The “Australian paradox” refers to a unique oddity of public health trends in which the prevalence of obesity in Australia has increased over the last 30 years despite an overall decrease in the amount of sugar that Australians consume. This inverse correlation between levels of sugar consumption and obesity contradicts health trends in the rest of the world. In other nations, sugar consumption is not only positively correlated with an increased risk of obesity, but it is often assumed to be a major contributing factor for the disease. The Australian paradox therefore is prompting health experts to holistically examine risk factors for different nation’s obesity epidemics.
Today, obesity is a public health concern in both the developed and developing world. The World Health Organization estimated that in 2011 there were 700 million overweight adults and at least 300 million obese adults. Such a burgeoning problem not only increases the prevalence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and some types of cancer, but it also imposes a significant economic burden. Though the full extent of this expense is difficult to pin-point, experts estimate that between two and seven percent of a developed nation’s healthcare costs are spent on issues relating to obesity.
In the United States the relationship between high levels of sugar consumption and obesity is well established. Over the past 30 years both the amount of sugar consumed by the average American and the prevalence of American obesity have increased. Research from independent sources such as the American Heart Association, The Obesity Society, and experts such as Professor Robert H. Lustig, from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) have concluded that high levels of sugar consumption are a main driver in America’s obesity epidemic.
While considerable attention and investigation has been showered upon the issue of establishing a correlation between high sugar consumption and obesity in the United States, in other nations the question still remains open. While it may seem logical that ingesting copious quantities of sugar will cause a body to gain weight regardless of the nationality of that body, many researchers are reticent to make that assumption.
In a study first formally published in the journal Nutrients in 2011 by researchers from the Australian Diabetes Council and the University Sydney, investigators explored the relationship between Australia’s sugar consumption and the prevalence of obesity. To do this, they conducted a meta-analysis in which data published from authorities in government organizations, industry, and academia were compiled and analyzed en masse. Looking from the 1980s to 2010s, the researchers examined both the prevalence of obesity among Australians and their overall levels of sugar consumption, including sugars consumed from beverages such as soda, sports drinks, and energy drinks.
The findings of this analysis surprised the researchers, leading them to refer to the phenomenon as the “Australian paradox.” Over the past thirty years, the overall consumption of sugar by Australians has decreased—a notable aberration in itself which the authors speculated may be unique among the world’s nations. But instead of experiencing a proportional decrease in the levels of obesity, Australia, like the rest of the world, has increased its rates of obesity three-fold in the last 30 years.
So if sugar doesn’t make Australians fat, what does? The researchers have posed several hypotheses that might explain the increase in the typical Australian’s waistline despite the decreased sugar intake. One such hypothesis speculates that while sugar intake may have dipped, Australians are getting those missing calories from other sources. The notable increases in the consumption of chocolate, cakes, cookies, chips, and pizza suggest that whatever caloric deficit accrues from limiting dietary sugar, it is more than made up for by the consumption of fatty foods that have even greater caloric value.
Not everyone is a believer in the Australian paradox. The subject has sparked a debate among authorities, some of whom claim that the data used in the meta-analysis does not accurately represent the eating habits of Australians. In response, the Australian government is conducting the Australian Health Survey to examine the issue in detail. The results of this study are anticipated for release this year.
By Sarah Takushi