More than 40 per cent of schools sell sugary drinks, more than 90 per cent use unhealthy food for fundraising and during children's peak television viewing time there are eight advertisements for junk food every hour.

Those are just a few of the findings of a study, released today and carried out over three years, that has found New Zealand's high obesity rates are inevitable given the prevalence of unhealthy food in communities.

New Zealand is already the third most obese country and recent research predicted two million Kiwis would be obese by 2038. Last year, 37 per cent of school children were overweight.

The University of Auckland study, titled "How healthy are New Zealand food environments?", found food composition, labelling, marketing and prices, and food in schools and retail outlets created food environments that were mainly unhealthy.

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"People choose their diets from the food environments around them and when these are dominated by unhealthy foods and drinks, it is no surprise that our overall diets are unhealthy and our obesity rates are so high," said Professor Boyd Swinburn, who led the study.

Swinburn was surprised to find food in schools was largely unhealthy, given all the publicity about rising childhood obesity.

Professor Boyd Swinburn says action needs to be taken to make our communities healthier. Photo / NZPA
Professor Boyd Swinburn says action needs to be taken to make our communities healthier. Photo / NZPA

Only 40 per cent of schools had a food policy, while more than 90 per cent of schools used unhealthy food for fundraising and 42 per cent sold sugary drinks.

Within 500m of the school gate, there were an average of 2.4 takeaway or convenience stores and nine outdoor advertisements for unhealthy foods.

The marketing of junk food was just as bad. In peak children's television viewing times there were eight ads an hour about junk food, while 43 per cent of food ads in teen magazines were unhealthy.

The study also found poorer neighbourhoods had three times as many fast-food outlets and convenience stores, more ads for unhealthy foods around schools and more shelf space devoted to unhealthy items in supermarkets.

"You don't have to look far to see why we have such big health disparities in the rates of obesity, diabetes, dental caries and even mental health problems," said Swinburn.

Giving councils the power to regulate factors influencing wellbeing in communities, particularly near schools; encouraging schools to make changes; a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks; and a target for reducing childhood obesity would all have a significant effect on the health of Kiwis, he said.

The issue of a sugar tax has been thrust into the limelight again this week with the chairman of the Capital & Coast and Hutt Valley DHBs calling for a tax in a letter to the Minister of Health.

The one positive finding in the report was the success of district health boards in removing all sugary drinks from their premises and the development of health food service policies.

School battling sugar with water

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Hoani Waititi Marae is one school which is taking action to improve the health of its kids and the wider community.

At the start of last year the kura started working with Debbie Rāroa from Healthy Families Waitakere and made the decision to go wai māori (water) only.

Principal Hare Rua said students and teachers at the kura were no longer allowed fizzy drinks, sugary drinks or even sugar-free drinks such as Coke Zero. Instead they were to drink only water while on school grounds.

"Sugar is one of the biggest destroyers of our people," Rua said, citing the issues it cased such as diabetes and obesity. "Even for the eight hours we have the kids at school, if we can just influence them in some way by forcing healthy choices on them."

He said the students were being taught not only about the dangers of sugar and the importance of water but also about eating well and were growing their own fresh produce in gardens at the school and marae.

"Māori statistics in health are always at the bottom. It's work we have to do for the wellbeing of our tamariki and hopefully we make an impact on other kura," he said.

The students were taking ownership of the project and were now pulling up their families and teachers for drinking sugary drinks, Rua said.

The kura's senior kapa haka team also choreographed and performed an item about water and healthy eating at the national kapa haka championships recently.