Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fat frenzy

HAVE healthy, normal children such as Bianca been wrongly labelled by health authorities as overweight? Richard Guilliatt talks to researchers and angry parents who are warning of a backlash.

Bianca Stoneman is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a fat kid. She’s a little shorter than most six-year-old girls, and she weighs a fraction above average, but that is something you could only surmise by careful measurement, because in all respects she’s a perfectly normal, cherubic first-grader.

She likes fairy books and dressing up in ballerina tutus. She’s learning to play the piano and taking swimming lessons, and she has just finished her first season playing T-ball at a footy oval in Canberra’s northern suburbs.

So her mother, Jodi, was perplexed, not to mention angry, when the ACT Health Department notified her recently that Bianca might be "overweight or at risk of becoming overweight", and suggested that the Stoneman family might want to consult a dietician or participate in a "Talk About Weight" group session at their local health centre, where their family’s eating habits and physical activities could be analysed.

That notification followed a health check - the kind that is now becoming ubiquitous across Australia - in which every child in Bianca’s kindergarten was assessed for Body Mass Index (BMI), the standardised test by which levels of obesity and excess weight are calculated.

Bianca’s test registered as 17.4, which put her in the "high" category on the specially formulated BMI charts for children. In fact, when Jodi Stoneman consulted the chart it appeared that her daughter was right up near the obese kids. On one level this was absurd, for anyone could look at Bianca Stoneman and realise she is not even chunky, to use an old-fashioned term.

But the more Jodi Stoneman read the letter ACT Health had sent her – with its warnings about the dangers of diabetes and high blood pressure, its links to the Westmead Children’s Hospital website and its suggestion that she consult her doctor for advice about nutrition – the more confused and offended she became. "Bianca’s weight was in the normal, healthy range and her height (114cm at the time) was in the normal, healthy range for her age," she says. "But when you put those figures together, her BMI looked like it was through the roof. How does that skew their statistics if they’re trying to measure levels of obesity?"

That’s just one of several questions now being asked about the obesity "epidemic" which has been touted as the greatest health crisis facing the western world. For nearly a decade researchers have been issuing increasingly dire warnings about the state of the national girth. Australians are fatter even than Americans, it was claimed last year, and a third of us could be obese by the year 2025.

Our children are said to be a generation of bloated couch-potatoes destined for a life of clogged arteries and diabetes. Obesity could rival smoking and the Black Death as a killer, according to high-profile overseas experts. Those claims are now coming under sustained attack from a range of newly published research and in books such as The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos, Diet Nation by Patrick Basham and John Luik, and The Obesity Epidemic by Australian academics Jan Wright and Michael Gard.

The thrust of their arguments is that obesity rates are not skyrocketing, that many people classified as overweight may be healthier than those who are slim, and that the campaign to eradicate obesity has become a moral crusade fuelled by commercial interests which are seeking to profit from the medicalisation of chubbiness.


An interesting test of Victoria's judicial system

My guess is that he will get only a slap on the wrist for the offences below: No jail time and nothing to discourage re-offending

A DRINK-driver ran a red light in a bonnet-less car, police say. And the fact the 24-year-old unlicensed driver managed to make it on to the road at all almost beggars belief, the Herald Sun reports. Travelling without the standard fittings, including a bonnet, lights and a conventional car battery, the Werribee man managed to draw further attention to himself by allegedly running a red light in peak hour in full view of police at Hoppers Crossing.

Stunned police nabbed the driver about 6.15pm on Monday at the corner of Derimut Rd and Pentlowe St. Conspicuous by the absence of a bonnet, the red Holden Gemini also featured a makeshift car battery, which had been connected to the old battery. When police intercepted the vehicle, the battery powering the car was sitting in the front passenger footwell, beside a full ashtray and a slab of bourbon cans.

In an act of pragmatic stupidity, the bonnet of the car had been removed to allow the conductor leads to travel from the old engine inside the vehicle to the new one. The man had a blood-alcohol concentration of .082, police said.

He was charged with unlicensed driving, driving an unregistered vehicle, driving an unroadworthy vehicle, possessing a controlled weapon, disobeying traffic signals and exceeding the prescribed concentration of alcohol.


Preventable public hospital deaths top 180 in six months

The number of preventable deaths in NSW hospitals has risen sharply, with the majority of cases due to clinical care mistakes. The latest Clinical Excellence Commission report reveals there were 183 preventable deaths in NSW public hospitals between January and June 2008, representing more than the total number of deaths across the preceding 24 months.

"The Rees Labor government admitted to 120 deaths in the two years 2006 and 2007, we now have 183 deaths in just six months,'' opposition health spokeswoman Jillian Skinner said in a statement. "The incompetent Rees Labor government was either lying about the previous years' figures or there has been a massive increase in the number of deaths in our hospitals. "These figures show ... (the) government is failing patients."

The report showed "clinical care mistakes'' were responsible for 73 - the majority - of the 183 preventable deaths. Fifty-four suspected suicides by mental health patients were also included in the report.

NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca said the increased numbers of preventable deaths shown in the report could be partly attributed to "under-reporting'' in previous years. "I'm getting a bit tired of Mrs Skinner and her continuous harping on the skills and quality of care provided in our public hospitals,'' Mr Della Bosca told reporters in Sydney. "The simple fact of the matter is the report itself deals with that issue, speculating about under-reporting and changes in process."

The report also found that between January and June last year there were 10 cases of instruments being left inside patients, and five instances of babies getting the wrong breast milk.

Mr Della Bosca said the release of such information was important for the identification of deficiencies in need of improvement. "The NSW government is demonstrating it's leading the way in providing the most transparent and open possible reporting about our public hospital system,'' he said. "And of course we want to make sure that any problems, and mistakes, any issues in the system that lead to preventable deaths or any other incidents, are addressed. "That's why we have a system that's fully open to the public and made available to the public on an annual and more often basis, but also, we want to make sure that doctors, nurses and allied health professionals have the information they need to improve the care they provide our public hospital system.''


The one sure thing about "organic" food is that it will keep you poor

Organic food and groceries ring up a huge premium

PEOPLE buying organic food and groceries are being hit with huge premiums as shortages bite. Consumers going green are slugged thousands of dollars more a year, a report has found. Organic beef sausages and margarine were almost triple the price of ordinary options. Chicken, rice and sugar were more than double. A typical basket of fruit and vegetables, meat and dairy, cereals, cleaning products and other staples rang up at $246.54 - almost $100 more than conventional choices.

But natural is not always mean on the budget. A floor cleaner, corn chips, rolled oats and pumpkin were actually cheaper.

Business analyst IBISWorld's price review comes as authorities move to crack down on dubious organic labelling. A voluntary national standard for all products including food, cleaning agents and cosmetics will be released this year. Standards Australia deputy chief executive Colin Blair said the new system would ease confusion over what is truly organic, and give consumers extra confidence that they were buying the real deal.

Consumer group Choice advises shoppers to look for products with a certified organic logo. Food policy spokeswoman Clare Hughes said organically farmed products were generally more labour-intensive and costly.

Organic Federation of Australia chairman Andre Leu blamed limited supplies and higher production costs for some large price differences. Mr Leu said costs should fall in future as more producers entered the industry. "There will always be a premium for a better product, but when you look at more mature markets overseas the price difference is about 20 to 30 per cent," Mr Leu said.

IBISWorld compared costs at an organic and standard supermarket in inner Melbourne last month. IBISWorld Australian general manager Robert Bryant said organic prices had fallen in the past five years.


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