In response to the growing rate of obese and overweight children in Canada, the government held a summit Monday on healthy weights to address the epidemic, regarded as one of the biggest threats to public health in the 21st century.
The summit was part of the Our Health, Our Future national dialogue, a process that involves government and partner NGOs in identifying ideas and actions to reduce childhood obesity and promote healthy weights.
“Unhealthy weight is a significant public health concern that requires attention from many sectors of society,” Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in a statement.
Aglukkaq said the federal government will put an additional $4 million toward new activities to promote healthy eating by informing Canadians how they can improve their overall health and decrease their risk of obesity and other nutrition-related chronic diseases.
The next phase of the initiative will engage youth, parents, and caregivers in a national conversation on healthy weight, and will focus on promoting healthy eating by encouraging consumers to reduce their intake of food and drinks high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium.
Healthy eating habits such as eating more fruits and vegetables will also be promoted through various media, and advice will be provided to Canadians on how to follow Canada’s Food Guide at home, at the grocery store, and when eating out.
“Some of these steps seem like common sense, but these actions are the greatest steps that Canadians can take to stay healthy and save healthcare costs across the country,” Aglukkaq said.
But some are not optimistic the government’s initiative will be effective, given the multiple factors that contribute to obesity.
Obesity expert Dr. Arya Sharma, who attended the healthy weights summit, said any campaign to target the disease needs to address its root causes.
“The focus on childhood obesity in isolation is neither likely to be effective nor fiscally feasible,” Sharma said in a post on his website.
“Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that a) the ‘root cause’ of obesity actually lies in fundamental and deep-rooted societal changes that may take decades to reverse (if at all) and b) will also need to ultimately address obesity in the parents, who themselves more often than not, struggle with excess weight,” he explained.
“I see no reason to believe that a focus on children, without also addressing the very issues that lead to obesity in the parents, is likely to be effective. Indeed, for many overweight and obese children (and their parents) it is no longer a matter of prevention—it is high time for treatment.”
Childhood obesity has skyrocketed in the past 20 years. Twenty-six percent of Canadian children between the ages of 2 and 17 are overweight or obese, and 59 percent of Canadian adults, with rates even higher among the aboriginal population.
The number of teenage boys considered overweight or obese has more than doubled, from 14 percent in 1981 to 31 percent in 2009. Among teenage girls, it has increased to 25 percent.
Obesity has been linked with many chronic diseases, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis and certain types of cancer.
“The fact is we are raising the first generation of children that will not outlive their parents if current obesity trends and rates continue,” said Dr. Stewart Kennedy, president of the Ontario Medical Association.
“The health impact on our children today, along with the future health care expenditures to treat obesity related illnesses, are too prohibitive. We need action today.”
According to a 2011 study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information and the Public Health Agency of Canada, obesity costs the Canadian economy between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion a year.