Canada faces an epidemic of bulging waistlines – about one in four adults is obese.
To combat this trend in the central Island, the Vancouver Island Health Authority is targeting programs at children and youth.
“The most important thing we can do is prevent it in children,” said Eileen Bennewith, a registered dietician and VIHA public health nutritionist.
The Obesity in Canada report, released last month by the Public Health Agency of Canada and Canadian Institute for Health Information, indicates obesity rates almost doubled among men and women between 1981 and 2009.
While actual weight and height measurement data puts obesity at 25 per cent the national self-reported number is 17.1 per cent. The central Island area is nearly on par at 16.9 per cent.
Obesity cost the Canadian economy an estimated $4.6 billion in 2008, based on eight chronic conditions commonly linked to it, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and hypertension.
“Canada is facing an obesity epidemic,” said Charlene Wiles, spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada, in a press release. “Reducing obesity levels and promoting healthy weights is critical to the prevention of ill health.”
Obesity rates in children and youth ages six to 17 is 8.6 per cent and rates among children have almost tripled in the last 25 years. But Bennewith said the prevalence of obesity among youth is below 10 per cent.
“It makes me hopeful our message is getting through,” she said.
Bennewith said obesity stems from many causes, not just poor nutrition. The June report suggests causes are complex and include individual choices, as well as environmental and social factors.
“The messages we use around obesity are extremely important,” said Bennewith. “More of our focus should be prevention.”
Bennewith said there is also too much focus on obesity itself, instead of its causes.
Children who are overweight or obese are the “canaries in the coalmine” for the entire nation’s poor diet, she said, adding poor eating habits in youth can affect their growth and development, affect learning and lead to further health problems down the road.
The health authority has a number of programs aimed at prevention, but Bennewith said it starts with breastfeeding. A child who is breastfed begins to monitor and gauge their own appetite. They use those skills when they begin to eat solid foods and as they grow.
The health authority is also part of an obesity task force created in February.
The effort was formed to define a need for developing a healthy weights initiative focused on children, identify resources, partners and program contributors and identify funding issues. It involves nine members from various organizations and professions, including VIHA staff, physicians and psychologists.
The task force is in its early stages, but members plan to engage schools, family physicians and Nanaimo’s parks, recreation and culture department.
The federal government has also launched Our Health Our Future: A National Dialogue on Health Weights, which aims to curb childhood obesity and promote healthy living.
Other programs include the children’s Fitness Tax Credit, Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide and more than $6 million to fund ParticipAction.
Obese Canadians are four times more likely to have diabetes and about three times more likely to have high blood pressure.
Obesity rates in children have almost tripled in the last 25 years.
British Columbia has the lowest combined overweight and obesity rates at 45 per cent.
51,000 children in British Columbia ages two to 17 were classified as obese and 138,500, 20 per cent, as overweight.