There’s that t-shirt sold at the Otara flea-market that says: “My mum can beat up your dad”. And it’s true! Our Samoan mothers can squash any little person in their way. Polynesians have always been a little bit bigger than most other peoples. Super Samoans!
Here in Niu Sila / New Zealand the national au lakapi / rugby team, the All Blacks are dominated by Maori and Pacific Islanders of Polynesian descent. Across the Tasman in Ausetalia / Australia one in four lakapi liki / rugby league players are Polynesian, with 75 per cent of junior representative teams in New South Wales of Polynesian heritage. In Amelika / America, there is a similar story developing in the NFL competition. I would hazard to guess there are less than 2 million Polynesians in a world of over 6 billion, yet why is our physique special enough to excel our people in to national sports teams? Super humans? A product of evolution?
There is a theory (also known as the fast twitch muscle fibres theory) that Polynesian people are descendants of those early mariners that crossed the great waters and became the original inhabitants of the South Pacific Islands. In order to survive those long cold oceanic journeys, their Polynesian bodies evolved to develop maximum muscle building capabilities as a means of generating and preserving body temperature. This was a direct adaptation to an environmental factor. Those that could not adapt died, whereas the survivors carried with them genetic advantages, creating a hybrid body of sorts, capable of performing enormous feats of physical labor, on very little calories, and very little water. These early evolutionary patterns form the basis of the contemporary Polynesian body. It enables Polynesian bodies to:
1. Build muscle easily
2. Possess unique strength to mass capabilities
3. Withstand harsh environmental conditions more easily
4. Endure long periods with little food and little water
Unfortunately these adaptations also mean Polynesian bodies will:
1. Store excess energy more easily in the form of body fat
2. Store excess water subcutaneously
3. Burn calories at a slower more gradual pace
Or so the theory goes.
In Niu Sila on Tuesday, the media were running articles on a newly released study showing Niu Sila is the third fattest nation in the developed world. The Health Care Data 2009 report, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, focused on 30 nations. Of those that reported on weight issues, all showed they were getting fatter. The obesity rate among adults in New Zealand in 2007 was 26.5 per cent. This compared with figures reported the previous year by the United States at 34.3 per cent and Mexico at 30 per cent. The figure compares with a reported 25 per cent obesity rate in New Zealand in 2003 and 18 per cent in 1997.
People in Niu Sila have jumped on the band wagon to show the rise in the obesity epidemic. While others use it to point the blame in the 3rd placing at the large Polynesian population here in Niu Sila. While it is true that Polynesians do have obesity related health problems, the figures used when comparing between Polynesians and other ethnic groups need to be qualified.
What is often used by these studies to show obesity is the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is a measurement of body weight in relation to a person’s height. A BMI chart tells whether a person is their ideal weight, overweight or obese.
But there are also a steady acceptance in the health and scientific communities that Polynesians have a different body mass index to Caucasians. Even the Caucasian BMI have had a few speed bumps, with claims that Brad Pitt would be considered obese and so would all the Palagi’s in the All Blacks team.
A senior research fellow at Auckland’s Department of Community Health, Dr Boyd Swinburn says “If Polynesians use the European charts, they’ll be misguided. In the past, the average BMI for Europeans was about 25 to 30, so we assumed there was more obesity in the Polynesian community. We will need to reassess that information using the BMI charts for Polynesians which are relevant to them.”
“The preliminary indications are that Polynesians have less body fat than Europeans for a given body size, but they have a higher muscle content which is unusual for people from the tropics,” says Dr Swinburn. His studies also indicated that the bone density for Polynesians is higher than Europeans. This means Polynesians’ bones are heavier and have a calcium level which makes them less prone to osteoporosis and other bone disorders than Europeans.
In a later article published in the International Journal of Obesity, Dr Swinburn concluded at higher BMI levels, Polynesians were significantly leaner than Europeans, implying the need for separate BMI definitions of overweight and obesity for Polynesians. “This means that a 100kg Polynesian man will have less fat and more muscle than a 100kg European man. If you put both on a body-building programme, the Polynesian would probably bulk up faster because he has more muscle mass to work with.”
That’s not to say that many Polynesians are not obese, but to use the BMI for Caucasians on Polynesians is misrepresented. As Dr Swinburn said “However, if they [a Caucasian and a Polynesian] both ate the same amount of fatty foods over a period of time, the Polynesian would be more likely to develop heart disease, gout and diabetes at a faster rate.”
Knowing the types of crap food (mostly the cheap meat from Niu Sila – lamb flaps, corned beef and brisket) our people have become accustomed to, it’s not too hard to see that we have become obese even using our own (BMI) indicators.