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The 'paradox' of Canberra's high rate of overweight, obese residents

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It could be your neighbour, a work colleague or someone close to you, but ACT and national data indicate as many as six in 10 Canberrans are overweight or obese.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published recently shows the ACT was the fourth-most overweight "primary health network" area in the country.

It measured Canberrans as slightly lower overall weight then residents of Western Sydney, but more overweight or obese than Gold Coast residents, illustrating what Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly has called the "ACT's paradox" of health.

The ACT government has been undertaking for the past three years wide-ranging changes and programs to address the issue, under the Healthy Weight Initiative, and it seems to be close to achieving the initiative's overarching goal of "zero growth" in the rate of overweight or obese Canberrans.

While the statistics vary in methodology and how recently the snapshots were taken, the most recent figures from the institute show a marginal improvement in the rate since the initiative began, down from 63.6 per cent in 2013 to 63.5 per cent about 18 months later.

Dr Kelly, who cites obesity and overweight rates as one of Canberra's top chronic disease problems, said the institute's report showed mostly higher rates of obesity among regional and remote Australians and suburban areas more commonly linked to lower socio-economic status.

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"That's what I'd call the ACT's paradox, given our general level of wealth, higher education levels, our relatively clean environment and higher levels of active transport like cycling, we should be doing better than that," he said.

He also said other recent figures showing hotspots of higher obesity in Tuggeranong, the Oaks Estate and Belconnen could be the result of an older population in those areas, compared to Gungahlin's lower rate and higher proportion of younger families.

Dr Kelly said while it was too early to tell how successful the Healthy Weight Initiative had been, results showing no growth were promising. He believed more still needed to be done.

"We're taking an environmental approach, focussing on what we can achieve to make the places we live, eat and work healthier," he said.

"That includes doing things to encourage active transport to and from work and school, and in the early interim evaluation [of the program], there are some positive signs, that we are eating more fresh fruit and working with businesses and schools to expand on the healthy offerings in businesses and school canteens."

But Dr Kelly said many Canberrans were still not eating enough vegetables, and addressing junk food advertising was more difficult, partly because television advertising was outside the ACT government's control.

That was an issue that came to fore during the festive season, when the temptation to over-eat or eat more unhealthy foods could be great.

University of Canberra associate professor in nutritional science and Dieticians Association of Australia spokesman Duane Mellor said his key advice to people was to enjoy their food over the break, but consider the "great seasonal fresh foods available at this time of year".

"I'd say people should try and have at least half of their plate with salads, and try out different things, more leafy vegetables, oranges, nuts or roasted pumpkin for a bit more spice or to make it more festive," he said.

"One of the other challenges around this time is with chocolates and selection boxes, some people can take one and leave them.

"But other people might want to consider not denying themselves, but maybe putting it back in the cupboard after having one.

Similarly, ACT Health's women, youth and children's nutrition manager Pip Golley said there were always opportunities to eat healthier foods – from replacing chips for popcorn, baked pita bread chips or roasted chickpeas, to swapping soft drinks for plain sparkling mineral water with lemon slices.

While Ms Golley said the time of year was often linked to New Years' resolutions, she advised people to make resolutions to make lifestyle changes, like more hours of exercise a week or healthier eating, rather than setting weight loss targets.

"The weight loss will come if you put certain lifestyle changes in place, so for example, things we'd encourage people to do is to stock more nutritious foods from the five food groups, in their kitchens," she said.

"Other things that aren't specifically nutrition-related are just listening to your body when it's telling you when it's hungry, slowing down eating and planning to do some enjoyable exercise."

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