Written by Jake Adrian

The Childhood Obesity Epidemic

16/10/2015 8:34:32 AM | 0 comments |
Obesity is likely to overtake smoking as the number one preventable public health concern. Experts say the solution lies with treating, and preventing, the condition in childhood. 
Canada, like many nations, is in the midst of an epidemic of obesity and excess weight. And according to the Childhood Obesity Foundation in Vancouver, children’s eating and exercise habits are a big part of the problem.

According to the 2009-2011 Canadian Health Measures Survey, close to one-third (31.5) of children between five and 17, an estimated 1.6 million, were overweight or obese. Only a few years earlier, a similar survey showed that ‘only’ about one-quarter of children between two and 17 were overweight or obese. The upward trend is worrisome.

Why does it matter?

Because being overweight or obese is dangerous for a child’s health.

Recent societal trends have encouraged unhealthy eating and inactive lifestyles which result in excess fat accumulation. Obese children are more likely to develop a range of health problems, including Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, bone and joint problems to name only a few of the potential physical problems. As well, emotional problems include low self-esteem and negative body image, depression and the emotional fallout from feeling judged and being teased and bullied.

Most adolescents do not outgrow this problem and, in fact, many continue to gain excess weight. As a result of obesity, says the foundation, it is possible that for the first time in history our children may have a shorter lifespan than their parents.In addition to the toll being overweight and obese can take on an individual – including dying up to three to seven years earlier than counterparts with a healthy weight – there are also financial costs to society. In 2013, the total in health care costs caused by obesity to Canadians was $23 billion.

This is 25% higher than costs caused by tobacco smoking ($23.3 vs. $18.7 billion). From 1998 to 2008 the costs associated with smoking decreased while the costs of excess weight increased. According to the Canadian Journal of Public Health, the economic burden attributable to smoking decreased to $18.4 billion from $21.3 billion (-13.4%). On the other hand, the economic burden attributable to excess weight and physical inactivity increased to $21.3 billion from $19 billion (11.7%) and to $10.6 billion from $10 billion (6.3%) respectively.

Obesity is difficult to reverse. But it can be done. Healthier You asked one young woman to share her journey from obesity to health.

‘Look at Me Now’

My journey from unhealthy obesity to good health and happiness.  
By Sierra as told to Jake Adrian


My name is Sierra and I’m 15 years old. I’ve been overweight for most of my life.

I can’t remember not being overweight. I was chubby as a child and just gained more and more weight as I got older. Because of my weight, I was always being bullied and made fun of at school. This started when I was in kindergarten and went on all through elementary school. In the younger grades kids would say things like ‘You’re fat’ or ‘People fat like you are dumb.’ They drew pictures of me as a large round circle with a tiny head. Kids pushed me down in the playground and laughed at me. I also have dyslexia, a learning disability, so kids teased me about that too. These were kids in my class and I thought they were my friends. Then my mom would tell me ‘No, they’re not your friends – they’re treating you badly. You just haven’t realized it.’ I guess the teasing had become normal to me. I grew up with it and didn’t know any different, but I didn’t like it at all.  

When I got older, kids were less physical, but bugged me more with name calling and swearing. My parents talked to my teachers several times. They didn’t see the bullying though and didn’t seem to know anything about it. They would often write it off saying ‘Kids will be kids.’ Some teachers were helpful and tried moving me away from the problem kids. That just made them pick on me more. Kids would go out of their way to tease me.

Just going to school made me feel sick to my stomach. Every day I felt like throwing up because of how nervous I was. I didn’t feel safe at school at all. I’d come home and cry. It made me really sad so I’d just stay in my room eating and watching television to feel better.

To try to help, my parents had me change schools. One school had a special education program I was asked to participate in, but that just led to more teasing. It’s like when someone has a flaw or is obviously different in some way we’re automatically picked on and laughed at. After two years, I changed schools again. I went to three different schools in six years, never lasting more than two years at one school because the name calling followed me and happened again and again at the different schools. But every day I showed up and faked a smile pretending that everything was A-okay.

My eating habits were terrible. I only wanted to eat lasagna, chips and iced cappuccinos. These were foods that made me feel good. I didn’t like vegetables or anything green. My parents tried to get me to eat better, but I didn’t want to listen to them. I was picky and moody.

By the time I was 12, I was really large – way over the 97th percentile for my age, weight and height. I was gaining more and more weight and just couldn’t stop eating. I didn’t like the way I looked at all. I wished I could just cut off my stomach to make it flat. I wanted to get rid of the weight so bad I started skipping meals. Then I’d be so hungry I’d break down and eat a bag of chips.

After a checkup at my pediatrician’s office she told me my cholesterol and fasting insulin levels were really high, which could lead to heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, and recommended I enter the Shapedown BC Program at Langley Memorial Hospital.

At first I didn’t want to go. I thought it was going to be a lot of work like school and didn’t want that. The hardest part was admitting to myself that I needed it – that I needed help. My parents didn’t give me a choice. They said I needed to give it a try.

