National Women's Health Policy

Obesity

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Major changes in Australians’ diet and physical activity levels has led to an increasing proportion of the population being overweight or obese. The 2007–08 National Health Survey found that 55 per cent of females (and 68 per cent of males) were overweight or obese88, up from 49 per cent of females in the 1995 survey.89

Obesity is identified by the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health as the primary cause of chronic illness in Australian women. 90 It is estimated that in Australia obesity causes 23.8 per cent of Type 2 diabetes, 21.3 per cent of cardiovascular disease, 24.5 per cent of osteoarthritis, and 20.5 per cent of colorectal, breast, uterine and kidney cancers.91

Australians also gain weight over the course of their lives, with some life stages, including pregnancy, presenting an increased risk of weight gain. There is increasing prevalence of obesity in young women92, with the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health finding that younger women are now putting on weight at an increased rate compared to past generations, meaning they may be substantially heavier by middle age.93 This study has also found that women who have had a baby put on a greater amount of weight over a 10 year period than those who did not. This difference was not explained by differences in energy balance or sociodemographic variables.94

It is important to consider why so many Australians are finding it hard to lead physically active lives and adopt healthy dietary behaviour, which in turn impact on their weight. Australian experts have identified time pressure and car reliance as the two most important social trends underlying the rising Australian rates of obesity.95

While overweight and obesity rates have increased for the whole population, particular groups of women have higher rates. Obesity is more common among individuals facing greater social disadvantage; with the rate for the most disadvantaged women being nearly double that of the least disadvantaged women.96 Some evidence suggests that women living on a low income are more likely to live in environments that do not support healthy living. Poorer neighbourhoods generally have more fast food outlets and fewer full-sized supermarkets, fewer fitness facilities and public green spaces, which may limit physical activity.97 If women are to adopt healthier behaviours, policies and programs should consider social and financial barriers to health.

Rates of obesity increase with remoteness. Australians living in remote areas have the highest rates of obesity, compared to people in outer regional, inner regional and major city areas.98 This difference in prevalence between rural and remote women is largely explained by individual-level sociodemographic factors, such as age, number of children, country of birth, education level, employment status and marital status.99

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are around 1.5 times more likely than non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women to be overweight or obese.100

Lesbian and same sex attracted women have higher rates of obesity and overweight (49 per cent) than in the general female population (38 per cent).101