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Bellinda Kontominas, Medical Reporter
February 23, 2007

WE MAY have produced such fine athletic specimens as Cathy Freeman, Ian Thorpe and Brett Lee, but it seems Australia has also produced a nation of fatties.

The dubious honour has been handed down by the Forbes organisation, which released its list of the fattest countries based on body mass index, a measure of weight relative to height.

Australia weighed in at 21st, with almost 70 per cent of the population considered overweight or obese, based on recent estimates from the World Health Organisation.

The WHO defines overweight as a body mass index greater than or equal to 25 and obese greater than or equal to 30.

Of the top 10 countries on the list, eight were from the South Pacific, with Nauru tipping the scales in first position with 94 per cent of its adult population overweight.

The US was ninth with 74 per cent overweight and Britain was 28th with almost 64 per cent of its population overweight.

There are 1.6 billion overweight adults in the world, according to the WHO, which projects the number will grow by 40 per cent in the next 10 years.

Dr Michael Booth, a senior research fellow at the National Health and Medical Research Council, said there was no doubt obesity had become a world-wide trend.

"Just because other countries are doing just as badly as us doesn't mean we shouldn't be very worried about it," he said. "It just means that we are all going to be sick and die a lot earlier together."

Dr Booth said Australia's rich food supply, "relatively unregulated advertising environment" and love of gadgets and machinery that encourage sedentary behaviour had contributed to the obesity epidemic.

The director of the Melbourne-based International Diabetes Institute, Professor Paul Zimmet, said obesity led to Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and sleep disorders which cost the country billions of dollars each year.

"The obesity epidemic has the potential to cripple entire health budgets if we don't do something about it now," he said.

Experts were divided on the accuracy of using body mass index to measure weight among the world's population.

Dr Booth said the index was an adequate measure for large population studies, however Dr Louise Hardy, a researcher at the NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity at the University of Sydney, said using the body mass index was based on a European body type and not accurate for other builds.
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