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Public health study finds that Australian children have poor diets.

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Monday 7 July 2003

Public health study finds that Australian children have poor diets


MARK COLVIN: The future of Australia is short and fat. In a land of plenty, like Australia, it seems extraordinary that a new public health study should show many children growing up in this country suffering from malnutrition. 


But stranger still, is the finding that those same under-nourished children, although on average shorter than their healthier peers, are also obese. It seems that as Australia's children get fatter, a lack of nutritious food is also stunting their growth. 


Nick Grimm reports.  


EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM: Last year, a great number of children asked questions about food. It seems that eating is a popular subject.  


NICK GRIMM: The recipe for healthy kids used to call for sunshine, fresh air, and plenty to eat - and Australia had it all in abundance. Where once the challenge for health authorities was to ensure that disadvantaged children got anything to eat at all, in recent times, most Australian kids have been spoilt for choice, as this educational program from the 1970s acknowledges. 


EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM: Why do people put on weight when they eat, and why do some children eat more than others? 


NICK GRIMM: But now, the old problem of childhood malnutrition appears to be back, with a new study by researchers at the University of Sydney finding that children living in poor areas are two centimetres shorter than the national average. 


But finding a solution to the problem is harder than simply feeding those children more. The problem is complicated by the fact that those same children suffering slower growth are also obese. 


JENNY O'DEA: The very poorest children tended to be the fattest, but also tended to be shorter than the other children.  


Nutritionist Jenny O'dea has published her research in the Medical Journal of Australia. 


JENNY O'DEA: And I think this is a bit of a wake-up call, that in Australia where we think out children are well-fed, the poorest children are not getting the right kind of food on several different fronts. 


NICK GRIMM: So, in essence, what we're seeing is a new form of malnutrition developing? 


JENNY O'DEA: I think so. I think that's exactly what it is. It's a type of malnutrition where the child is fed lots of calories - it's not nutritious and it's probably making them fat. Chips, for example, give the child a lot of calories but it won't give them anything that makes them grow taller.  


So they need foods that give them protein and vitamins and iron and calcium. They need the energy, they need the calories, but you have to make sure that you're giving them something that will help them grow. 


NICK GRIMM: Dr Simon Clarke is the Medical Director of the Adolescent Medical Unit at Sydney's Westmead Hospital. He says the new evidence linking obesity with malnutrition is surprising. 


SIMON CLARKE: Well, they're just absolutely the wrong foods being given to these children. You see that in developing countries, actually, where you see them on a high carbohydrate diet, but mostly from squash and pumpkin and potato. And in fact they come in oedematous because they don't have sufficient protein in their body to retain their body fluids. 


NICK GRIMM: And Dr Simon Clarke fears the long-term consequences of the health problems linked to childhood obesity could see life expectancies decline as Australians become unhealthier. 


SIMON CLARKE: I suspect this childhood obesity is going to take us two generations to get under control, and that the kids who are obese will have to struggle with it for most of their lives. 


NICK GRIMM: Okay, what are the long-term health problems associated with obesity? 


SIMON CLARKE: The worse one, I think really, is the diabetes, which is starting so early now that they use to talk in terms of Type 1 and Type II diabetes, and now they're just talking in terms of Type… of diabetes. And then the high blood pressure, and then the heart conditions… 


NICK GRIMM: You talk about problems like high blood pressure, I mean, could we see the phenomenon emerge where instead of the average life expectancy rate getting higher, as it has done for decades, that we could see movement in the opposite direction? 


SIMON CLARKE: Well, that is a real fear, and it has been verbalised before that this current generation may die well before their parents. You know, we really are in unknown country here, and it's very worrying. 


MARK COLVIN: Dr Simon Clarke, Head of the Adolescent Medical Unit at Sydney's Westmead Hospital, talking to Nick Grimm