What’s the Issue?
Obesity rates have been increasing at an alarming rate: More than 1 in 4 Canadian adults are obese and childhood obesity has tripled in the past 25 years. The trend in childhood obesity is particularly alarming since excess weight in children tends to persist into adulthood. Rising obesity rates parallel the increasing prevalence of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and a number of other diseases. Obesity is also associated with increased indirect costs through decreased workplace productivity, restricted activity, and increased absenteeism.
While the obesity issue is more complex, it is worth considering lessons from the regulation of tobacco and alcohol. Obesity, like smoking and alcohol abuse, is not simply the result of individuals making bad decisions, but strongly influenced by the social and commercial environment that puts some individuals at higher risk for certain behaviours. Some risk factors for obesity include the promotion and availability of high-calorie foods, limited access to affordable healthy foods, lack of time for meal preparation, lack of cooking skills, and barriers to physical activity. Like the steps taken towards tobacco and alcohol control, there is a growing sense of urgency that government action is necessary to reverse the current upward trends in weight.
What has changed in the last 20-25 years that is causing Canadians to gain weight? Although, simply speaking, weight gain results when more calories are consumed than the body requires, there is a complex interplay between environment, culture, socioeconomic and biological factors, all of which have changed over the last several decades.
The food industry is perceived by many health experts as a substantial part of the obesity crisis because it encourages food-heavy environments. The available calories and portion sizes of foods and beverages have increased markedly. Food is widely available, not just at grocery stores and restaurants, but also at gas stations, drug stores, and vending machines, to name just a few. When we’re presented with so much food, most of us will eat more without even thinking about it, making us more vulnerable to overeating.
The average Canadian has also become less physically active. Although half of Canadian adults (52.5%) report that they are physically active, only 15% are meeting national guidelines when activity is measured with an accelerometer. Obese individuals tend to have sedentary leisure time pursuits. Canadian youths are accumulating more than 6 hours of screen time on weekdays and many studies show that TV viewing is associated with greater calorie intake or poorer diets.
Obesity is a complex health issue to address. No single intervention is going to solve this problem. While physical activity is important in improving health, increasing physical activity by itself is unlikely to be effective in weight control. High priority should be given to interventions that help to reduce the number of calories people consume and to do this, the government and the food industry have key roles to play.
The government can develop proactive strategies to reduce caloric consumption. Some of the promising regulatory approaches include:
- Discouraging higher calorie consumption by enforcing portion sizes. For example, food and beverage portions that exceed a certain number of calories per serving would clearly display these calories and/or incur a higher tax.
- Banning food and beverage ads targeting children.
- Zoning laws prohibiting fast food sales near schools.
- Regulating nutrition claims on packaging.
The government can also reform nutrition fact panels. Nutrition information on packaging is not expressed in ways that are meaningful to the average consumer. There is a need for a robust national food scoring and labeling system to help consumers determine how a typical serving of the food fits into a healthful daily diet.