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Chef Simon Gault “Why Are We Fat?” presenter and human guinea pig, Prime TV, NZ, 10 Sept, 8.30pm


One of my recent jobs has been as a researcher for television programmes. “Why Are We Fat?” is a 3 x 1 hours documentary series asking why we have this extraordinary obesity epidemic that has spiralled out of control in the last 50 years. Closely related is the tsunami of type 2 diabetes, once called age onset diabetes, it is now afflicting children.

Simon Gault was a judge on Masterchef New Zealand, a highly successful restaurateur who was concerned about the type 2 diabetes he had suffered from for a number of years. With a 2 year old daughter, he was committed to looking for answers for himself and others facing both obesity and diabetes.

(For those of you outside New Zealand, this series is currently showing on Qantas airways, and BBC Asia)


Prime TV have programme outlines, and interviews with some of the experts who appear on the programmes, here is what they write:

It’s official; there are now more fat people than skinny people in the world. Obesity is the biggest health crisis on the planet. For the first time in history children are facing shorter lives than their parents. The world’s health systems face an approaching tsunami of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Unfortunately New Zealand is leading the way.  A million New Zealand adults are already obese, and another 1.25 million are significantly overweight – which means a staggering 64% of New Zealanders are now either obese or overweight.  In the developed world, only Americans are fatter.

So how did this happen? How did we go from obesity rates of 9%, to 30% in less than a generation? Why Are We Fat? explains the reasons for our rapid weight gain and looks at what we can do about it.

Presented by Chef Simon Gault, this three-part documentary series examines the science behind obesity and the looming health crisis. Simon talks to experts from around the world and becomes a human guinea-pig in an attempt to improve his own health.

Episode 1

Obesity is now the greatest health crisis in the world, so what can we do about it? Chef and presenter Simon Gault cuts through the myths around obesity and uncovers the facts, talking to leading experts to learn what causes the ever-increasing epidemic. Also putting himself forward as a guinea pig, Simon uses the latest, most cutting-edge science to see exactly what health problems he’s facing. He gets nutritional advice and is put through some intense exercise to try and make a change and improve his health for good, and to help other Kiwis through this process.

New Zealand is the third fattest nation amongst developed countries. One in three adults are obese in NZ. But it’s not just our country that is facing this endemic health problem. Our neighbours across the ditch, Australia, are spending $15 billion a year on obesity related medical costs. It’s an international phenomenon – there are now more overweight than underweight people in the world. Over the last 35 years obesity rates have more than doubled.

Living life as a busy chef has meant a not-so healthy lifestyle for Simon. He consistently gained weight over the years but the real bombshell came a few years ago when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. He realised for the first time that his bad habits were killing him, and he needed to make a drastic change. Although he has lost some weight, he learns from Dr William Ferguson that he still falls into the obese category.

Research shows processed food and added sugar is a large contributor to the world’s obesity epidemic. This becomes evident when Simon goes shopping with a regular Kiwi family and examines what they are putting in their trolley. The idea that sugar is addictive is still controversial in the nutritional world, but in the first part of this documentary series some of the experts will argue that sugar is just as addictive as alcohol.

Simon puts himself through other medical tests including finding out his fat to muscle ratio in the “bod pod” at Massey University and using an MRI machine to gauge how much of his fat is visceral fat. Shocked to learn the true state of his health, Simon commits to making some serious changes so he can live longer and overcome his diabetes.

Experts featured:
Professor Wayne Cutfield – Paediatric Endocrinologist, Auckland, New Zealand
Professor Jennie Brand-Miller – Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney, Australia
Gary Taubes – Journalist and Author, Co-Founder of Nutrition Science Initiative, USA
Professor Neil Mann – Retired Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry, RMIT University Melbourne, Australia
Dr Robert Lustig, MD – Professor of Pediatrics, University of California San Francisco (UCSF), School Of Medicine, USA
Dr Lynda Frasetto – Clinical Professor of Medicine University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), USA
Dr William Ferguson – Kumeu Medical Centre, Auckland, New Zealand
Owen Mugridge – Research/Technical Assistant, Massey Institute of Food Science & Technology, Auckland, New Zealand

Episode 2

In part two of Prime’s documentary series, Why Are We Fat?, Simon tackles one of his most-hated activities – exercise. First up, a cardio-vascular fitness test so the team at AUT’s Millennium Institute can prescribe the most appropriate exercise for Simon – short, sharp resistance training and high-intensity interval training.

Back at Dr William Ferguson’s office, Simon receives the results of his gene tests, which provide some valuable insights into his weight struggles and will help him carry on his journey to better health in a more targeted way. Shockingly, he learns that his body is 800 percent more likely to gain weight from carbohydrates than someone without that gene.

Simon has heard what can happen to those with diabetes that is not properly managed, but at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital he meets Dr Murray Cox to see the effects of this disease in person. He meets patients who are suffering from blindness, kidney failure, and loss of limbs as a result of their battle with diabetes.

