OPINION: Obesity: what the maps don’t tell us

BIGGER PROBLEM: Suburbs in western Sydney exceed the national obesity average and the reasons are complex.
BIGGER PROBLEM: Suburbs in western Sydney exceed the national obesity average and the reasons are complex.

A lot of people in western Sydney over-eat and under-exercise – according to the Australian Health Tracker website. Obesity is a major problem in our region.

Yet obesity in Sydney’s western suburbs is not as bad as in many parts of NSW. There are 33 local government areas (LGAs) in the state where more than 40 per cent of adults are obese. All are in rural and regional areas. However, obesity in western Sydney is still a big problem according to maps generated by Health Tracker.

Our obesity hot spots are in the very outer suburbs. In Camden LGA 34 per cent of adults are estimated to be obese, while Campbelltown LGA records 33 per cent obesity, Penrith LGA 32 per cent and Wollondilly LGA 31 per cent.

Slightly lower levels of obesity are recorded in areas a little bit to the east with 30 per cent of adults from Blacktown, Liverpool and Holroyd LGAs estimated to be obese.

Closer in, obesity rates in adults drop to the mid-low 20s. For Parramatta LGA the estimate is 25 per cent and for Auburn LGA 22 per cent.

What does this pattern mean? Could you shed a few kilos simply by moving your residence from, say, Penrith to Auburn? Probably not. Obesity is not something you catch from your neighbours.

Using maps to uncover the causes of disease goes way back. The most famous ‘geography of disease’ story concerns English physician John Snow.

The good doctor mapped the addresses of cholera victims in London in 1854 and traced the disease to water pumps that drew from wells infected by faecal bacteria. 

The mapping of disease became common over the next century as epidemiologists searched for the causes of malaria, cancers, heart diseases, even mental illness.

But simple cause and effect relationships were not always obvious. Higher rates of schizophrenia in poor neighbourhoods in US cities, for example, were found to be caused not by poverty but by the drift of those with the illness to neighbourhoods where accommodation was affordable and the public a little more tolerant. Schizophrenia doesn’t target the poor any more than it affects the wealthy.

So what’s with the geography of obesity in Sydney Overall the Health Tracker estimates that 28 per cent of the nation’s adults are obese. By and large, suburbs in western Sydney exceed this national average while Sydney’s northern, inner and eastern suburbs have obesity rates lower than average.

Clearly there is something complex going on here, more than can be explained by simple cause and effect observations drawn from a map.

Sure the maps are very important. They show health authorities where to target their efforts: education, diet and exercise programs and facilities, there’s stuff to be getting on with.

But perhaps the obesity problem needs confronting by everyone living in western Sydney, fat or not. Our region boasts the quality of our food culture to the wider world. If you want great cuisine, cooked from fresh, healthy ingredients, then eat from a western Sydney kitchen.

Italian, Greek, Slavic, Indian, Latin American, Chinese, Vietnamese, Lebanese, and so on, each wave of migration has added wonderful ways of enjoying healthy food in the western suburbs.

We have no excuse. We should be known as the home of the world’s great cuisines and for the way we nurture fresh food supply chains, meaning good food is not just found in our cafes and restaurants but on the kitchen table at home. 

But this means turning away from the fast-food drive-throughs that line our roads, the giant food courts in our shopping malls, and the rows of snack foods and fizzy drink in our supermarkets.  

Maybe then western Sydney’s large waistlines will disappear from Sydney’s obesity map.

Professor Phillip O’Neill, director 

Centre for Western Sydney

Western Sydney University