Public health campaign behind Ararat's transformation away from being one of Australia's fattest towns
The Victorian country town of Ararat has won a battle with obesity but it has not yet won the war.
A groundbreaking public health campaign focusing on education and physical activity, started after The Biggest Loser TV program came to town, has seen Ararat go from being one of the fattest towns in Australia to now being close to the national average.
The people of Ararat show that concerted focus, mentoring and motivation can change a whole community's behaviour, at least in the short-term.
According to Angela Hunt from Ararat Council, there are lessons here for all Australians.
"We have put a lot of effort into activity, physical activity ... now we are getting some gains there we have to keep going. We also have to put some focus on nutrition," Ms Hunt said.
For 40 years Australia has faced a weight and obesity epidemic, countered by public health campaigns like the Life Be In It ads of the 1970s. But in that time the obesity rates in Australia have doubled, and look likely to keep rising.
It is estimated that within 10 years, 70 per cent of all adult Australians will be overweight or obese, according to a recent report for the Federal Department of Health by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
There are massive associated health and welfare costs as a result of this epidemic.
More people now die from weight or obesity-related illnesses than die from smoking-related health conditions.
The projected cost of treating associated diseases, like cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and cancer, is $115 billion a year.
Decades-old pattern of eating more and doing less
Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says the cause of obesity is well known.
"Basically we're eating more food than we used to eat and we're less active than we used to be," Dr Stanton said.
That has been known for a long time – in a Four Corners episode broadcast nearly 35 years ago, the Australian Consumers Association's then-chief Allan Asher clearly stated the problem.
"The reason that so many Australians are overweight is that we eat too much. And the food that we do eat is too rich in energy," he said.
"Indeed processed foods today give us about two thirds of all the sugar that we eat – it's buried in processed foods."
There are powerful forces at work which do not want this to change, and the fast food and processed food industry is the multi-billion-dollar benefactor.
This year's federal budget also contained cuts to funding for preventative measures against diseases that result from obesity.
Ararat has shown that exercise can be effective in reducing weight, but ultimately its impact is limited without greater emphasis also being given to diet.
In modern Australia, that pits each person's human nature against a multi-billion-dollar industry with a massive advertising budget.
That current battle in the war against obesity is being fought out in the areas of labelling and marketing, with governments preferring a regime based on self-regulation.
Thirty years ago it was compulsory seatbelt wearing and then breath-testing; 10 years ago changes to smoking regulations were brought in – all of which have saved thousands of lives. Now unhealthy food is in the sights of the public health campaigners
Ararat's own Biggest Loser inspired weight loss competition
Ararat is in the East Grampians area of western Victoria. Its battle with obesity began last year when reality TV show The Biggest Loser came to town.
The town was chosen because population survey data from 2012 identified it as one of Australia's fattest communities.
The arrival of The Biggest Loser had an extraordinary effect. Not just the contestants, but the whole town – indeed the whole region – lost a dramatic amount of weight.
Over one six-month period Ararat achieved an average body mass index (BMI) better than the national average. However, the success was short-lived and waned after The Biggest Loser left.
So the local Ararat Council and former contestants got together to try to make the improvements permanent.
When the BMI data was last collected in June, Ararat was again heading in the right direction.
Ararat's transformation proves the crucial importance of our food environment and our communities in our nation's battle with the bulge.
The Biggest Loser is entertainment first. The show selected 14 contestants from Ararat to compete against each other for a weight loss prize.
The community got behind the competitors by losing weight themselves and raising winnings from the show's producers.
More than $140,000 was raised for Ararat. The contestants along with the local council formed a Kitty Committee to find ways to spend the cash to benefit the whole community.
Active8 was born – Ararat's very own Biggest Loser inspired weight loss competition.
The winners were announced on Saturday and will be revealed on Four Corners tonight