In America, Dr Stephan J. Guyenet explains how through the release of dopamine while eating, people become addicted to calorie-dense, high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods. Meeting up with Dr Gerhard Sundborn (who has a special interest in the health and diet of Pacific Island people) at the Otara Markets in South Auckland, Simon learns about the groups within New Zealand that struggle with obesity more so than others – Maori and Pasifika. Research shows these communities are eating diets high in fat, sodium and sugar, with a lot of food consumed from takeaway shops and dairies. One in four Pacific Islanders have diabetes. One school in South Auckland didn’t wait around for health problems to come to them – they acted. Yendarra Primary in Otara, South Auckland, have made major changes when it comes to food. When Susan Dunlop took over as principal she found that the kids’ lunchboxes were full of junk food and the children were suffering for it. The school went ‘water-only’ in 2006, and kids are encouraged to bring healthy lunches to school. Not only has their physical health improved dramatically, but truancy is down and attention levels are up.

Later, Simon gets a visit from nutritionist Dr Mikki Williden, who arms him with an eating plan that combined with his exercise routine will put him well on his way to a healthier lifestyle.

Experts featured:
Matt Wood – Lecturer & HPC Clinic Manager, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand
Nigel Harris – Senior Lecturer, Exercise Science, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand
Dr William Ferguson – Kumeu Medical Centre, Auckland, New Zealand
Dr Murray Cox – Vascular Surgeon, Middlemore Hospital, Auckland, New Zealand
Dr Stephan J. Guyenet – Obesity Researcher and Neurobiologist, Seattle, USA
Dr Gerhard Sundborn – Epidemiologist, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Susan Dunlop – Principal, Yendarra School, Auckland, New Zealand
Professor Kerin O’Dea – Nutrition and Population Health, School of Health Sciences, University of South Australia, Australia
Associate Professor Felice Jacka – Psychiatric Epidemiologist, Deakin University, Australia
Luke Sniewski – Personal Trainer, Auckland, New Zealand
Dr Mikki Williden – Nutritionist, Auckland, New Zealand

Episode 3

In the final instalment of Why Are We Fat?, Simon Gault’s support team share with him their belief that quality of sleep is almost, if not as important for your health as your diet quality. To find out more about how and why sleep affects our health, Simon travels to California to meet sleep expert Dr Kirk Parsley, who has explored the relationship between how much body fat you have and how well you sleep. Sleep contributes to obesity and diabetes in many ways, mostly through hormones and its effect on your appetite. Not only is lack of sleep bad for your weight, it increases people’s risk for all disease including heart attacks, strokes, all auto-immune diseases and mental health.

Equally shocking for Simon to learn is how bacteria in your gut affects our overall health. A major question is whether or not gut bacteria can contribute to weight gain, which a lot of research is currently focussed on.

So, how do we fix it? People have been in pursuit of a quick fix for years, but we need to look at our lifestyles and make some hard choices. Going on a diet is not a sustainable option. To add to this, almost everyone will change the types of food they eat when they are stressed, turning to high calorie meals. To get long term results people must undergo a lifestyle change.

While some experts are campaigning for a tax on sugar, others are trying to bring down the price of foods that are healthier so it is accessible for all.

At Dilworth School’s rural campus, Head of School John Rice noticed that a lot of the boys were exercising regularly and were active, but weren’t dropping weight. He decided a complete overhaul of the boys’ diet was the only way to keep them healthy. The students and teachers eat from the same menu, and everyone is enjoying the benefits from this new food regime.

And finally, the moment of truth. Three months down the track it’s time for Simon to revisit all the experts who poked and prodded him, kicking off his health journey, to find out how the changes he has made have impacted his health.

Dr Rinki Murphy – Diabetes Physician, Auckland University Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, New Zealand
Dr William Ferguson – Kumeu Medical Centre, Auckland, New Zealand,
Nigel Harris – Senior Lecturer, Exercise Science, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand
Dr Mikki Williden – Nutritionist, Auckland, New Zealand
Dr Kirk Parsley – Sleep Specialist, USA
Dr Erica Sonnenburg – Senior Research Scientist, Stanford University School of Medicine, USA
Associate Professor Justin Sonnenburg – Stanford University School of Medicine, USA
Professor Wayne Cutfield – Paediatric Endocrinologist, Auckland, New Zealand
Professor Neil Mann – Retired Professor of Nutritional Biochemistry, RMIT University Melbourne, Australia
Dr Stephan J. Guyenet – Obesity Researcher and Neurobiologist, Seattle, USA
Dr Lynda Frasetto – Clinical Professor of Medicine, UCSF Medical Center, USA
Dr Wilma Waterlander – Research Fellow, National Institute for Health Innovation, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
John Rice – Head of Dilworth School Rural Campus, Auckland, New Zealand
Craig Johnston – Rural Campus Catering Manager Dilworth School, Auckland, New Zealand

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