Ararat women Toni Stockwell and Katrina Pianta were competitors on The Biggest Loser television show five years ago. (Danielle Grindlay)
It has been five years since Katrina Pianta, from Ararat in western Victoria, competed on national television show The Biggest Loser, but her efforts to lose weight date back decades.
She remembers being a teenager, when the local doctor told her mother “your daughter needs to lose weight”.
“I just remember thinking, well what do I do? How do I do this?” she said.
“That started a whole lifelong battle of ‘what am I going to try next?'”
Fellow Ararat resident Toni Stockwell did not think much about her weight until she and her husband faced fertility issues.
“I don’t know whether it was the weight but … one of the IVF doctors said, ‘if you lose weight you should find falling pregnant easier,'” she said.
It was the ultimate incentive and Ms Blackwell felt like developing a weight loss solution was entirely up to her.
“I’m a teacher, I probably should have known somewhere else to go but I didn’t,” she said.
Seeking answers in Ararat was futile.
“It’s been estimated that somewhere around about 30 per cent of our local population has a problem with obesity and the services to treat it are just not available,” Ararat GP Derek Pope said.
“Our options are so limited for treating it on a holistic basis, it’s getting out of control.”
Six-year wait lists for metropolitan-based specialists
A study by Western Sydney University found that only 16 hospitals across the nation offered any form of specialist obesity services; none of them were in regional Australia.
Dr Evan Atlantis, who led the study, said obesity rates were worst in regional Australia but patients were forced to compete with hundreds of others vying to see specialists in the major cities.
“Wait lists date as far back as five [or] six years, or more,” Dr Atlantis said.
“Of the one million people in Australia who would be eligible for specialist obesity services, we found that less than one per cent were accessing them.”
The lack of services means regional residents have to travel significant distances to get treatment.
Ms Pianta has travelled to Melbourne to see endocrinologists, exercise physiologists and dieticians.
“How do you see those specialists? Do you take a day off? Is it classed as being sick if you’re obese and you’re seeing a specialist?” she said.
She had some success with a hormone specialist in Adelaide — a six-hour drive from Ararat.
“It took eight weeks to get in and I had to travel to South Australia all the time so that was unsustainable,” she said.
Governments under no pressure to allocate taxpayer dollars
Victoria’s chief preventive health officer Dr Bruce Bolan said the obesity crisis had “only really emerged in the last 20 or 30 years” and that it “took time” for health services to respond.
“The Victorian Government has put an additional $8 million into funding of hospital services … there are of course issues around wait times an also travel, particularly for people who live in regional and rural Victoria,” he said.
Dr Bolan said obesity was a growing problem and that additional funding was necessary, but said there was little pressure from the general public to allocate taxpayer dollars to the cause.
“Where there aren’t voices calling for change, they will inevitably be drowned out by competing priorities,” he said.
“People think of this as an individual-level issue, which it’s plainly not, [so] action on this as an issue is taking time to occur.”
Physicians call for attitude shift on obesity blame-game
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) this week released a new position statement on obesity, mounting pressure on Government to adopt a national policy.
“We tend to see obesity as being the problem of the individual,” RACP president Dr Catherine Yelland said.
“Given the public health concerns about the effects of obesity, the governments and our communities need to do as much as they possibly can.
“Seeing it as the person’s fault isn’t really going to help.”
The RACP pointed to a doubling of obesity rates in the past 40 years and made a list of recommendations, including introduction of a sugar tax and more government funding for public health services.
Twenty-eight countries around the world have implemented some kind of sugar tax.
The Biggest Loser a ‘fantasy’ solution: contestants
Meanwhile Katrina Pianta and Toni Stockwell are at the mercy of a long list of money-making schemes and online programs.
“Let’s be honest, it would be quicker for me to tell you what I haven’t done,” Ms Pianta said.
They both thought The Biggest Loser program would offer the list of specialists needed to transform their lives.
“The Biggest Loser was going to be my very last time that I had to worry about my weight,” Ms Pianta said.
“That’s where my life — my beautiful life — would take off.
“I lost over 40 kilograms but walking out the door, that’s where you leave the fantasy of reality TV behind.”
Five years on, both Ararat women have regained nearly all of the weight.
“You start to slip back into those habits that got you into that situation in the first place,” Ms Stockwell said.
“I’ve gone past where I was never going to let myself go past again.
“I don’t ever want to give up because I think if I do give up, things could be diabolical.”
Obese and ostracised: the stigma of being overweight
Ms Pianta is well aware of the blame levelled at obese people and others’ inability to understand her inability to lose weight.
“You could consider anyone that’s an addict, that it gets to a point where it’s bigger than themselves,” she said.
“But people have empathy for somebody that’s addicted to a substance.
“Food can be an addiction for some people but we look at them as just being overweight and they need to fix it themselves — we would never say to a drug addict, ‘oh go off and fix it yourself.'”
Ms Pianta said she often worried about judgement when eating out or “taking up space” in public.
“It’s very isolating and when there’s nowhere else to go for professional help, it’s even more isolating,” she said.
“The bigger you get, the more you tend to stay indoors.”