'National dialogue' to tackle childhood obesity

The federal and provincial health ministers launched a new strategy to curb the rising rates of obesity in children.
California elementary students look at fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program, of the kind that First Lady Michelle Obama would like to see offered across the United States. Ottawa announced a 'national dialogue' on childhood obesity Monday. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

The federal and provincial health ministers launched a new strategy Monday to curb the rising rates of obesity in children.

The initiative is billed as a "national dialogue" and it seeks to identify ways to promote healthier lifestyles for children.

Federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced the "Our Health Our Future" project in Toronto. A new website will serve as an online forum and a report with recommendations will be presented at a national summit this fall where federal, provincial and territorial health ministers will decide on further actions.

"We have an alarming trend among our children in the last decade," Aglukkaq said. "Too many of them are overweight, too many of them are obese ... this has to be reversed."

The initiative announced Monday stems from an agreement reached by the country's health ministers at their annual meeting last September. The ministers adopted a broad framework at that meeting that commits them to making the problem of childhood obesity a priority.

Young people, non-governmental organizations, national Aboriginal organizations and industry players are being invited to participate in the national dialogue through the website and in meetings that will take place across the country over the coming months.

"We need to get to the roots of what causes people to become overweight or obese and then kickstart a program, a long-term movement to change it," Aglukkaq said.

The project will involve identifying the conditions that contribute to unhealthy weights such as how communities are designed, the availability of healthy foods, the influence of advertising and how much time youth spend in front of television and computer screens, according to the minister.

"Ultimately we want to create the conditions that will ensure that children and families can eat well, be active and have healthier lives," she said.

The number of children who are overweight or obese has been rising steadily in Canada. More than one in four children and youth in Canada are considered overweight or obese and increases in the rates are highest among teenagers.

But while Aglukkaq was touting the initiative as the first of its kind in Canada, it was panned by the NDP's health critic Megan Leslie.

"What the minister announced this morning, I think, is pretty narrow," Leslie said at a news conference Monday in Ottawa, where she accused the Conservative government of failing to take leadership on health-care.

Leslie said obesity has already been studied by the House of Commons health committee and that legislative solutions are already known. "I've seen no action on them. I don't quite understand how a national summit is actually going to help things, but, you know, yay for the website."

No dollar figure has been attached to the national dialogue initiative. Aglukkaq said the total cost will depend on what actions the health ministers eventually decide to take.