April 28, 2014 2:30 pm

Reality check: is the obesity epidemic in Canada exaggerated?

A man walks along the Embarcadero April 6, 2005 in San Francisco.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

TORONTO – There is no obesity epidemic in Canada. The health risks linked to obesity are exaggerated. And government policies created to intercept growing waistlines won’t help.

Obesity rates around the world are steadily climbing, yet those are the contentious conclusions stemming from a new Canadian report.

A report from the right-wing think-tank Fraser Institute suggests the numbers of obese and overweight people in the country are levelling off.

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“This is our supposed public health issue of the time and yet it’s an overstated issue. The risks are overstated and the growth rates appear to be overstated,” Nadeem Esmail, the study’s author and Fraser Institute’s director of health policy studies, said.

“That’s not to say there aren’t risks at the higher end of the obesity spectrum and these people don’t require help. We may be better off by targeting our attention and our government intervention to genuinely assist those with a significant quantity of excess weight. The current policy solutions impose costs on all Canadians regardless of lifestyle and there’s little evidence that it’ll actually work,” Esmail said.

READ MORE: Obesity rates have tripled in Canada in less than 3 decades

But doctors and obesity experts say the report’s findings are downplaying what’s an obvious concern in global health.

So why are there such stark disparities between what the Fraser Institute researchers and health officials are saying?

The claim: Obesity rates have levelled off in Canada.

Esmail says that from 2003 to 2012, the rate of overweight Canadians stayed stable. Meanwhile, the rate of obesity climbed from 15.3 per cent to 18.4 per cent. But since 2009, it stabilized.

It’s especially the case for overweight men. The number of obese youth, public health officials’ critical concern, has remained stagnant between 2005 and 2012, Esmail said.

READ MORE: Is obesity an illness? U.S. medical association recognizes condition as official disease

He says the only segment of the Canadian population that has seen a rise in obesity is women.

Esmail’s research is based on Statistics Canada data, along with Canadian, American and U.K. research. He said that the trio of countries has seen levels of obesity stagnate or taper off.

The doctors’ take: obesity crisis in Canada is real. Just look around you.

Dr. Arya Sharma, chair of obesity research and management at the University of Alberta, suggests that semantics may be at play. It all depends on how researchers interpret the word ‘epidemic.’

Two-thirds of the population is overweight; one in five Canadians is considered obese, he said.

“Those are pretty large numbers and there are pockets of Canada where numbers are even larger. If you’re asking if obesity is a common problem and has the incidence of obesity increased in the last 30 years, there’s definitely no question that is the case,” he told Global News.

“This is something you can actually measure and very clearly show. There’s been a huge increase in the number of people who are heavier than they were ever before.”

READ MORE: How much sugar is in Nutella? Canadian doctor decodes what’s in the hazelnut spread

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a physician at the University of Ottawa and the Bariatric Medical Institute, suggests that the report “cherry-picked” data. In his blog, he said that the report ignores a “very dramatic rise” in Canadian weight since the 1970s. Read his full blog post here.

The claim: the health consequences linked to obesity are exaggerated and government policy won’t help the cause.

Tying obesity to health risks, such as diabetes and heart disease, is misleading, Esmail said. And pushing blanket policies and government intervention won’t get health officials the results they want.

It simply reduces choice, increases cost and impacts the economy.

READ MORE: Do heart attack survivors change their unhealthy ways? Study suggests they don’t

“Obese individuals have plenty of incentive to lose the excess weight. Most of the cost of obesity is carried by the individual and their immediate family.  We don’t need the government giving them additional incentives while imposing cost on everyone regardless of their lifestyle choices,” Esmail said.

Instead, officials should focus their efforts on the smaller pocket of the population dealing with obesity.

The doctors’ take: excess weight is a risk factor for 22 health conditions and health officials should intervene.

Sharma said that the link between obesity and health concerns is often misconstrued.

“At a population level, there’s no question that people with excess weight and obesity have a much, much higher risk of becoming diabetic but the same can be said for a lot of other conditions,” he said, pointing to gall bladder disease, fatty liver disease, osteoarthritis and sleep apnea as examples.

“It doesn’t mean people with a low body weight do not get these problems. It also doesn’t mean that people with obesity get these problems either,” he said.

Simply put, excess weight just increases your risk of developing certain conditions.

READ MORE: What one woman in Gabon taught doctors about global obesity

As for government intervention, Sharma said that governments are rightfully concerned and should be making pre-emptive moves to halt obesity.

Freedhoff agrees: “The world around us has changed, and if we hope to see diet and weight-related illness decrease, we’ll need to change our world. There won’t be any one intervention that will help as just as there’s no singular cause there will be no singular solution,” he told Global News.

But he suggests some initiatives – mandatory menu board calories, front-of-package health claim reforms, nutrition fact panel reforms, an update to Canada’s Food Guide, better nutrition education in schools – are a start.

“These are just a few sandbags, and just as with any levee, it’s going to take piles of sandbags to stop the flood,” Freedhoff said.

Read the full report here.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© Shaw Media, 2014

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