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Matt Sabin launched into his doctorate on obesity more than a decade ago. At that time, people wondered why he’d chosen to study obesity – surely it was just a matter of getting kids to exercise more and eat better?
“There are a lot of myths and presumptions about obesity,” the researcher says. “They’re all based on the notion that if we get children to run around a bit more and eat a bit better, the problem will go away,” he says.
“We clearly know that’s not the case anymore. There’s really strong genetics that have geared some individuals to become obese. From an evolutionary point of view, it’s quite protective.”
The father-of-two, who leads the largest tertiary-hospital paediatric obesity clinic in Australia at RCH, moved from the UK to Australia with his wife in 2006 to continue his research.
About a quarter of all children in Australia – an estimated 330,000 in Victoria – are either overweight or obese. While obesity rates have stabilised over the past decade, 25 per cent of kids are still obese – an unacceptably high number, says Matt.
“For a quarter of all kids to be overweight or obese, that’s far too high,” he says.
Obesity is also increasing in severity. Over the past three to five years, Matt has seen more patients who are heavier than ever, including three-year-olds who are 35kg and 15-year-olds who are 250kg.
Although Matt hasn’t had a patient die from obesity-related causes, he worries this is inevitable.
“We are not far away from seeing a number of adolescents dying from obesity-related health problems. I think we will begin to see that over the next five to 10 years.”
However, it’s not the level of obesity but the duration – when it started – that determines the likelihood of developing obesity-related complications such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer, according to one of his major research findings.
Another encouraging finding was that obese children who shed kilos and maintain a healthy weight into adulthood return their health status to having the same risks of diabetes and heart disease as if they had never been obese.
“It was quite reassuring and exciting to know there is not memory in the system,” says Matt. “It’s probably the biggest impetus for us to try and do something about kids who are obese today.
“That has really enthused me to do something about every single patient that we see. When we get good results, and it’s not that uncommon for us to get good results, that’s really heartening and the families love it.”
About 80 per cent of young children who attend the hospital’s weight management service improve their body composition and about one third reduce their diabetes and heart disease risks, Matt says.
Unlike adults, children can avoid regaining the weight they lose. Other studies have shown obese adults who shed kilos often gain it again over several years as the body vigorously defends against weight loss. Matt is leading research to understand whether this phenomenon also occurs in children and teenagers. He hopes it will reveal at what age the body begins to defend a heavier body weight.
Helping kids resolve their weight issues is not just a medical matter. It can reverberate throughout their life, improving their overall wellbeing, social life and schooling, says Matt, and it’s what makes his job so special.
“The joy you get from curing kids from weight problems, and particularly seeing them emerge from their shell to become young adults who are completely self-confident, who have done well at school, who are heading off to university, that’s really rewarding.”