An Australia-first advocacy group for people with obesity has called on governments to do more to address the mental health impacts of one of the nation’s most prevalent health issues.

The Personal Costs of Weight Issues in Australia report, released by the Weight Issues Network, found people living with obesity experienced stigma from others and barriers to making healthy choices.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows about one in three Australians (31 per cent) were obese in 2017-18, an increase from one in five (19 per cent) in 1995.

The report recommends capping the number of new fast food outlets based on local community needs and clearer food labelling, as well as mandatory training for health and social care professionals in obesity issues and greater engagement with people who have experience of obesity when developing policy.

The newly formed network has the support of the Obesity Collective, a body of corporate and health organisations, including Bupa and the Royal Australasian College of GPs, which advocates for obesity policy with empathy and a whole of society approach.

“We can’t keep falling back on ‘walk more, eat less’ as our go-to response for obesity – it’s so much more complicated than that,” said Weight Issues Network chair and public health researcher Divya Ramachandran.

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Suffering depression and anxiety, Mr Wilson said simplistic health messaging made his struggles harder. Far from the stereotype that people with obesity are lazy, he researched and diligently followed several diets (“I did keto, paleo, intermittent fasting; not silly ones”) and woke up at 5am to vigorously exercise before commuting to his job in financial services.

“It became a cycle for me,” he said. “I’d exercise to the point that I’d injure myself, then I’d give up and gain weight and it would start again.”

After finding help at Nepean Hospital’s metabolic clinic and seeing a psychologist, Mr Wilson, who is a member of the network, started a support group for other men in the area.

“One of the newer guys had started going to the gym. And it was obviously a big thing for him, a big guy, to be going to the gym; to overcome to fear,” he said.

“And he was laughed at: someone came up to him and made fun of him.

“Any other addiction – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, gambling, whatever – it’s not apparent immediately … but with obesity, the moment they lay eyes on us, they can see it.”

RACGP spokesperson Dr Lara Roeske said weight stigma stops people from coming forward to health professionals: despite affecting such a large segment of the population, AIHW data shows less than 1 per cent of GP consults centre around obesity.

Although the college supports most of the network’s recommendations, Dr Roeske said it believes GPs currently receive sufficiently sensitive training in helping patients with obesity.

She added a “whole of governance” response, including groups such as the food industry and education groups, is needed to change Australia’s “obesogenic” environment.

“There also needs to be a commitment to funding for research,” she said.

Mr Wilson said the work he has done, and continues to do, on his physical and mental health has seen his world open back up.

“Living in the Blue Mountains, I always wanted to join the RFS but I never felt comfortable because of my weight. And because I was feeling much better about myself, my son and I decided to give it a go,” he said.

“Now we’re on call and I feel good; I feel like I’m doing my part.”

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