HALIFAX – A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal could have huge implications for healthcare in Nova Scotia.
The study, called Current and predicted prevalence of obesity in Canada: a trend analysis, finds the Maritimes has some of the highest rates of overweight and obese people in the country.
The data states that, across Canada, 33.6 per cent of adults are overweight; in Nova Scotia, that number is 37.5 per cent.
The national average when it comes to obese people, which is defined as a body mass of 30 or higher, is 18.3 per cent.
But in Nova Scotia, 25.1 per cent of people are considered obese.
The province also sticks out when it comes to those who are severely obese: 2.3 per cent of Nova Scotians would fall into that category compared with the national average of 1.6 per cent.
Lead author Laurie Twells, a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, said it is not clear why rates of obesity are higher in Atlantic Canada than out West.
“Is it simply things like socio-economic demographics, age demographics? We have more of an aging population on the east coast. Is it an ethnicity thing? Is it cultural? Is it access to fresh nutritious foods and more access to physical activity and outdoor living?”
Capital Health endocrinologist Dr. Tom Ransom said the results of the study are not surprising; he has seen firsthand the prevalence of adult obesity.
He is concerned about the health problems that come with being obese.
“Most commonly we think of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. But there is also increased risk of various cancers, the sheer weight causes mechanical issues [since] it touches your joints and people develop sleep apnea,” he said.
Ransom also said obesity causes a burden on the health system as a whole.
“The cost of managing these preventable diseases and their morbidity, the medications, the surgery and the absenteeism from work is going to be astronomical,” he said.
Twells said the data shows that once people tip the scale into becoming obese, they tend to stay in that range.
“Very few people tend to go back to being normal weight or go back to overweight. As we know, this is one of the challenges around losing weight and keeping weight off,” she said.
But Kerry Copeland, health promotions adviser for Doctors Nova Scotia, said that does not mean trying to lose weight is a lost cause.
“Starting off with something as simple as walking five to ten minutes a day and adding more of that, what happens is eventually they can extend the amount of physical activity they have. If you’re combining that with some changes to your health diet, you’re bound to see some results on the scales and some results for your overall health,” she said.
Copeland also suggests paying close attention to portion sizes and cooking at home rather than eating out or eating processed foods.
Nova Scotia Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Strang said fundamental shifts are needed to help stem the issue of obesity in the province.
He said that while the issue is complex, it boils down to physical inactivity and unhealthy eating.
“We need to…be prepared to do things differently in our food systems. We have an abundance of cheap, processed, basically unhealthy foods that are available to us. We have created a work, home and school environment where it is very easy to be inactive. How do we change things around that makes it much easier for us to incorporate activity in our daily lives?” he said.
Twells adds it could be worth comparing provincial approaches to the issue to see what is and is not effective.
“What are some of their policies and programs? If other provinces seem to be doing better, what are their practices? What are they focusing on? Where are their resources being allocated?”
The researcher said adult obesity in Canada has tripled over the last 30 years, and the projection is a bit gloomy.
“Five out of the 10 provinces in the next five years will probably see more overweight and more obese people than normal weight [people],” she said.
The research states 21 per cent of Canadians are projected to be obese in five years, though there is some variation by province.