Childhood obesity rates fall in Canada for the first time in years: study

Health officials often warn about a childhood obesity epidemic, but new research suggests that in Canada, for the first time in years, overweight and obesity rates in kids have decreased. Liu Jin/Getty Images

Health officials often warn about a childhood obesity epidemic, but new research suggests that in Canada, for the first time in years, the numbers of overweight and obese kids have decreased.

Between 1978 and 2004, the rate of Canadian kids who were overweight or obese climbed “significantly” from 23.3 per cent to 34.7 per cent. More than three in 10 children who were two to 17 years old fell into the overweight or obese categories.

Between 2004 and 2013, rates have eased from 30.7 per cent to 27 per cent, according to a new University of Manitoba study published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

“Canadian children are still heavier than World Health Organization (WHO) norms – both their weight and BMI are higher than the average, but they are doing better than our U.S. counterparts and over the last 10 years, their rates of obesity are declining,” Dr. Atul Sharma, of the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, said.

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“We still need to improve. The battle isn’t over yet,” he told Global News.

READ MORE: Why your child’s weight in grade 5 could predict future obesity risk

Sharma is a pediatrician specializing in kidney work. He’s also a statistician while his co-author and wife, Dr. Celia Rodd, is a pediatric endocrinologist focusing on kids with diabetes and hormone problems.

Their pair spent nearly three decades at McGill University in Montreal. As the decades passed, they saw more kids with Type 2 diabetes – related to obesity in adulthood.

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By the time they moved to Winnipeg, the situation worsened. About 10 per cent of diabetes cases Rodd saw in kids in the 1980s was tied to lifestyle, for example, but by 2010, about 30 per cent was obesity-related, Sharma said.

“We both, over 30 years of careers in pediatrics, have seen the impact, the reach on obesity in the health of the children we care for. This has an impact beyond childhood – children who are obese at age two are more likely to be obese as adolescents and that tracks up to age 35,” he warned.

READ MORE: Do babies inherit junk food addictions from their moms?

The team worked with Statistics Canada and Health Canada national study data to look at rates of obesity in kids over the years. The data is “very high quality,” Sharma said. Thousands of kids, chosen to represent 96 per cent of the population, were monitored. The data covers all age groups, races, and socioeconomic classes.

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By 2013, rates of kids who were obese or overweight sat at 27 per cent. Both weight and BMI were lower too. These details don’t align with climbing obesity rates in other countries, such as the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

“Working with patients and families on a day-to-day basis, we see the burden of being overweight or obese is dramatic. It’s hard to get a sense of where the numbers would go based on your clinical experience,” Sharma said.

“So few countries have crested and most of them are increasing or only just starting to plateau. We were surprised in a pleasant way,” he explained.

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In 2000, the WHO introduced kids’ BMI growth charts for frontline health-care workers to use. Sharma suggests this may have been the catalyst for change because now family doctors and pediatricians had a baseline to show parents where their kids fell when it came to weight, BMI and waist circumference.

In adults, a BMI of 25 or more is considered overweight while 30 is obese. In kids, the definition is based on WHO percentiles. If your child falls above the 85th percentile next to peers of the same age and sex, he or she is classified as overweight. The 97th percentile and above is considered obese.

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“Doctors could sit down with parents and say ‘your child is above normal range’ and it allowed a conversation on how to make changes happen,” Sharma said.

READ MORE: Preschoolers’ eating habits linked to future heart health risks

He’s hopeful the rates will keep dropping based on the handfuls of initiatives health officials are rolling out to combat childhood obesity.

His team’s next steps are to look at how factors, such as socioeconomic status, what region you grew up in, what access to food your family had, play a part in risk of obesity.

Sharma and Rodd’s full findings were published in the CMAJ.

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