A new Senate report titled “Obesity in Canada,” released on March 1, calls for a national campaign to combat the “obesity crisis in this country.” Its 21 recommendations range across topics such as food labelling, physician training, financial incentives and public awareness targeting healthy eating and physical activity.
While much media coverage has focused narrowly on the recommendation to increase taxes on sweetened beverages, Frans Leenen, MD, PhD, FRCPC, FAHA, Director of the Hypertension Unit at the Ottawa Heart Institute, welcomed the report.
“An official acknowledgement of the problem is obviously an important starting point,” said Dr. Leenen. “Obesity has an enormous impact on a number of diseases—not just heart disease, but also diabetes, cancer and other conditions.”
With Heart Institute colleagues, Dr. Leenen co-authored a landmark survey of obesity and hypertension in Ontario that found that two thirds of adults and one third of children are obese or overweight.
According to the Senate report, this crisis in obesity is costing Canada between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion annually in health care and lost productivity. In fact, the average size and weight of Canadians has grown over the last several decades (see infographic below).
“It’s not that the population has lost their will power. It’s that the environment has changed,” Dr. Leenen explained. “Portions have increased in size. As the report says, the average daily calorie intake has gone up by about 250 calories. That may not sound like a lot, but over years, that adds up to quite a few pounds. In parallel, over the same time, the amount of physical activity for many has gone down.”
The environment we live in encourages and promotes unhealthy foods in a variety of ways. In many cases, unhealthy food is less expensive and more easily available. At the same time, work situations often discourage physical activity and the layout of urban areas makes driving the most attractive or only option.
Dr. Leenen applauded the report’s broad-based recommendations: “I think it is very sensible. The important thing is to implement simple strategies to make it easier for people to make healthier choices.”
“We need a multipronged approach similar to what has been done with smoking,” he said. “In the past, everyone would smoke. It was an accepted thing to do. Now smoking is no longer accepted in most situations. That’s something we need to change for unhealthy eating as well.”
As with quitting smoking, the reversal of obesity is very difficult. He stressed that there should be an emphasis on preventing weight gain in the first place.
“Schools, government buildings and hospitals shouldn’t be selling unhealthy foods such as sugary drinks. They shouldn’t be an option. And these public buildings should be more user friendly in terms of physical activity,” he continued. “In addition, we need to re-examine cutbacks that have been made to physical education in schools.”
“I like the fact that they address food labelling. The Senate replacte indicate that his needs to be simplified. It takes too much time for people to see if a product is a healthy choice or not, if at all.” Dr. Leenen pointed to England’s simple green-yellow-red labelling system as a good example.
“There are foods that are clearly healthy and foods that are clearly not healthy. Those are the places to start. We need to look at ways to make healthy food more affordable, not simply tax unhealthy options. This would help to encourage people in the right direction.”