The first few times were really hard. Then I got to know other kids like me struggling with their weight and I started to feel more comfortable. My parents and I attended group twice weekly. We went once a week together for classes and then once on the weekend for family fitness.  During the week, they would be with the other parents learning things like how to plan healthy meals, how to read food labelling and trying different healthy recipes like quinoa salads.

I went with the other kids and learned things like how much food is in a single serving or that a meat serving should be the size of your palm. I didn’t need to eat everything on my plate if I was full. I learned to tell the difference between ‘heart hunger’ – eating when you’re sad – and ‘stomach hunger’ – when you’re actually physically hungry.

Now when I eat I chew slowly and take breaks in between bites of food. When I get hungry I can check in with myself and ask if I am really hungry. I’ll wait and see if my stomach is growling, then I’ll know I am. I want to keep my weight off so I’ve learned to like fruits and vegetables and eat them a lot more.

We got a six-month membership to the Tong Louie YMCA as part of the program. On Saturdays we’d meet with the other kids and a fitness coach and go swim, play soccer or other games where we were exercising, but it was made fun. I was too young at first to use the weight machines – the stationary bikes, weights and elliptical machines – but learned to use them later once I was old enough.

I also learned to set realistic exercise goals. The first time I set an exercise goal it was to take four long walks in a week. I walked so much that I got really tired and didn’t want to do it anymore. Now I know how to be realistic. I watch TV less and spend more time taking my dogs for walks or even going walking with my friends.  I work out twice a week and do sit-ups, pushups and the plank.

Another thing that really helped me was in one of the classes they showed us how women in magazine pictures are made to look perfect; how they’ve had so much editing and airbrushing done to make them look that way. Learning these things helped me to start feeling better about myself. I was starting to lose weight and because I saw a result my confidence grew too. I thought, ‘This program isn’t so bad – I can lose more weight.’

When I finished the program I was invited to come back. Because I was losing weight, I wanted to continue and ended up taking the program three times.  Now I’m at a healthy weight. The bullying has stopped. I have more friends and I feel a lot better about myself.

My family used to eat a lot of packaged food or takeout because we were so busy and we thought it was quick and easy. Now we make our own pizzas rather than takeout and we eat a lot more salads.

I’d like to tell people who used to tease me – look at me now. Bullying people because they may be overweight really hurts, even if you’re just joking – it doesn’t feel that way. I would tell other kids who are struggling with weight issues, ‘You aren’t alone. There are people and places you can go to for help. And it’s okay to ask for help.’

When I see a picture of myself from before, I’m glad I got help and am not like that anymore. I wasn’t happy. I want to be healthy and stay this way. The best thing of all is that now when I smile – it isn’t faked anymore.”

Is your child overweight?

The Childhood Obesity Foundation defines a healthy weight as a body composition that positively contributes to an individual’s overall health, well-being and quality of life over their lifespan.  Healthy weights in children vary by age, sex and height.  It is important to remember that weight is only one marker of health and a healthy weight is different for each individual child.  

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is one tool doctors use to assess if a child is overweight. It is defined as a person's weight in kilograms divided by the square of his height in metres. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) after BMI is calculated for children and teens, it is expressed as a percentile which can be obtained from either a graph or a percentile calculator.
  • Overweight: 85th to less than the 97th percentile
  • Obese: Equal to or greater than the 97th percentile 
If you are concerned that your child is above a healthy weight, visit your family doctor for an assessment.

Why obesity matters

Obese children are more likely to develop a range of health problems, including: 

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • high blood pressure and elevated blood cholesterol
  • heart disease
  • liver disease
  • bone and joint problems
  • respiratory problems and sleep disorders such as difficulty breathing while asleep (sleep apnea)
  • earlier than normal puberty or menstruation
  • eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia
  • skin infections due to moisture from sweat being trapped in skin folds
  • fatigue
  • low self-esteem and negative body image
  • depression
  • feeling judged
  • being teased or bullied
  • bullying others
  • being more socially isolated
  • poorer social skills
  • high stress and anxiety
  • behaviour and/or learning problems as a result of psychological difficulties related to childhood obesity

Prevention is the key

Maintaining good health throughout one’s life begins in childhood. Learning proper eating and exercise habits needs to start early to prevent unhealthy weight gain or disease.

Canada’s Food Guide suggests eating well and being active every day. Help your child develop healthy eating and exercise habits with:
  • Plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole-grain products
  • Low-fat or non-fat milk or dairy products
  • Lean meats, poultry, fish, lentils and beans for protein
  • Reasonably-sized portions
  • Lots of water
  • Less sugar and saturated fat
  • Brisk walking
  • Playing tag
  • Jumping rope
  • Riding a bike
  • Playing soccer
  • Swimming
  • Dancing

Live 5-2-1-0

Maintaining good health throughout one's life begins in childhood.  A great rule of thumb is the 5-2-1-0 rule: 
  • 5 or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day
  • 2 hours of screen time or less
  • 1 hour of physical activity or more
  • 0 sugar sweetened beverages per day

Resources on healthy eating and exercise

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