Pacific Island churches urged to push anti-obesity message

Pacific Island churches urged to push anti-obesity message

Pacific Island churches urged to push anti-obesity message

Updated 3 October 2012, 19:35 AEST

Pacific Island churches told they are key to tackling obesity among Pacific Island youth.

Boyd Swinburn, a professor of population nutrition and global health at Melbourne's Deakin University, has just completed a three-year intervention program in Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and Fiji.

His aim was to lower rates of obesity by using schools to communicate messages on the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise.

In Australia, the intervention succeeded in lowering the prevalence of overweight youngsters and obesity by six percentage points over three years.

"But, taking that same approach in Fiji, Tonga and in the Pacific area in south Auckland, there was no effect of the intervention," Prof Swinburn told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat program.

His team then worked to determine the socio-cultural reasons behind the intervention's failure, and met with community leaders, including government ministers, school principals and church figures.

"The way within the Pacific cultures that caring, loving, sharing, showing respect, showing respect are manifested, in many ways, is through large volumes of food," Prof Swinburn explained.

He said that their consultations showed widespread recognition that the church was critically important as "a custodian and determinant" of culture, and was key to encouraging cultural change.

Monsignor Peter Koloamatangi, the Catholic Church Vicar General in Tonga, has already made obesity reduction a goal for his community.

"I'm visiting different families in my parish and I talk with them about obesity to change our attitudes to what we eat, and I think I'm going to do it often in the church on Sunday, where I have most of the people present," he said.

Most church leaders have already agreed to encourage ways of expressing Christian values without food, but others, like Reverend Tevita Banivanua from the Fiji Methodist Church, have warned it won't be easy.