Why are so many Canadians obese? ‘There’s not an epidemic loss of willpower’

Click to play video: 'Sandra Elia explains how she had to change her relationship with food and the scale' Sandra Elia explains how she had to change her relationship with food and the scale
Sandra Elia struggled for years with obesity. She managed to slowly lose over 100 lbs, but it wasn’t easy and required shifting the way she thought about food, exercise and her weight – Sep 29, 2018

Losing weight or living a healthy life is not about willpower, says Ian Patton.

“If I’m being blunt about it, that’s just a really uneducated, ignorant view of it.”

The 33-year-old has lived most of his life with obesity. Although he was always very active in school sports and a university-level wrestler, what helped him reach his health goals in the end wasn’t exercising more or eating less – it was gastric bypass surgery.

“If you look at how prevalent weight issues are, everyone knows someone who’s had some sort of issue with their weight, gained weight, lost weight, gained it back, struggled with it,” he said.

More than five million Canadians are living with obesity, according to the 2014 Canadian Community Health Survey.

“I would have a hard time suggesting that five million Canadians have an issue with willpower. There’s not an epidemic loss of willpower.”

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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. Global News is looking at what’s going on, and why knowledge isn’t enough.

Most Canadians believe that people are responsible for maintaining their own healthy weight, however. According to an Ipsos poll conducted exclusively for Global News, 93 per cent of Canadians think so. In Alberta, a full 100 per cent of poll respondents shared this view.

But the reality is more complicated, say experts.

The biology of weight loss

“One of the most common misconceptions about body weight is that it is something that you should be able to fully control,” said Dr. Arya Sharma, scientific director of Obesity Canada and a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Alberta.

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READ MORE: Here’s why Canada gets a failing grade in treating the obesity epidemic

But if you’re trying to lose weight, your body fights you every step of the way, he said. Once your body recognizes that it’s losing weight, it will make you hungrier, it will make you crave calorie-dense foods, it may slow your metabolism so you burn fewer calories and it will resist exercise that’s not necessary for survival.

Imagine taking someone with that biology and putting them in an environment in which it’s easy to overeat and easy to avoid exercise, and then asking them to lose weight.

LISTEN: Dr. Arya Sharma joins Rob Breakenridge to discuss Canada’s chronic obesity problem

Obesity is a chronic disease, Sharma said, and it doesn’t disappear if someone loses weight. “It’s like diabetes. It’s like hypertension. Once people have the problem, we can talk about treatments but whatever that treatment is going to be, whether it’s diet and exercise, or medication, or surgery, it’s got to be a treatment that people can stay on and stay on for life.”

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“Because once you have obesity, it’s not going to go away.”

Making a change

Patton chose a drastic, lifelong treatment for his obesity: surgery to permanently reduce his stomach capacity. He made that choice after his son was born, he said.

“As I was having him, it was kind of that ‘aha’ moment. Where I need to get something under control.”

“I was waking up in the morning and I felt like the weight was sucking the life out of me. I felt like I was dying. Any day could have been the day that the weight killed me.”

So, he went to the doctor. But because of his academic research and work with Obesity Canada, he knew that gastric bypass surgery was an option for him.

“You hear people say that you could just eat less, go on a diet and move more,” Patton said. “Well, I had done that all throughout this. I had lost 50, 60 pounds on more than one occasion. I had done all that. I knew all about diet and exercise and it still wasn’t working and it wasn’t enough.”

Ian Patton with his family. He underwent bariatric surgery to lose weight.
Ian Patton with his family. He underwent bariatric surgery to lose weight. Courtesy, Ian Patton

At his maximum, Patton estimates he weighed around 360 or 370 pounds. Now, after the surgery three years ago, he’s not sure. He no longer weighs himself, instead measuring his health by how he feels.

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“Since then I am no longer hypertensive, no longer have the sleep apnea. I am very active and healthy with my family. Better father, better employee, better at everything I do.”

READ MORE: Obesity linked to brain and genes, says Montreal researcher

Sandra Elia also changed her relationship with food. Growing up in an occasionally violent, traumatic home, “It was taught to me at a very early age that food wasn’t necessarily for nourishment. It was comfort, escape, love.”

She was obsessed with weighing herself, she said, and was constantly trying diets. “My motto is if I want to gain weight I go on a diet. Because for a decade, that’s what was proven to me.”

Sandra Elia in her twenties, before her weight loss. Courtesy, Sandra Elia

After all the diets, she felt like a failure. “Because when you try and you want something so desperately for so long and you’ve tried everything and nothing works, you kind of adopt this idea that you must be a failure.”

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It was when she stopped caring that she started to successfully treat her obesity. “I put the scale away and to this day I don’t know what I weigh.”

“My weight is none of my business. My business is to eat whole foods and love my body.”


Elia said she had to change her whole mindset and rearrange her life in order to become healthier. It wasn’t as easy as “eat less, move more.”

“For me, it was always so insulting when my doctor would say that to me. As if I didn’t know.”

Blaming people for their obesity is counterproductive, she said. “We don’t say to alcoholics, ‘I can have a glass of wine and stop. What’s wrong with you?’”

“What we do with people with obesity is we give them many many obstacles, many, many barriers, and we ask them to find their way out of a very difficult environment that we have set up.”

Sandra Elia at a race finish line, years after she began to lose weight. Courtesy, Sandra Elia

Patton agrees. Blaming people “doesn’t do us any good. It doesn’t help the people who are trying to lose the weight or manage their weight and be healthy. It makes it worse.”

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That doesn’t mean that there is no role for personal responsibility though, he said. Everyone needs to take a role in living a healthy lifestyle. He just doesn’t think it should be the focus. “We need to show a little bit of compassion because those people are struggling and they’re working hard and you don’t know their story.”

WATCH: Obesity Canada’s scientific director Dr. Arya Sharma says that obesity is a lifelong problem requiring lifelong treatment and it is the responsibility of a person to ensure they see a doctor when needed if they want to stay healthy.

Click to play video: 'Obesity Canada director says obesity a lifelong problem, responsibility falls on person to stay healthy' Obesity Canada director says obesity a lifelong problem, responsibility falls on person to stay healthy
Obesity Canada director says obesity a lifelong problem, responsibility falls on person to stay healthy – Sep 29, 2018

Sharma believes that the role for personal responsibility is to be a good patient. “When you’re living with a disease, there’s always things that you’re going to have to do to manage that disease.” This could be making doctors’ appointments, taking the prescribed medication and going for followup appointments.

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Unlike someone with heart disease, he said, “In obesity, we put most of the responsibility on the patient.”

“We say this is your fault and you have to do this and you have to do all of it and you have to do it all on your own.”

Patients deserve support and access to treatment, and not to be blamed for their disease, he said.

Exclusive Global News Ipsos polls are protected by copyright. The information and/or data may only be rebroadcast or republished with full and proper credit and attribution to “Global News Ipsos.”

This Ipsos poll on behalf of Global News was an online survey of 1,001 Canadians conducted between Aug. 20-23. The results were weighted to better reflect the composition of the adult Canadian population, according to census data. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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