Obesity: Populations at risk

By Associate Professor Anna Peeters, Baker IDI

Socio-economic differences in obesity

It is well known that obesity has increased greatly in Australian adults and children over the past decades. Today 3 in 5 adults and 1 in 4 children are overweight or obese. However, this differs a lot according to where people live and how well off they are. In general in Australia those who are living with greater disadvantage also have higher levels of obesity. While none of these indicators alone determines an individual’s risk of developing obesity, they are generally associated with a greater number of barriers to individuals pursuing healthy eating and activity. It is important that all efforts to prevent, manage and treat obesity are able to reach and benefit Australians across all socio-economic groups.

Where we live

Australians who live in remote or outer regional areas in Australia are more likely to be obese. Around 1 in 5 adults in these areas are obese compared to around 1 in 7 in inner cities (1). Another way of looking at where we live is using a measure called Socio-Economic Index for Areas (SEIFA), which ranks areas according to relative advantage or disadvantage. It is based on a range of characteristics of the population living in the area including income levels, education levels and English proficiency. In 2012, Australian adults living in areas with the most disadvantage were around twice as likely to be obese than those in the areas with least disadvantage (1).

Education, income and occupation

Each of the traditional markers of socio-economic position, education, income and occupation are negatively associated with obesity in Australia. When looking at groups of Australians, the higher the level of education, income or occupation, the lower the level of obesity (3-5). In men these associations are less clear, likely party due to the greater physical activity involved for occupations requiring less qualifications.

Indigenous Australians

Indigenous Australians are living with a much greater burden of obesity than non-Indigenous Australians. The most recent data, from 2004/5, demonstrated that Indigenous Australians were around twice as likely as non-Indigenous Australians to be obese (2).

Other groups at increased risk of obesity in Australia

Australians who are living with a disability, and those from specific culturally and linguistically diverse groups are also at a higher risk of obesity. Additional, specific obesity prevention and management strategies are likely to be required for these groups.


  2. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2012. Australia’s health 2012. Australia’s health series no.13. Cat. no. AUS 156.Canberra: AIHW
  3. Socioeconomic status and obesity: a review of the literature. Sobal J, Stunkard AJ. Psychol Bull. 1989 Mar;105(2):260-75. Review.
  4. Socioeconomic status and weight change in adults: a review. Ball K, Crawford D. Soc Sci Med. 2005 May;60(9):1987-2010. Epub 2004 Nov 11. Review.
  5. Socio-economic factors in obesity: a case of slim chance in a fat world? Ball K, Crawford D. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2006;15 Suppl:15-20. Review.