Skip to main content

Written by Dr Drew Blatchford

18 2 14


Obesity is a growing world issue that is starting to affect the younger population.  However, it is not just obesity, being overweight is becoming far more common in western societies. Australia is currently the fourth most obese advanced country in the world, after the United States, Mexico and New Zealand.  This is perhaps due to many reasons, increased sedentary lifestyle at home and the workplace, changes to diet and the types of food we are eating now.

It has been shown that in middle-aged adults, obesity increases the risk of death two to three fold compared to those of normal weight.   The average Australian male (in 2011/12) was 176cm tall and 86kg.  This equals body mass index (BMI) of 27.8, making them overweight. According to the OECD* report, 28.3% of Australian adults were obese in 2011 – up from 21.7% in 2000

A study in the British Medical Journal a few years ago looked at the correlation between being overweight and smoking in late teenage years and increasing risk of death.

What the study did:

Looked at approximately 50,000 male participants all aged between 16-20. Body mass index was used to define weight categories (check out the Heart Foundation website for a calculator)

–          Underweight less than 18.5

–          Normal weight 18.5-24.9

–          Overweight 25-29.9

–          Obese greater than 30

Smoking status was put into 3 subcategories

–          Non-smoker,

–          Light smoker 1-10 per day

–          Heavy smoker 10+ per day

What the study showed:

The combination of obesity and heavy smoking indicated a large increase in risk of death.  Being obese in late teens was as detrimental to health as if they were smoking 10+ cigarettes per day and being overweight was as hazardous as smoking 1-10 cigarettes per day.

The risks of being overweight or obese have been shown in many studies to include insulin resistance and high blood pressure.  These can result in a greater incidence of type 2 diabetes and heart disease and have also been linked to several types of cancer.

The take home message:

Exercise is important and so is eating well.  Maintaining a healthy weight in late teenage years is very important in reducing premature death.  Being ‘just’ overweight can be as harmful to your long-term health as if you were smoking up to 10 cigarettes per day.  Being extremely underweight (BMI <17) had approximately the same risk as being overweight.  Young Australians in their late teens are a key population for targeted health initiatives regarding weight and smoking.

For further information check out:

*Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.