth at the moment,” Institute preventative cardiology head Professor Simon Stewart told the Age newspaper.

The report, Australia’s Future Fat Bomb, to be presented to a government inquiry into the nation’s obesity problem on Friday, said 70 percent of men and 60 percent of women aged 45 to 65 were technically overweight or obese.

In total, 9 million people were too heavy -- almost half the 21 million population -- and 123,000 were at risk of early death over the next 20 years, the study said.

While the report said Australia had overtaken the United States as the fattest nation on the planet, recent U.S. studies show around 34 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.

And small Pacific nations top World Health Organization lists, with 94.5 percent of people in tiny Nauru classed as overweight, leading to chronic diabetes problems on the island.

The Federated States of Micronesia (91.1 percent), the Cook Islands (90.9 percent), Tonga (90.8 percent) and Niue (81.7 percent) rounded out the WHO top five, while the United States came in at number nine, with 74.1 percent overweight or obese.

Australia came in at only 21, behind countries such as New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina, Greece and Kuwait, according to WHO.

In all, there are currently 1.6 billion overweight adults in the world, a number that is expected to grow by 40 percent over the next decade, according to the World Health Organization.

Nutrition expert Rosemary Stanton said while Australia may not lead the world, it did need to take urgent action to address growing obesity and re-think failed health messages.

“We’ve got to somehow or other get a message across. We’ve got to start taking this very seriously, rather than just talking about it,” Stanton said, pointing the finger at “huge resistance” in the processed and fast food industries.

Editing by Alex Richardson