New Zealand opposition leader Judith Collins has been criticised for calling obesity a “personal choice”, creating a headache for her National party which is struggling in the polls ahead of Saturday’s election.

Collins told radio station Newstalk ZB that “people need to start taking some personal responsibility for their weight” before joking that weight gain was not an epidemic and “wasn’t catching”.

New Zealand is listed by the OECD as the third fattest country in the world, with 31% of Kiwis regarded as obese. Aotearoa sits behind only Mexico (32%) and the United States (38%). Two in three Pasifika (66%) and half of Māori (48%) are obese.

Collins attacked suggestions her views oversimplified a complex issue or were heartless. “Do you know what is heartless? Thinking that someone else can cure these issues. We can all take personal responsibility,” she said.

She criticised parents on the AM Show, saying: “It doesn’t take actually much to get frozen vegetables out of the freezer and pull them out and do something with them. It’s not that hard.”

Mark Mitchell, a former defence minister and expected party leadership contender to Collins should she lose the election, said obesity was “a lot more complex”. “Some obesity is related to medical conditions, even psychological conditions that need treating, so it’s a more complex issue,” he told Newstalk ZB.

Dr Lisa Te Morenga, senior lecturer in Māori health and nutrition at Victoria University, called Collins’ remarks “outrageous and disappointing”.

“Making healthy food choices is really difficult for people when they are constrained by income, lack of access to healthy foods and the environment is full of junk food options,” she said. “And Maori and Pasifika families earn less money, are more likely to live in poverty and in areas not well served by shops.”

Te Morenga