The Barling family from Brighton have decided to get healthier for May – Mark and Annette Barling are cutting out the alcohol and their children are forgoing the junk snacks in their lunch boxes.
Ten-year-old, Zac was easy to persuade. A vegetable-loving sports nut who plays football, swims, runs, jumps and throws, he’s already far more health literate than most kids his age.
Do you live in Victoria’s fittest postcode?
There are only three postcodes in all of Victoria where there are more people who exercise than those who don’t.
“I want to be fit and healthy [because] I want to feel my body is capable of doing stuff,” he said.
As the president of Brighton Little Athletics, where Zac attends, Mr Barling says it’s important for him to stay fit in the health-conscious suburb.
“We want the kids to understand, it’s not about [food] being easy, it’s about it being good for you,” he said.
But this healthy mindset seems to be in a minority across Melbourne.
A significant proportion of the city’s children have a weight problem.
Just under 30 per cent of them are considered overweight or obese, according to the latest data available from Victoria University’s Australian Health Policy Collaboration, which tracks Australia by postcode to see how health and environment are connected.
Children are generally considered obese when their Body Mass Index is at or above the 95th percentile for others of the same age and gender.
They are considered overweight when their BMI is at or above the 85th percentile. You can check if your child’s BMI is healthy here.
Even on the sporting fields of Brighton, Kew, Camberwell, and Surrey Hills, one in four children would be considered overweight, although only one in 20 is obese. And these are the suburbs with the healthiest results.
Examining Melbourne’s rates of childhood obesity postcode-by-postcode on the health tracker data released on Tuesday by Victoria University, it is clear that weight problems are not confined to the poorest suburbs.
Indeed, Clayton, the home of Monash University and a suburb with a median property price north of $1m, has the city’s highest rates of children with weight problems, with 42.4 per cent considered overweight or obese.
Monash Council has identified childhood obesity and inactivity as an issue, including in Clayton, which has low amounts of open public spaces compared with the rest of the area.
However, mayor Rebecca Paterson said she was “surprised” to learn the figure was the highest in Monash.
The council was developing a new plan to increase community gardens and playgrounds, and would continue to promote healthy eating, she said.
Zooming out on the map using the data, children’s weight problems do seem to increase along the major car commuter routes of the urban sprawl: the Princes Highway; the Princes Freeway and west of Pascoe Vale Road and the Hume.
North of the western ring road, two out of every five children (39-42 per cent) in the battler suburbs of Coolaroo, Campbellfield and Meadow Heights are over a healthy weight.
But results can be just as concerning closer to town, such as in Niddrie and Essendon West, where the childhood overweight and obesity rate is still 40.9 percent.
Children in the outer north, where exercise physiologist Nicole French works, don’t know a lot about eating healthily, and sport after school is a luxury of time and money many families can’t afford.
“There’s a perception they should get that at school,” Ms French said.
“[But] a lot of these kids don’t run around at recess and lunch.”
Suburbs with the lowest percentage of overweight or obese children
- Camberwell/Surrey Hills – 24 per cent
- Brighton – 24.2 per cent
- Kew – 24.3 per cent
- Beaumaris/Sandringham – 25.1 per cent
- Balwyn – 25.6 per cent
Suburbs with the highest percentage of overweight or obese children
- Clayton – 42. 4 per cent
- Campbellfield/Coolaroo – 42 per cent
- Doveton – 41.3 per cent
- Springvale – 41 per cent
- Niddrie/Essendon West – 40.9 per cent
“Australia has a rapidly growing problem with the weight of its children,” says Rosemary Calder, director of the Australian Health Policy Collaboration at Victoria University and Torrens University.
“It’s like an escalator and the more disadvantaged the area, the more there are increased numbers of children who are faced with overweight or obesity.”
The health policy expert said if the issue did not become a national priority, Australia would be faced with decades of chronic disease, leading to poor life prospects for its overweight citizens.
In 2016 Victoria University’s previous Getting Australia’s Health on Track report outlined 10 priority policy actions to prevent and reduce chronic diseases in Australia, including a sugar tax, restrictions on junk food advertising to children and national initiatives to increase the rates of walking and cycling to school and work.
“We don’t regard health as a national asset. It’s used as a political football, and it can be a huge national burden if we don’t get it right,” Professor Calder said.