Canada’s obesity rate has doubled since the 1970s. What happened?

Click to play video: 'Canada’s chief public health officer explains what contributes to Canada’s high obesity rate'
Canada’s chief public health officer explains what contributes to Canada’s high obesity rate
WATCH: Canada’s chief public health officer explains what contributes to Canada’s high obesity rate – Sep 22, 2018

In 1978, about 14 per cent of Canadian adults qualified as obese.

That number climbed to 28 per cent in 2014. Altogether, in 2017, 64 per cent of Canadians were overweight or obese.

This is a problem, says Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.

At a time when there’s never been more information about how to live a healthy lifestyle, Canadian obesity rates are twice as high as they were in the 1970s and Canadians are also increasingly suffering from chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. With the Canada the Sick series, Global News is looking at what’s going on, and why knowledge isn’t enough.

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“Unhealthy weights is a big concern in Canada,” said Tam. Changing things is tough, though.

“We live in a society where we put a lot of the onus on the individual. We might prescribe more steps a day or fruits and vegetables but it’s very difficult for that individual to change their behaviours, particularly if they are in socially disadvantaged conditions.”

In surveys, obesity is generally estimated based on your BMI — a measurement that takes into account an individual’s height and weight. This can mean that some people who are extremely athletic can be wrongly classified as overweight or obese. Experts say that at the individual level, the measurement is not especially helpful, though it’s still useful when examining an overall population.

Around 9.3 per cent of Canadians have diabetes, according to the Canadian Diabetes Association. About one in 12 Canadians lives with heart disease, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. And obesity is a risk factor for both of these diseases.

But every day, the media and public health officials talk about the importance of physical activity and exercise to prevent chronic diseases.

So if the information is out there, why have obesity rates grown so much over the last few decades? That’s the wrong question, according to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Canadian Bariatric Institute and an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa. “It demonstrates a poor construct in terms of trying to understand the issue to suggest that personal responsibility is the driver of change.”

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“People don’t go to sleep at night wanting to make unhealthy choices and hoping to gain weight.”

Part of the problem is that our “food environment” has changed, he said.

“If we had a time machine that deposited us all back in the ’40s, living the lives that existed back then with the portions that existed back then and the societal norms that existed back then, I bet you we would all lose a fair bit of weight.”

Nowadays, people are pushed towards unhealthy food choices at every turn. Not only is unhealthy food everywhere, but it’s also become a part of every celebration or activity. “And then there’s peer pressure from everyone constantly too, to indulge and consume. This is not an environment that anybody really stands a chance in.”

We are likely seeing the result of that environment now, said Freedhoff. “I think we’re living the end result to a large degree.”

There will always be a minority of people who aren’t affected, whether because of their genetic gifts or because they are the rare person who can swim against the tide. However, he believes they will always be a minority.

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That doesn’t mean that hope is lost. “We will see changes that will over time tilt this needle in the other direction.”

“When you’ve got a flood, it’s hard to say which sandbags will be the most important. And it’s also hard to say how to stack them, in what order.”

But small changes, such as taxes on sugary beverages, limits on food advertising to children, changes to food labelling and the return of home economics classes, while individually might not diminish obesity rates, can together have an effect, he said.

Watch: A look at unprocessed vs. highly processed foods.
Click to play video: 'Breaking down ‘clean eating’ with a registered dietician'
Breaking down ‘clean eating’ with a registered dietician

Tam agrees with this overall approach. “To tackle a very complex issue such as obesity you need to look at the genetic and psychological and behavioural factors of an individual, but you need to add on top of that, the built environment, the economic and financial realities of a person or community before you can actually make some changes to those trends, troubling trends, that we’re seeing.”

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Over the course of this week, Global News will be examining some of the things that might be making Canadians sick, including our jobs, a lack of income, where we live and the diet industry – and what can be done to solve them.

How do diet, exercise, smoking and other factors affect your life expectancy? Find out using the Life Expectancy Calculator, created by Dr. Doug Manuel’s research team at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa.

Note, although based on scientific research, this calculator only provides estimates based on some common lifestyle factors and cannot be considered an accurate predictor of how long you’ll live. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for medical advice, nor should it be used to diagnose or treat a medical condition without consulting a health-care provider. Do not disregard medical advice or delay seeking it because of information in this calculator. For a full disclaimer, visit the Project Big Life website.

About the calculator

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About the calculator

The Life Expectancy Calculator was created by Dr. Doug Manuel’s research team at The Ottawa Hospital and the University of Ottawa.

It’s based on public health data from Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey, anonymously linked to people’s individual health records. According to Manuel, “It’s as accurate as what I use in the clinic.”

“This is looking forward to your future, so there is obviously a lot of uncertainty, but on a population level, they’re very accurate.”

The calculator mostly focuses on healthy living behaviours, like smoking, alcohol, food and exercise as well as some chronic diseases. To make the results more precise, it also asks questions about age, sex and ethnicity.

Of these, “Smoking is the number one risk,” he said, accounting for up to seven years of life on average. Diet is a big factor too, potentially accounting for four years of life if you compare the highest-quality to the lowest-quality diets, he said.

To learn more about the science behind the calculator, visit the Project Big Life website.

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