Opinion: A prescription for the obesity epidemic

Excerpts from the introduction to “Obesity in Canada — A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada,” a report issued this month by the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.


There is an obesity crisis in this country. Canadians are paying for it with their wallets — and with their lives.

But there is hope.

Over the course of nearly two dozen meetings, the committee heard expert testimony from a range of Canadian and international stakeholders including individuals representing health and exercise professions, diet and health research sectors, food and beverage industries, Aboriginal groups, health charities, as well as the federal government.

The committee’s findings show that each year 48,000 to 66,000 Canadians die from conditions linked to excess weight, nearly two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are obese or overweight and obesity is costing the country between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion annually in health care and lost productivity.

This report describes an innovative, whole-of-society approach to address this important issue.

It said the proliferation of fast and processed foods, coupled with the overwhelming use of electronic devices, have led to an environment where it is all too easy to eat poorly and remain inactive.

This is not the product of a collective loss of willpower — low-income Canadians, for example, often rely on unhealthy foods because these items are cheaper and sometimes all that is available.

Confusing nutritional labelling doesn’t help: there are 56 different names for sugar alone and manufacturers do not have to group them together.

Canada’s dated food guide is no longer effective in providing nutritional guidance to Canadians. Fruit juice, for instance, is presented as a healthy item when it is little more than a soft drink without the bubbles.

From policy-makers to parents, industry insiders to family doctors, all Canadians have a role to play to beat back this crisis.

Recommendations

This report makes 21 recommendations urging the federal government to take aggressive measures to return Canadians to healthy weights.

Recommendations include considering a tax on sugar and artificially sweetened drinks, using tax levers to encourage healthy lifestyles, and banning the advertising of food and beverages to children.

Other key recommendations would make it easier for Canadians to make informed decisions about their diet. The committee urges the government to:

  • Standardize and expand nutritional information on food packaging to make it easier to understand;
  • Increase awareness of the potential harms of processed foods and the benefits of fresh, whole foods;
  • Overhaul Canada’s dated food guide.

Many of the ways to fight obesity are beyond the federal government’s direct control. In this report, the committee urges Health Canada to work with the provinces and territories on co-ordinated policy changes across the country. It recommends Health Canada:

  • Engage provinces and territories to improve doctors’ training on diet and exercise;
  • Help vulnerable populations to adopt healthier lifestyles; and
  • Teach and practise active living in schools and promote it in the community.

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