Fighting excess sugar consumption in Cape York

Amanda Lyons

5/12/2017 12:40:20 PM

Excessive sugar consumption is a major health problem in many remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout Australia.

The Sugary drinks proper no good – Drink more water Youfla campaign includes access to free water throughout the local community.
The Sugary drinks proper no good – Drink more water Youfla campaign includes access to free water throughout the local community.

‘We’re really worried about the impact of sugar in our area, because of the high rates of overweight and obesity leading to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease,’ Dr Mark Wenitong, senior medical officer at Apunipima Cape York Health Council in Far North Queensland, told newsGP.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today consume 15 g more free sugars on average than non-Indigenous Australians, with the majority of the excess coming in the form of sweetened beverages.
In response to this situation, the Apunipima Cape York Health Council launched its public health campaign, Sugary drinks proper no good – Drink more water Youfla, in November. The campaign uses a variety of channels to raise awareness, with language designed to resonate with the target demographic.
‘The language came from our Aboriginal health workers,’ Dr Wenitong said. ‘We are trying to get the message into the communities in a number of ways, from primary healthcare clinics, through GPs and health workers; through radio and TV ads; and also through social media.
‘[Social media] is the big one these days, because most people in remote communities have mobile devices and are pretty avid users of social media.’
In remote populations such as Cape York, some of the increased consumption of sweetened beverages can be attributed to the challenges presented by the logistics of a remote location.
‘Our area is tropical and remote, so there’s not a lot of infrastructure around with constant access to cool water, and we have lot of hot weather so people are always looking for a cold drink, particularly in summer,’ Dr Wenitong said. 
‘If all that is around is soft drinks, that’s what people are going to go for.’ 
Dr Wenitong also believes there is a historical basis for sugar consumption among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
‘Back in the day when [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples] were consigned to missions, they were fed white sugar, white flour, white tea. That was their staple diet,’ he said. ‘That’s why, I think, we’ve got this long history of having a poor diet, leading to a lot of the chronic diseases we have today.’
The Sugary drinks proper no good – Drink more water Youfla campaign also has a practical component in order to ensure its message is actually achievable.
‘[That involves] making sure there’s water coolers outside the store, free water in the schools, handing out free bottles that people can refill with water and keep with them,’ Dr Wenitong said.
While the message of the campaign is simple and straightforward – just drink water – Dr Wenitong believes GPs can also use it to highlight a range of other positive health messages.
‘When you’re using self-management techniques, you’re really asking patients what’s most important in their lives and then hanging on that some of the things you know are healthy for them,’ Dr Wenitong said.
‘If it’s, “I really want to lose weight” they can say “One of the ways we can help you with that is to drink more water and drink less sugary drinks”; if it’s “I want to improve my dentition” they can say “Well, swap the lollies and soft drinks for water and healthier things, like fruit”.’  
Dr Wenitong hopes the campaign will have a positive effect on the health of his community and his people.
‘What we say in a cultural way is water is not colonised, and it’s not coming from corporates who are trying to make money,’ he said. ‘Water has been here ever since we’ve been here. Keep drinking it.’

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