The man who’s too fat for New Zealand

Theresa Clifford reports from NZ, where a South African chef faces deportation for being overweight.

Theresa Clifford

Topics Politics

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Albert Buitenhuis has been told that he is too fat to live in New Zealand. The South African chef faces deportation, along with his wife Marthie, after his work visa was declined because of his then 130kg weight. Buitenhuis is 5 feet 10 inches tall and has a body mass index of over 40, which is considered medically obese. Immigration authorities said his application for a work visa was rejected because his obesity puts him at ‘significant risk’ of health problems – including diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, obstructive sleep apnoea, some cancers and an enlarged fatty liver – which could end up costing the NZ health service a lot of money.

Buitenhuis arrived in New Zealand six years ago, weighing 160kg. So he has actually lost over 30 kilos while he’s been here – he is now down to 126kg. His work visa was renewed every year (until this year) and his weight was never an issue for the authorities. Yet in May, he received the news that Immigration New Zealand (INZ) had declined his visa because medical assessors deemed he no longer had ‘an acceptable standard of health’.

Obesity has become a hot topic in New Zealand in recent years. An OECD report published in June claims New Zealand is the developed world’s third most obese nation, after the US and Mexico. Apparently more than a quarter of New Zealanders can be classed as obese. New Zealand is also among the laziest countries in the world, says a study published in the medical journal The Lancet, with nearly 50 per cent of its population apparently not active enough. Researchers at Auckland University estimate that more than four per cent of New Zealand’s annual healthcare budget is spent caring for overweight and obese people.

According to a campaign called Fight Obesity Epidemic, three in 10 children in New Zealand and more than 6 in 10 adults are currently at an unhealthy weight. Apparently, in 2011/2012 obesity rates were higher among Māori (44 per cent) and Pacific (62 per cent) adults than among other ethnic groups. However, research carried out by Michael Gard for his recent book The End of the Obesity Epidemic, shows that the obesity rates for Māori and Pacific adults have not changed since 2006/07; in fact, obesity rates have been flat across the developed world for more than a decade now. So why the panic about fat people now?

In his book The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health, Paul Campos says that Pacific islanders are bigger than European New Zealanders, but this is because the genetic component of variations in body mass is extremely powerful. Studies of identical twins suggest that the majority of variation in body mass between individuals can be accounted for by genetic differences. The Pacific islanders are genetically predisposed to be efficient at storing caloric energy. Naturally, then, they will be quite fat, on average, if they are not on the verge of starvation (as many of them were until quite recently). The average body mass in Polynesia has skyrocketed over the past couple of generations, and life expectancy on these islands has risen by about 30 per cent over the same period. This is one of many examples of how economic development makes people fatter, yes, and also greatly improves overall public health.

So people can be obese yet physically healthy and fit, and at no greater risk of heart disease or cancer than people of so-called normal weight. Research from the University of South Carolina recently found that being overweight per se does not pose a big health risk; indeed, it found that the risk of obese people developing or dying from cardiovascular disease or cancer was identical to people of ideal weight and was half that of ‘metabolically less fit’ obese people.

Despite all this, in New Zealand food and drink companies, and many others, are being put under pressure to address New Zealand’s supposed obesity crisis. Drinks giant Coca-Cola has launched an NZ advertising campaign which expressly mentions the obesity problem and highlights the steps it will take to tackle it. These include increasing the availability of smaller portion sizes, offering a wider selection of low-kilojoule drinks, and clearly displaying calorie counts on vending machines as well as on cans and bottles. It will also sponsor more physical activity programmes and run TV ads on how kilojoules – including those in its own products – affect weight.

We should stop obsessing about obesity. That is what is really unhealthy. Whatever the health effects of carrying a few extra pounds – which seem to be pretty limited for the majority of the population – the authoritarian, lifestyle-policing reaction to obesity is far worse: it spreads unnecessary fear about eating and getting chubby, zaps the fun from downing fizzy drinks or burgers, and, as we can see in the case of Albert Buitenhuis, it can nurture a terrible new authoritarianism. As Marthie Buitenhuis rightly points out, ‘We’ve committed no crime and did nothing wrong other than my husband being a foodie’.

Theresa Clifford is a digital strategist currently based in Auckland. Visit her website here. Follow her on Twitter @TheresaClifford.

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Topics Politics


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