Healthy Weight

ACT Chief Health Officer’s Report: Healthy Weight

From the Chief Health Officer…

This report highlights the significant public health issue of overweight and obesity impacting the health of the ACT community. This, along with the report describing the burden of disease in the ACT, are the first since the ending of the COVID-19 public health emergency declaration in the ACT.  The main purpose of these reports is to refocus our attention on key public health issues impacting on the health and well-being of our community at this time.

This information seeks to inform future policy, planning and research, developed both within Government and by external stakeholders.

Overweight and obesity is a complex health condition which often start early in life and is influenced by factors both within and beyond a person’s control.

Overweight and obesity is the second leading cause of disease burden in Australia through increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.  It has been estimated that maternal overweight and obesity contributes to a significant proportion of adverse pregnancy outcomes in the ACT.

Supporting our population in achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight is therefore important to assist Canberrans to live longer and healthier lives.

In 2021, nearly 2 in 3 Canberran adults and 1 in 3 Canberran children reported being overweight or obese.

Of particular concern is the data showing that obesity levels are increasing in adults and children of kindergarten age. Similarly, the proportion of ACT mothers living with overweight or obesity in their first trimester of pregnancy has increased over the last ten years.

The ACT Personality and Total Health Through Life Study (PATH study) is also showing us that there is a generational increase in overweight and obesity in the ACT – younger people are experiencing more overweight and obesity than previous generations did at the same age.

We are not alone in this challenge, with similar levels and trends seen across Australia and around the world.

There is some promising data, which we must look at more closely and learn from.

Amongst our year 6 students there is an encouraging downward trend in overweight and obesity between 2006 and 2018, and we look forward to the analysis of 2021/22 data to see if this trend continues.

The impacts of overweight and obesity on individuals, our families, community and health systems are such that it is critical that there continues to be a strong focus on how we can turn things around.

The focus of our efforts must continue to support individuals living with overweight and obesity and prioritise prevention at all stages of life. The complexity of this issue is acknowledged, including the importance of encouraging a positive self‑image whilst promoting positive health changes across the community and specifically in support of people living with overweight and obesity.

This requires all of us to play our part; individuals, community, government and non-government partners, across health, education, environment, business and economic sectors.

The ACT Government's Healthy Canberra ACT Preventive Health Plan 2020-2025 and the supporting First Three Year Action Plan (2020-2022) seek to articulate areas for government-led action in a wide range of areas, delivered in partnership with a range of stakeholders. In anticipation of the development of a Second Action Plan, I would encourage everyone to consider how the impacts of overweight and obesity could be mitigated.

Data note

This report provides a snapshot of a priority population health issue in the ACT. Statistics on a broad range of population health topics are published and regularly updated on the HealthStats ACT website.

Differences in statistical methods and calculations, data updates and guidelines may result in the information contained in this report varying from previously published information.

COVID-19 has impacted the ability of direct data collection for some of the key statistics, including interruptions to national survey data collection leading to limitations around the availability of up-to-date data for these indicators. This is important to consider when considering the information discussed in this report.

Weight status as a population health measure

Weight status, including the proportion of overweight and obesity among ACT adults, children and adolescents, is primarily determined using population health surveys. These provide a snapshot of body weight at key points in life and can show changes over time at the population level.[1]

The principle national survey for objective data on overweight and obesity is the National Health Survey (NHS) by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). This data was not collected during the 2020-21 survey due to safety concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. This report utilises data from the ABS NHS 2018, the most recent comprehensive data on weight status of Australians.

Key data sources that report weight status in the ACT include:

  • ACT General Health Survey of adults and children
  • ACT Kindergarten Health Check of children in their first year of primary school
  • ACT Personality and Total Health Through Life Study (PATH)
  • ACT Maternal and Perinatal Data Collection
  • ACT Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey (ACTPANS) of Year 6 primary school students.

Further information about these data sources, including methodology and frequency, is available here. ACT’s indicators for weight status are available at HealthStats.

Measurement of weight status in the population

The measurement and definition of healthy weight is challenging for individual and population health assessment purposes.

Body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference are measurements that are commonly used in the assessment of healthy weight.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

The most commonly used measure of healthy weight is the BMI. This measurement takes into account an individual’s weight and height.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a BMI of between 18.50 and 24.99 as a healthy weight range for adults.[2]

For children, the healthy weight range for BMI is categorised using age specific ranges developed by the International Obesity Taskforce.[3]

While BMI in not always an accurate measure of healthy weight for an individual, the WHO and the World Obesity Federation recommend BMI as the best measure of weight status for a population.[4]

Waist circumference

Waist circumference is an alternate measure of risk associated with excess weight and is based on evidence that carrying excess weight around the waist is more of a health risk than if it were on the hips and thighs, regardless of a person’s height or build.

