Hal Swerissen

About 60% of local adults are  overweight or obese and the problem is getting worse, not better. Overwhelmingly, the evidence indicates that being obese increases risk of premature death. And yet policies to reduce obesity have been startlingly unsuccessful. Instead obesity is increasingly accepted, normalised and celebrated.

Overweight Adults in Hepburn Shire by weight category

Hepburn Shire
Central Highlands













Overweight or obese




Source: Hepburn Shire Baseline Report, 2021

Why is this happening?

The main cause of the obesity epidemic is our changed food environment. The decline in physical activity matters too, but less so. Industrialised food production, distribution and marketing are making us fat. Australia now has an ‘obesogenic‘ environment characterised by high levels of processed food, heavy on added fat and sugar, animal products and refined carbohydrates, pre-prepared and delivered to your door or car window, or packaged for your super market trolley.

Why haven’t we fixed the problem?

None of this will come as much of a surprise. But why has public policy to address obesity been such a monumental failure?

The biggest problem is that there has been too much emphasis on individuals managing their own weight and not enough focus on the environment that led to weight gain in the first place. Obesity is more and more seen as a disease. While making obesity a disease avoids blaming individuals, it also takes pressure off the social, cultural and economic factors that have produced the obesogenic environment.

Not surprisingly, being overweight and obese is becoming normalised. The body weight explosion has led to social and political movements objecting to body shaming, denigration and discrimination and there is a growing fat pride movement promoting obesity.

Paradoxically, as food industrialisation has dominated the landscape, we have seen cooking and eating become performance art and fodder for ideology. Television chefs, celebrity recipe books and arty cuisine restaurants abound.

Rethinking the problem

Doing more of the same is tantamount to accepting that we have given up on obesity. Instead, we need to think about obesity as a symptom of an unsustainable model of food production and distribution.

Today the global food industry is vast, concentrated and powerful. Huge conglomerates like Bayer shape agriculture. A limited set of large companies like Cargill, Archer Daniels and Nestle dominate food production. Major retail chains control food distribution. The food industry shapes and creates consumer demand for convenient, energy dense food high in salt, sugar and fat.

The industry depends on ever increasing consumer demand to maintain growth and profitability. Super markets, drive through pick ups, online ordering, home delivery, convenient packaging, taste and product reformulation are all innovations to drive greater demand, particularly for high preference easy to eat high fat, high salt and high sugar food.

Where to from here?

At any one time 60% of us are trying to lose weight – with only limited success. Putting the load on individuals to tackle the obesity pandemic is not going to work.

If we want to reduce obesity, we need to better manage our food supply and make it easier to make healthy choices. A sustainable food policy should reduce the availability of unhealthy foods, particularly highly processed fatty, salty and sugary food and increase the availability of healthy food, particularly fruits and vegetables.

Markets, shops, restaurants and cafes will need to focus more on serving fruits and vegetables and much less on highly processed, salty, fatty and sugary food, particularly for children if we want to tackle the weight explosion. That will mean local pressure for planning schemes to promote the availability of healthy food outlets and prevent the spread of unhealthy fast food and the ‘uberisation’ of the food supply.

Inevitably, there will be arguments that individual choice should not be restricted by ‘woke advocates’ and the ‘nanny state’.  But in reality choice is heavily shaped by marketing and promotion and communities have always regulated marketing, production and distribution of products to minimise harm. When nearly two thirds of adults and a quarter of children are overweight or obese it is time to start putting regulations and incentives in place to better manage our food supply.

Hal Swerissen is a local resident and Emeritus Professor of Public Health at La Trobe University