How I got fat and what I am doing about it

THEN: Melinda McMillan in 2014 after years of dieting.

THEN: Melinda McMillan in 2014 after years of dieting.


NOW: Melinda McMillan after a plant-based, whole-food diet.

NOW: Melinda McMillan after a plant-based, whole-food diet.

FIGURES released in recent days by Australian Health Policy Collaboration have revealed Raymond Terrace, at 70.8 percent of the population, is home to the highest percent of overweight residents in NSW.

Those who reside within this post code are not alone. The figures are just 7 per cent higher than the national average of 63.4 per cent. As a person who has experienced almost life-long overweight/obesity, I am not surprised by the numbers. 

I was a fat kid who became an obese adult. As the youngest and only adopted child of five, I grew up along-side four thin siblings. Same home, same meals, same school, same everything. When I met my birth-mother at 21 I was shocked to discover she was obese – just like me. This woman, who I had not had contact with since moments after my birth, had shaped my life through the DNA she had passed on to me. 

There is no question the propensity to gain weight, in most instances, is in our genes. Genetics is a two fold game. First you need the right, or wrong, combination of genetic mutations. Next you need the right environment to switch them on. The western diet does the latter beautifully. 

Growing up as a fat surfie chick at Merewether Beach was, shall we say, character building. I wanted to be thin, but it was simply something I could not achieve. 

From my mid-teens I started to try to lose weight - losing, gaining and failing. I read every self help book, followed recommendations, sought help from medical professionals, starved, exercised, and just got fatter.

At 42 I went to see a surgeon. It seemed like an extreme measure, but one I was prepared to take. Anything to lose the weight. The doctor I saw recommended I undergo a procedure called the gastric sleeve. He would remove most of my stomach leaving it about the size of an Artline texta. When I asked him about the risks of the procedure, he said I had a one in 500 chance of dying as a result. I said “No”. 

The weight loss attempts continued until one day just over two years ago I had a light-bulb moment.  I realised, “I am a journalist, I know how to research, to dig down and get to the bottom of things.’” I decided to take a journalistic approach to my overweight/obesity problem. 

This attitude saw me go back to university and undertake a graduate diploma in human nutrition, which I am still completing. At university I learned biochemistry and how the body metabolises food. I could not believe no one had told me this before – I began to understand why I was fat. For the last two years I have read everything I can get my hands on, peer reviewed studies and academic texts, trying to understand the nature and the cause of obesity. 

Today I live without sugar or processed foods. I eat a predominantly plant-based diet. I have lost more than 50kgs over two years and I am still going. I am no longer obese. I would like to say it was a doctor, a dietitian or the other health professionals I turned to over the years to get help, but it wasn’t. 

The message to eat less and move more is way too simplistic to address the complexity of a world-wide obesity crisis. It is a message which has failed. And it is a message which will continue to fail until government finds the guts to take direct action and resource it. 

It is well established that obesity and poverty are linked. It is a bitter irony that the foods which are cheapest are also obesogenic – high in sugar and refined carbohydrate. They are absolutely pervasive in the western diet. And it is no coincidence that the rate of increased consumption of these foods is linear with growing obesity. 

Last week the AMA called for a sugar tax on softdrinks. It is my view this is a step in the right direction but only if it reflects the true cost of obesity. The tax must cover the cost to the tax-payer of coronary heart disease, type II diabetes and the 10 or so cancers to which overweight/obesity are linked. If so, then yes, let’s tax sugar.  

But of course, it’s not all about softdrink. Other actions must be taken. Food labels need reform. They are a nonsense to most people and one needs a PhD to understand them.  Marketing of so called health foods, which are not, needs to be reined in.   

Nutrition must be taught at school. It is a science and once its basics are understood a person is in a much better position to make an informed choice. Until then we are all at the mercy of fads, marketing, misinformation and those who seek to profit from those of us who are fat. Those effected by obesity need access to education and affordable support to make a life-saving change. 

Melinda McMillan is a journalist at The Newcastle Star.

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