Nfld. & Labrador

Expert weighs in as N.L. tops country for most overweight kids

A researcher in childhood obesity isn't surprised that more than 36 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds in the province are overweight or obese.

A lead researcher of childhood obesity unsurprised by statistics

Newfoundland and Labrador leads the country in overweight 12- to 17-year-olds, according to data from Statistics Canada. (Associated Press)

Newfoundland and Labrador leads the way for overweight kids — aged 12 to 17 years old — compared with the rest of the country, and that doesn't come as a shock to one expert in childhood obesity.

"I'm not surprised. And in fact, we know this isn't just an issue for Atlantic Canada," said Sara Kirk, a professor of health performance at Dalhousie University, and a Canada Research Chair

Data released in June from Statistics Canada shows that in 2017, 36.4 per cent of youths in that age range self-identify as overweight or obese. While that was the highest percentage of any province, and above the national average of 27.9 per cent, most of the country isn't far removed from that figure. 

Only British Columbia falls below the 25 per cent mark, at 21.4 per cent. The territories were not included in the statistics.

"I think what we need to be looking at more is, why?" Kirk said.

"We often try to look for that magic bullet, that simple solution that would solve the problem. Well, this is not that kind of problem. This is a problem that is very complex, and it is a factor of all these different things coming together."

Environment a big issue

Kirk pointed to societal structure as playing a big role in children becoming less active and eating poorer diets.

"You have to look at the environment we've created for our children," she said.

"If we surround our children with food that's high in fat and sugar, and then we restrict their opportunities to be active and running around and playing, why would we be surprised that they'd be developing obesity?"

Sara Kirk has researched and written extensively about childhood obesity. (David Burke/CBC)

She said rural populations are particularly vulnerable, as society has shifted to prioritizing cars over expending calories by walking or cycling.

"Our environment is actually preventing us from doing the things that we should actually be doing," she said.

One solution? School lunches

While Kirk stressed the complexity of the issue, and the interconnected roles of diet and exercise in overweight children, she also offered a partial solution: a national school lunch program.

"This is a way that actually has demonstrated strong returns on investment," she said.

"If we invest in supporting children through healthy meals at school, not only is that providing them with nutritious foods, it's also modelling the behaviours that we want them to be adopting, that they can then take home to their families."

Kirk said a countrywide school lunch program would instil healthy eating habits at an early age. (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

Kirk said this direction needs to come from the federal level. The Liberal government did conduct Canada-wide consultations in 2017 on a national food policy, saying results would be released in 2018. No policy has yet been released on its website.

Canada is the only G8 nation without a national school program. Kirk said it's one idea that could lead to real change.

"That I think is a very tangible thing that we can all get behind, feeding kids healthy food at school, modelling that, embedding that in the curriculum."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

With files from the Corner Brook and Central morning shows