Obesity in Paradise

For Tavita, losing weight has become a matter of life and death.

“I’m so worried for my life because I know I’m too heavy,” he tells SBS Dateline. “I’m so worried because I really love my wife and my kids and my family.”

Tavita is from Apia, the capital of Samoa, where there is an obesity crisis.

A former taxi driver, he would drink two litres of sugary soft drinks each day and regularly eat mutton flaps, a cheap cut of fatty meat imported from New Zealand.

Poor eating habits are being passed on from generation to generation causing a multitude of related health problems. Many of these health issues are also prevalent in Australia – WHO data shows almost 70 per cent of Australian males are overweight and 58 per cent of females are. But in Samoa and American Samoa, these issues are amplified.

A WHO report from 2007 found 9 out of 10 adults in American Samoa were overweight or obese. There’s been no detailed studies done in the last decade to update this staggering statistic, but recent reports show a dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes, and the afflictions that accompany the disease.

Type 2 diabetes damages nerve endings and restricts blood flow through the body, which can cause severe infections on the feet.

While filming at a diabetic foot clinic in Samoa, a 41-year-old woman arrives having lost feeling in her feet. Her left foot had collapsed and flesh was dying around a wound on its base. Dr Helene Stehlin, who runs the clinic, attempts to clean the wound to help it heal, but she’s seen many foot wounds like this result in amputation.

For someone in this position, losing weight becomes increasingly difficult. Damaged feet mean they can’t exercise, and they’re unable to repair damage to their feet without losing weight.

“When someone’s of such a large weight you might think ‘OK, swimming would be a really good thing for her’,” a nurse at the clinic tells Dateline. “But she can’t swim because of her wounds. So, like, what options does she have? Very limited.”

In American Samoa, an unincorporated US territory southeast of Samoa, the prevalence of diabetes is even worse.

One in every three people there has type 2 diabetes.

One 28-year-old diabetic we meet, Laurie May, is 11 weeks pregnant and has been told by doctor’s she risks losing her child if she doesn’t cut her sugar consumption. The condition has already damaged her eyes.

Laurie May says before she was pregnant she ate almost no vegetables: “I would literally cry if I look at veggies.”

For many Samoans a lack of awareness about healthy eating habits is a cause of high levels of obesity and diabetes. “Most of our diabetic clients were pretty much having to start from the beginning on education and getting them to be aware of nutrition,” says Dr Helene Stehlin, from the diabetic foot clinic.

Tavita is worried that his children will adopt his eating habits – eating fatty meats and drinking sugary drinks, while avoiding vegetables.

“I feel for them because they are eating sickness,” he tells Dateline. “They are eating what I loved to eat before but I know it made me sick.”

Right now Tavita is making an effort to turn his own health around by focusing on diet – and he knows how high the stakes are.

“I need to change fast. I want to live longer. I’ve now got this opportunity for a second chance in life and I must take it.”