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Obesity leads to very serious health problems, on a par with smoking. It substantially reduces life expectancy.

Harvard School of Public Health has an excellent summary of the associations between obesity and adult health.


Health risks for children

Obesity exposes children to some serious health risks – both physical and psychological. It also greatly increases their risk of becoming obese adults, with all the serious health effects that this brings.

Risks to children’s physical health include

  • asthma and breathing problems during sleep
  • liver disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • high blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease
  • menstrual problems and early periods in girls
  • problems with bones, joints and muscles.

Type 2 diabetes was virtually unknown in children before the obesity epidemic.

Risks to psychological and social well-being

Overweight and obese children and adolescents are more likely than those of normal weight to experience isolation, stigmatisation and bullying, and to have psychological and psychiatric problems.

Childhood obesity persists into adulthood

The risk of obesity in adulthood is three to ten times higher for people who were obese as children. Cardiovascular disease in adulthood can have its origins in childhood obesity. There is an increased risk of earlier death for those overweight or obese at age 18.


Health risks for adults

Risks to physical health

Obesity in adulthood raises the risk for a number of serious diseases and conditions, including those that most New Zealanders will die from. The result can be a serious reduction in quality of life, as well as increased risk of earlier death.

Risks to health include heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes, stroke, metabolic syndrome, gallbladder disease, liver disease. reproductive disorders, osteoarthritis and gout, respiratory problems, and sleep-related breathing disorders.

An American study showed that obesity appears to have an even stronger association with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer than either smoking or problem drinking.

The risk of earlier death

A Ministry of Health and University of Auckland study estimated that in 1997 more than 3000 deaths in New Zealand were attributable to overweight and obesity. This was 11 percent of all deaths. More than 37,000 years of life were estimated to be lost as a result.

These deaths occurred through the impact of higher body weight on heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and colorectal and breast cancers.

A study estimated that Americans aged 40 have a life expectancy 6 to 7 years less than that of normal-weight Americans. This is similar to the risk from being a smoker.

Obesity and type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a serious and growing health problem in New Zealand, particularly among Maori and Pacific peoples.  It can lead to severe disability and death.

Increased obesity is considered to be the main reason for the increase in type 2 diabetes.

Among the more serious outcomes of type 2 diabetes are blindness, kidney disease leading to kidney failure, neurological problems, cardiovascular complications, and foot amputation.

A Ministry of Health study estimated that in 1996 almost 1500 deaths in New Zealand were attributable to diabetes (mainly type 2), with almost 20,000 years of life lost.

Obesity and cancer

A major international review published in 2007 pulled together research on the relationship between body fat and cancer. It found convincing evidence that body fatness increases the risk for a wide range of cancers.

Risks to social well-being and psychological health

Research evidence, mainly from the United States, shows that obese individuals are often stigmatised and discriminated against. Because of their obesity they can be denied jobs, disadvantaged in education, and marginalised by health care professionals. This can have a large impact on their social status and quality of life.

These social disadvantages can contribute to psychological problems.


References on the health risks of obesity

Sturm, R. The effects of obesity, smoking and drinking on medical problems and costs.  Health Affairs, 21(2), 245-253.

Ministry of Health and University of Auckland. Nutrition and the burden of disease: New Zealand 1997-2011.  Wellington: Ministry of Health, 2003.

Peeters, A.,et al.  Obesity in adulthood and its consequences for life expectancy: A life-table analysis.  Annals of Internal Medicine, 138(1), 24-32 (PDF)

World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research.  Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. Washington DC: AICR, 2007.

Submission to the Health Select Committee Inquiry into Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes in New Zealand. Wellington: FOE, 2006. Chapter 4. (PDF)