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A version of this commentary appeared in JSource

SHIMMIN_Five things journalists need to know when covering obesity in Canada

 There has been a dramatic increase in the number of Canadians living with obesity over the past few decades, and it is often cited as a risk factor for other chronic health conditions—which means obesity is frequently in the news. So, what should journalists know before covering the topic?

Obesity is both a chronic and often progressive condition, not unlike diabetes and hypertension. It is defined by the World Health Organization as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. Obesity is said to increase the risk of a number of chronic conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer.

The challenge with reporting on the subject of obesity is that it is a complex condition. Research has identified a number of factors associated with obesity, including: physical activity; diet; socioeconomic status; ethnicity; immigration and environmental factors, which all interconnect in complex ways and patterns.

Experts agree that early intervention will require a holistic approach that not only identifies the causes of weight gain but also the barriers to weight management. What this means is while the root cause of weight gain may be a reduction in metabolic rate, overeating or a reduction in physical activity, secondary factors such as biological (e.g., genetics), psychological (e.g.,  depression) and/or socioeconomic (e.g., poverty) may also pose significant barriers to weight management.

This also means that the short term, “quick-fix” solutions often espoused by shows like The Biggest Loser that are focused on maximizing weight loss are generally unsustainable in the long term and associated with high rates of weight regain. Experts point to the fact that successful obesity management requires realistic and sustainable treatment strategies.

Here’s what journalists need to know:

1. The prevalence and severity of obesity in Canada has increased dramatically in the past three decades while fitness levels have decreased. Research shows that one in four Canadian adults and one in 10 children are clinically obese. Between 1981 and 2007/2009, obesity rates roughly doubled among both males and females in most age groups in both adult and youth categories. Since the late 1970s, increases in the prevalence of obesity have been proportionately greater for the heaviest weight classes. On top of this, evidence demonstrates a trend toward decreased fitness for children, youth and adults.

2. Obesity is a costly epidemic. It has been estimated that obesity cost the Canadian economy approximately $4.6 billion in 2008, up $735 million or 19 per cent from $3.9 billion in 2000.

3. Measurement of obesity is not straightforward. The Body Mass Index (BMI) should be considered a rough guide for predicting health risk in individuals. The distribution and amount of body fat are also crucial determinants of some obesity-related health risks. For example, visceral fat around the abdominal region has a stronger association with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease than BMI. Hence measures of central obesity such as waist circumference alone provide more robust indices of overall obesity-related health risk than BMI.

4. Experts looking to government regulations and food industry. Similar to smoking and alcohol abuse, obesity is not simply the result of individuals making bad decisions, but is strongly influenced by the social and commercial environments that puts some individuals at higher risk for certain behaviours. Some risk factors include: the promotion and availability of high-calorie food, limited access to healthy foods, lack of time for meal preparation and barriers to physical activity. Experts point to promising government regulatory approaches such as: discouraging higher calorie consumption by enforcing serving sizes, banning food and beverage advertisements targeting children, zoning laws prohibiting fast food sales near schools, regulating nutrition claim packaging, tax credits for fitness activities, more affordable recreational activities and better walking paths.

5. Weight bias is associated with significant inequities in employment, health, health care and education and is often caused by widespread untrue negative stereotypes that persons with obesity are lazy, unmotivated and lacking willpower and self-discipline.

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Carolyn Shimmin is a Knowledge Translation Coordinator with EvidenceNetwork.ca and the George and Fay Yee Centre for Healthcare Innovation.

Image from the Canadian Obesity Network.

This article was originally published in J-Source.ca.

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Fixing a Broken Environment to Curb the Obesity Crisis

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