Worsening obesity epidemic calls for new approach

The obesity epidemic in Canada is worsening, but an approach to the problem offered in Alberta could be more effective, a new report suggests.

The obesity epidemic in Canada is worsening, but an approach to the problem offered in Alberta could be more effective, a new report suggests.

Tuesday's Vital Signs report by the Community Foundations of Canada says efforts to combat obesity are failing, with one in four adults and one in 11 children now considered obese. 

Between 1981 and 2009, obesity rates roughly doubled across all age groups and tripled for youth aged 12 to 17, according to a joint report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

"The Vital Signs is an annual checkup, so on obesity we are looking back a decade and asking how come we haven't moved the needle," said Ian Bird, the group's president and CEO.

The report's authors point to the comprehensive care offered by Alberta Health Services as one potential model to follow. 
About one in 11 children are now considered obese. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Dr. Arya Sharma, who runs the Weight Wise clinic in Edmonton, says the clinic has dietitians to help with meal planning, psychologists to help patients figure out if their overeating is emotional, and occupational therapists.

Changes to Canada's food and physical activity guides, food labelling and other efforts aren't enough to fight obesity, Sharma said.

No quick fix for obesity

"We're going to have to revamp the health system to address obesity as a chronic disease," said Sharma, who is also scientific director of the Canadian Obesity Network. "There's no cure, there's no quick fix. It's going to be long-term project."

Federally, the renewal of old programs such as Participaction and new initiatives like tax credits haven't done the job of reducing obesity rates, Bird agreed. The key is to take a long-term approach that is co-ordinated and based on evidence of what works, he said.

The care that Jim Starko received at Sharma's clinic made a difference. The 53-year-old once weighed 385 pounds. He had developed Type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and high blood pressure and needed two hip replacements.

After losing 170 pounds, Starko's diabetes and blood pressure are under control and he no longer has sleep apnea.

"I have my life back," said Starko, who accessed all of the services to manage his blood sugar and insulin levels and to get help with meal planning.

The province is also making bariatric surgery more widely available. The five-year, $15.8-million Alberta Health Services Obesity Initiative will allow 1,500 more patients to obtain bariatric surgery over the next few years.

If the program is successful, the province said, it will spend far less treating diabetes and other expensive complications of obesity.

Canada's Vital Signs 2011 includes 22 local reports measuring quality of life across a range of areas including education, work and the arts.

With files from CBC's Pauline Dakin and Heather Evans