Almost two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, according to Statistics Canada – a dramatic increase over the last 30 plus years. As well, around 13 percent of Canadian children between the ages of five and 17 are obese and 20 percent are considered overweight.
The number of obese adults has doubled and the number of obese children in Canada has tripled since 1980.
It’s cold comfort that Canada is not alone. All industrialized countries have much the same pattern of increasing obesity rates. However, Canada has some of the highest obesity rates among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, ranking fifth among 40 nations.
What are the consequences?
During the same time frame, we’ve witnessed an increase in the rates of several chronic conditions: diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and certain cancers. Even though Canadians live longer than ever, these conditions result in more unhealthy years at the end of life, and put increased demand on the publicly funded healthcare system. These conditions are responsible for 48,000 to 66,000 deaths a year in Canada.
Obesity also has economic consequences. An increased burden of ill health on overweight and obese Canadians results in a lower rate of employment, higher absenteeism and decreased on-the-job productivity.
A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages not the answer to obesity by Natalie Riediger
So what’s the way forward?
The Senate Committee for Social Affairs, Science and Technology has just released its report, Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada. It puts forward 21 concrete recommendations, informed by a wide range of expert testimony.
Bottom line: It’s time for the federal government to take aggressive measures to help Canadians achieve and maintain healthy weights.
The report notes that we can learn lessons from Canada’s anti-smoking strategy. That strategy relied on several policies and approaches implemented by all levels of government. It too had to convey the scientific evidence about negative health consequences to all Canadians. And those working on the strategy understood they had to change minds and behaviour — and that behavioural change would take time. It was also necessary for the federal government to provide the leadership for a pan-Canadian approach.
With this model in mind, the Senate report calls on the federal government to create a “health in all policies” approach and implement a National Campaign to Combat Obesity with concrete goals, timelines and progress reports, and in partnership with the provinces and territories.
The report recommends a number of pragmatic measures that could be implemented right away, including strict controls on the advertising of unhealthy food and beverages to children. It’s also time for a tax on sugar-sweetened and artificially-sweetened beverages – and a prohibition on the use of partially hydrogenated oils to minimize trans fat content in food.
The report also emphasizes the need to find ways to increase the affordability of healthy foods, including removing or reducing taxes on them and considering food subsidies. To address escalating obesity rates in northern and aboriginal populations in particular, the report calls on the government to implement the recommendations made by the auditor general to the Nutrition North campaign.
Experts told the Senate committee that the Canada Food Guide is woefully out of step with the most recent research, and so we recommend that the minister of Health immediately undertake a complete revision of the food guide so that it better reflects the current scientific evidence.
The report calls for strict limits on health and nutrient content claims on food packaging – so Canadians can make informed, evidence-based decisions. And it calls on the minister to require nutrition labelling on restaurant menus.
Perhaps most surprising in the report is the OECD assessment that implementing comprehensive measures to counter obesity would cost us only $33 per capita — a reasonable expense for helping Canadians stay healthy.
There are many ways that all levels of government can help Canadians make healthier lifestyle and nutrition choices – these are just a few. Now the federal government must help make it all happen.
Senator Art Eggleton was the chair and deputy chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. This column. was co-authored by Senator Kelvin K. Ogilvie.