Child obesity in Canada and the U.S. appears to have levelled off, but there needs to be a greater emphasis on prevention, experts say.

The prevalence of obesity in recent years among those aged three to 19 was 13 per cent in Canada, compared with 17.5 per cent in the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday in a report, "Prevalence of obesity among children and adolescents in Canada and the United States."

In the late 1970s, five per cent of children and teens in Canada and 5.6 per cent in the U.S. were obese, the researchers said.

"Both Canada and the United States have seen increases in childhood obesity from 1980 to the beginning of the 21st century, and then no recent changes in prevalence," Cynthia Ogden of the National Center for Health Statistics and her co-authors said.

Obese children are at risk of becoming obese adults and can experience health consequences including stress and elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels, they said. Monitoring trends in childhood obesity is important to assess ways to reduce its burden.

"Even if we're flat-lining, it's at the highest level ever,"  said Mark Tremblay,  director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research program at the Children's Hospital in Eastern Ontario in Ottawa.

"The cost is enormous in terms of physical, emotional, mental, social impact, which suggests to me more needs to be done," Tremblay added. He was not involved in the research.

Like the anti-smoking campaigns — nurses bringing black lung posters into schools and tax changes that set the stage for success decades later — government efforts such as the Children's Fitness Tax Credit or removing pop machines from schools will take time, Tremblay said.

Cotton candy

Mafeja Cinelli's mother says she tries to provide healthy snacks but it can be an uphill battle. (CBC)

However, the "bark is bigger than the bite" when it comes to government proclamations about obesity compared with the scale of the problem, he said. 

Eat from scratch

The focus should be on keeping kids healthy through healthy, active lifestyles given the dismal success of treating obesity, he said.

At the Ex in Toronto, Natalie Cinelli treated her daughter to cotton candy.

"I try to give my kids healthy snacks but they tend to like stuff that has food colouring and more than 10 ingredients that I can't pronounce. It is an uphill battle," she said.

Sandeep Chachal said her children prefer more nutritous options. "At school they are getting more into healthy lunches, healthy breakfasts for kids, which is a good idea."

Vandana Gujadhur, a registered dietitian in Toronto, tells people to consider eating healthily to be an investment in yourself and to make time to cook from scratch, such as preparing meals in batches and freezing, rather than turning to fast food and convenience foods that tend to be high in fat, sugar and salt.

"Children and teens that eat with family, they have higher quality diet," Gujadhur said. "Their nutrient intake is so much higher, and they tend to eat less of high calorie foods."

The report was based on data from the 1978-1979 Canada Health Survey, the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, and the combined 2009 to 2013 Canadian Health Measures Survey, as well as data from 1976 to 2012 of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the U.S.