Updated: 07/30/2014 14:46 | By Agence France-Presse

Pacific islanders battle the bulge as obesity toll grows

The new chairman of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) said Wednesday that he was determined to change the unhealthy lifestyle choices that have made his region the fattest in the world.

Pacific islanders battle the bulge as obesity toll grows

File photo of two women in Tonga, the country has an obesity rate of more than 50 percent - by Neil Sands

Palau President Tommy Remengesau said that junk food had become a blight on Pacific island communities, leading to epidemic rates of heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure among an increasingly obese population.

In a region that was once legendary for its muscular warriors and lithe womenfolk, Remengesau said he feared a generation of Pacific islanders had already been lost to such non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

"Our ancestors took advantage of the local produce here, vegetables and fish," he said.

"Now we're relying too much on imported goods, canned goods, which are giving you high levels of sugar, salt and fat."

A recent study by British medical journal The Lancet found that five of the top 10 fattest countries in the world were Pacific island nations, with Tonga leading the rankings due to an obesity rate of more than 50 percent.

Official statistics show NCDs account for about 75 percent of all deaths in the Pacific, and diabetes rates exceed 40 percent in some island nations.

Remengesau took over chairmanship of the PIF at a ceremony in Palau on Tuesday night, and was out and about in the capital Koror before dawn Wednesday morning spreading his healthy lifestyle message.

"It's a hard sell because you can't legislate it," he told AFP as he set a brisk walking pace on his morning constitutional around the local athletic track.

"You can't force people to do exercise. You just hope to demonstrate to the younger generation what will work well."

- 'Bigger is better' -

Remengesau, a relatively lean 58-year old, said teenagers were now dying of diabetes in the Pacific and it was imperative that the lifestyle mistakes of recent decades were not repeated.

"I'm not giving up hope but if you're over 50 and you've got this problem then the priority will be to save the young ones," he said.

"My focus will be on the younger generation, how can we instill in them the discipline (to exercise) and the mindset that if you want to be a productive citizen you have to be a healthy citizen?"

Remengesau said one solution may be a controversial "fat tax" levied on junk foods to encourage people to seek out healthier alternatives.

"I know it's a heated debate because it involves food but in the end I think it might be the right direction," he said.

He said people in the Pacific had long viewed copious amounts of food as a sign of prosperity, leading to an attitude that bigger is better.

"No islander will never say that a fat man is a sick man, they will say 'wow, he's a strong man, he's got a lot of food and he's living well'," he said.

"But they see a slim guy and say he's too skinny. Culturally, you're supposed to eat as much as you can and provide food for guests, friends and family -- it's a mindset that we need to change."

The Forum continues this week and will address issues such as the threat climate changes poses to low-lying island nations and overfishing the Pacific.

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