Obesity and Overweight

The prevalence of overweight and obesity among Australians has been steadily increasing for the past 30 years. In 2011–12, around 60% of Australian adults were classified as overweight or obese, and more than 25% of these fell into the obese category (ABS 2012). In 2007, around 25% of children aged 2–16 were overweight or obese, with 6% classified as obese (DoHA 2008).

A 2009 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that there will be continued increases in overweight and obesity levels across all age groups during the next decade in Australia, to around 66% of the population (Sassi et al. 2009).

While overweight and obesity are prevalent in all population groups, variation exists in their distribution across the Australian population. Obesity is particularly prevalent among those in the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups (ABS 2008), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Penm 2008) and many people born overseas (ABS 2008; O’Dea 2008). Obesity is also more prevalent in rural and remote areas compared to urban areas (ABS 2008).

Health problems related to excess weight impose substantial economic burdens on individuals, families and communities. Data from the Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle (AusDiab) study indicate that the total direct cost for overweight and obesity in 2005 was $21 billion ($6.5 billion for overweight and $14.5 billion for obesity). The same study estimated indirect costs of $35.6 billion per year, resulting in an overall total annual cost of $56.6 billion (Colagiuri et al. 2010).

CEO Roundtable: New Insights into the biology of obesity

NHMRC’s CEO, Professor Warwick Anderson, hosted an all day roundtable at the NHMRC Canberra Offices titled New Insights into the biology of obesity on 1 April 2014. Topics included genetics (including epigenetics), neurobiology and the microbiome.

The causes, prevention and management of obesity are complex. They include social and cultural issues, the local environment, food industry practices and public policies, personal attitudes and behaviours, and human biology. All these are interconnected and no country has yet managed a successful, sustained reduction in the prevalence of overweight and obesity, despite health and medical research. The Roundtable focussed on new information on human biology, with a view to eventual integration into evidence-based population advice. NHMRC has obesity as one of its ‘Major Health Issues’ for this triennium.

NHMRC Obesity Guidelines

In 2010, the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) commissioned the NHMRC to develop Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Overweight and Obesity for Adults, Adolescents and Children in Australia. Developed for primary health care professionals, these Guidelines promote healthy eating plans, increased physical activity and behavioural modification as the first approach to managing obesity for individuals, bringing about a range of health benefits.

NHMRC Funded Research into Obesity

Centres of Research Excellence for Funding Commencing in 2012 – Obesity Special Interest Area

Two CREs focused on obesity were awarded in the last CRE round. CREs are funded for five years.

Prof Michael Horowitz Centre of Research Excellence in Translating Nutritional Science to Good Health University of Adelaide $2,499,990

At current rates, over two thirds of Australians will be overweight by 2025, and a third will develop type 2 diabetes during their lifetime. Meanwhile, elderly Australians and those requiring intensive care admissions are at risk of debility from under-nutrition. This Centre links scientists in the laboratory with clinical researchers to develop nutritional solutions to a number of major diseases, and has the expertise to apply these in the community.

Prof Robert Carter Centre of Research Excellence on Policy Research on Obesity and Food Systems Deakin University $2,498,110

This CRE aims to build a world-leading, multi-disciplinary research team that aims to have a real impact on finding and implementing policy solutions to the global obesity epidemic. It will support policy makers and public health advocates to create potent and sustained policy change by evaluating potential policy options and their impacts on environments and systems, enhancing policy development and implementation processes, and monitoring the actions of the public and private sectors.

A “state of the knowledge” assessment of comprehensive interventions that address the drivers of obesity - A Rapid Assessment

Prepared for the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) by The Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders, University of Sydney,December 2010.


  • ABS (2008) Overweight and obesity in adults, Australia, 2004–05. ABS cat. no 4719.0. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  • ABS (2012) Australian health survey: First results, 2011–12. ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  • Colagiuri S, Lee CMY, Colagiuri R et al. (2010) The cost of overweight and obesity in Australia. Med J Aust 192: 260–64.
  • DoHA (2008) 2007 Australian national children’s nutrition and physical activity survey. Main findings. Department of Health and Ageing, Australian Food and Grocery Council, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Australian Government.
  • NHMRC (2003a) Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
  • NHMRC (2003b) Clinical practice guidelines for the management of overweight and obesity in adults. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
  • NHMRC (2011a) Procedures and requirements for meeting the 2011 NHMRC standard for clinical practice guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council.
  • O’Dea J (2008) Gender, ethnicity, culture and social class influences on childhood obesity among Australian schoolchildren: implications for treatment, prevention and community education. Health Social Care Comm 16: 282-90.
  • Penm E (2008) Cardiovascular disease and its associated risk factors in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples 2004–05. CVD series no. 29, AIHW cat no. CVD 41. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
  • Sassi F, Devaux M, Cecchini M et al. (2009) The obesity epidemic: Analysis of past and projected future trends in selected OECD countries. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.