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Obesity and personal choice: A response to Judith Collins

The National leader’s comments were rooted in political ideology rather than real-life experience, writes South Auckland nutritionist Mason Ngawhika, who believes the health of the community is a collective responsibility.

I know virtually no one who is satisfied with their current weight or body composition.

Meaning everyone I know is unable to take the personal responsibility to achieve their ideal. The comments that Judith Collins made likely have more to do with political ideology than actual real-life experiences. If you are rich, the right would say you are wealthy because you are extremely talented and hardworking and you deserve your wealth. The left-leaning may say the greatest talent that person has produced is being born into a wealthy family. Both views have some merit and form the political spectrum that most countries exist on. Aotearoa resides somewhere in the middle, Labour more to the left, National more to the right.

Are we just flotsam and jetsam blown around by the prevailing socioeconomic winds or are we the architects of our lives and despite the conditions, you can succeed? In Māori we say tāwhaowhao, which means driftwood – it’s a metaphor for having no locus of control or self-determination over your life. In Aotearoa, I tend to believe we are the latter. If you are willing to work hard and be consistent at what you do, you can eke out a good life despite your background. But when it comes to obesity, there are several variables at play that are often not considered, such as environment, psychology, and biology. 

South Auckland is flooded with fast food choices, Auckland Regional Public Health reporting shows (Photo: RNZ)

In South Auckland, there is a population that is predisposed to obesity, and we are saturated by unhealthy food choices. When you’re hammered by marketing of unhealthy food choices and when you’re poor, it is extremely hard to navigate. For some local families who are struggling, the only happiness they experience that day is eating something sweet or deep-fried, or having a cigarette. These are not the conditions where personal responsibility is a consideration. 

There is no more powerful innate urge greater than hunger. By satisfying your hunger, it enables all living things to survive. We’ve also got to understand that there are differences in the way people respond to food. For example, the way that fats and carbohydrates are stored in the body can be different for everyone. The hunger that some people feel three to four hours after their last meal can be the same for others just half an hour after a meal. Is this a failure of personal responsibility or the success of personal biology?

Mana motuhake (self-determination) and oranga whakapapa (intergenerational health and wealth) are the aspirational goals for Māori. These will not be achieved by personal responsibility; rather by a collective responsibility. In other words, the focus needs to be less on the individual but more on the community and its surroundings. When we treat the health of whānau and community as one, then personal responsibility is less of a factor.  

In a way, I agree with Judith Collins – we can never dismiss personal responsibility. We need to harness that latent drive that compels us to do better and improve our position in life. However, we need to recognise that some people have tailwinds that make it easier to achieve our aspirations, while others have headwinds that make it harder. This is what equity is all about: trying to even the playing field. 

Many of our South Auckland whānau are impacted by the rise of preventable chronic diseases. Here at The Cause Collective we look at the underlying causes of poor health and wellbeing, including nutrition and local food systems. We look at the different systems and environments that influence our behaviour towards being healthy as a community. This is only achieved when we work alongside communities, businesses, organisations, and agencies to create breakthrough solutions to disrupt the conditions holding the problem in place, and to prevent the problem being experienced by future generations.  

When I hear people say that obesity can be solved through personal responsibility, that tells me that they have no understanding of the multi-factorial dynamics at play. It is a simplistic view that offers no meaningful solution, especially for the most at-risk populations like those in South Auckland.

Mason Ngawhika is kaiārahi Māori, Māori responsiveness manager, at The Cause Collective, which looks for ways to improve people’s health for the prevention of chronic disease.



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