Waist measurements higher than 94cm for men or 80cm for women are linked to increased risk of developing chronic diseases.[5]

Waist circumference measurements do not apply to children, pregnant women or people with certain medical conditions and backgrounds which change their body shape.[5]

Self-reported measures

Population surveys collect data on these measures either objectively through direct physical measurement or by participant self-report.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics identifies that while self-reported measures are logistically simpler to collect, it is less accurate because of the tendency for people to under-report weight and over-report height.[6]

The ACT General Health Survey and Physical Activity and Nutrition Survey self collect data through self-report.

ACT Context

Healthy weight

Maintaining a healthy body weight is important to support longer and healthier lives.

HW 1_Adults and chlidren
Source: ACT Government (2021), ACT General Health Survey: BMI categories, adults, ACT Government website.

In 2021, 36.1% of ACT adults reported having a healthy weight (33.5% of males and 38.7% of females), while 59.6% of ACT children were classified as having a healthy weight.[7]

A national perspective is provided by the 2018 National Health Survey which found that 35.1% of ACT adults reported having a healthy weight compared to 31.7% of Australian adults.[8]

Overweight and obesity

Overweight and obesity is defined as carrying excess body fat that presents health risks.[4]

Overweight is defined as a BMI between 25.00 and 29.99. Obesity is defined as a BMI of 30.00 or higher.[9]

In 2021, 62.2.% of adult Canberrans reported being either overweight (35.5%) or obese (26.7%) in the ACT General Health Survey.[10]

The more excess weight a person carries, the higher their risk of developing health and wellbeing issues.[11] This means living with obesity puts a person at greater risk of health conditions than living with overweight.

People living with obesity have a life expectancy that is reduced by 2 to 10 years, which is similar to the impact of smoking.[12]

Overweight and obesity is a major risk factor for:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • high blood pressure
  • sleep apnoea
  • psychological issues
  • some musculoskeletal conditions
  • some cancers.[11]

The proportion of the population reported as overweight or obese continues to increase from childhood through to at least 65 years of age.[2]

There is also a generational increase in overweight and obesity.[13] The PATH Study follows individuals as they age, providing insight into the future trajectory of overweight and obesity in the ACT.[14] This is showing us that younger people in the ACT are experiencing more overweight and obesity than previous generations did at the same age. People are living with overweight and obesity at younger ages.

The prevalence of overweight and obesity is discussed further in the next section.

Burden of disease

Burden of disease studies look at the combined impact of dying early and living with disease or injury.

Overweight and obesity are a leading contributor to the total burden of disease in Australia.

Burden of disease is explored further in a separate report.

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[1] ACT Health, Data collections, 2023, accessed 14 March 2023

[2] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Overweight and obesity: an interactive insight, AIHW website, 2020, accessed 10 February 2023.

[3] World Obesity, Obesity Classification, World Obesity website, n.d., accessed 10 February 2023.

[4] World Health Organization, Obesity and overweight, WHO website, 2021, accessed 10 February 2023.

[5] Health Direct, Body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, Health Direct website, n.d., accessed 10 February 2023.

[6] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Self-reported height and weight, ABS website, 2018, accessed 10 February 2023.

[7] ACT Government, BMI, healthy weight, adults, ACT Government website, 2021, accessed 10 February 2023.

[8] Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Health Survey: State and territory findings, 2018, accessed 17 March 2023.

[9] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, A picture of overweight and obesity in Australia, AIHW website, accessed 10 February 2023.

[10] ACT Government, BMI categories, adults, ACT Government website, 2021, accessed 10 February 2023.

[11] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Risk factors to health: Overweight and Obesity, AIHW website, 2017, accessed 10 February 2023.

[12] Whitlock et al., Body-mass index and cause-specific mortality in 900,000 adults: collaborative analyses of 57 prospective studies, 2009, Lancet, 28;373(9669):1083-96. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60318-4.

[13] ACT Health, Healthy Canberra ACT Chief Health Officer’s Report 2018, ACT Health website, 2018, accessed 10 February 2023. 

[14] UNSW Sydney and Australian National University, Personality and Total Health Through Life Study, PATH website, n.d., accessed 10 February 2023.

Page last updated on: 1 Aug 2023