New Brunswick

Conquering childhood obesity will take legislative action, conference told

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of New Brunswick says 36 percent of children in the province are either overweight or obese. The organization hosted a sold-out conference to come up with ways to help prevent childhood obesity.

In a society rife with junk food, 36 per cent of New Brunswick children are considered overweight

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and the medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute, says junk food is too readily available to kids. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News)

A food culture that's made junk food the norm for many children has to change, says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who founded an institute to help people manage their weight without surgery.

But getting junk food out of the childhood diet will require legislative change, just as cutting tobacco use did, said Freedhoff, director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa. 

The benefits of a healthy meal at home and the benefits of unstructured physical activity and free play are really tremendous, and our kids are not getting that opportunity anymore.- Sara Kirk, Dalhousie University professor

"The issue, in part, is because of the world we are now living in, where junk food is constant and pervasive and almost impossible to avoid," said Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa.

"So really, we've got a situation where to eat healthfully in this world, you have to go out of your way to do so. And it really should be the other way around."  

Freedhoff spoke in Moncton on Wednesday at a Heart and Stroke Foundation conference on the prevention of childhood obesity.

Thirty-six per cent of children in New Brunswick are either overweight or obese, according to the foundation.

Freedhoff said cutting children's exposure to junk food will not happen overnight and will require communities and legislatures to take steps, just as they did to decrease smoking.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation of New Brunswick displayed some of the foods many kids tend to favour. (Kate Letterick/CBC News )

"Tobacco first required discussion and upset from the community and push from parents and kids and other people to try to make changes," Freedhoff said.

"And once there was a sufficient discussion in the public, legislators were able to champion this for change as well, and we'll see that too with food."

Sara Kirk, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University, said the approach to healthy eating has to move beyond things such as weight and body mass index, a calculation that uses height and weight to determine whether a person is overweight.

"Unfortunately, the Maritimes are leading the country in number of problems, one of which is weight status of kids but also other chronic diseases that are really, really putting a burden on our health-care system," Kirk said.

Lifestyles have changed so that kids spend a lot of time in cars and don't play outside the way earlier generations did.

Meanwhile, kids' activities often interfere with meal times, Kirk said.

"The benefits of a healthy meal at home and the benefits of unstructured physical activity and free play are really tremendous, and our kids are not getting that opportunity anymore," Kirk said.

Sara Kirk, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University, said lifestyles have changed and kids now spend more time in cars than they do playing outdoors. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News)

Other people at the conference agreed more awareness is needed.

They also agreed there is no quick fix, although Freedhoff said he's hopeful for the "distant" future.

"I'm not necessarily hopeful for the tomorrow future," he said. "And I think we need to stop thinking that if we're not going to get change right away we shouldn't be pushing for change.

"I think we should push but appreciate that it may take decades to get where we need to go. That's normal, that's OK, and I think that's exactly what we're going to see with food culture and especially with kids and junk food." 

Freedhoff said he's already encouraged by signs of change, including the addition of calories to menus.

But he would like to see other measures, such as taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and a ban on advertising of unhealthy foods to kids.

"There's no shortage of sandbags to stop this flood," he said. "We just need to start filling them."

The childhood obesity conference sold out, with more than 300 people in attendance.