If Canadians are getting fatter by the year, at least we're not as obese as Americans.
That's one of the many go-to comparisons Canadians use in the national pastime of measuring ourselves against those south of the border. But a new report reveals that when it comes to weight, Canadians should think twice before passing judgment on the United States.
Although there are fewer obese people in Canada than in the U.S., a comprehensive joint report from Statistics Canada and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics shows that Canadians seem to be quickly catching up.
The report, which one Statistics Canada analyst described as the strongest direct comparison of obesity rates in the two countries ever conducted, found that 34.4 per cent of Americans were obese from 2007 to 2009, compared with 24.1 per cent of Canadians. Obesity rates have been steadily climbing in both countries since the late 1980s, it said.
The gap between the two nations seems wide, but experts say a closer look at the findings reveals troubling trends that could put Canada's obesity crisis on par with that of the U.S.
In the two countries, obesity rates have risen fairly consistently over the past two decades. But a growing number of experts say that there is increasing evidence the U.S. has begun to experience a slowdown in the rise of obesity-prevalence rates, but that a similar phenomenon has not been found in Canada. They fear that could mean Canada is on a dangerous path toward ever-higher obesity rates that will eventually be on par with levels in the U.S.
"What we seem to be is time-delayed behind the U.S. in this epidemic," said Mark Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. "The prevalence rates are very high. they're going up very rapidly."
Dr. Tremblay added that new data show that the gap between childhood obesity rates in Canada and the U.S. is much smaller, signalling that the next generation of Canadians seems poised to push the country's obesity rates higher than ever.
Furthermore, the report found the most significant increases in obesity rates in the past 20 years were seen in men aged 60 to 74 and women aged 20 to 39. Among those groups, Canadian obesity rates increased at almost the same rate as the U.S., which could spell serious problems for those people in the years ahead.
The jump in obesity rates among young women seems particularly troubling, said Margot Shields, an author of the report and a senior analyst in the health-analysis division at Statistics Canada.
"Usually when an individual becomes overweight or obese, further weight gain happens and it's relatively uncommon to go back to the normal weight group," Ms. Shields said. "We're going to have these women who have this excess weight for all of their adult years and they're going to have the associated health risks with that."
Furthermore, when researchers looked only at the white populations of the two countries, the obesity gap narrowed: 33 per cent in the U.S. and nearly 26 per cent in Canada. The explanation is that the U.S. has a much higher black and Latino population, which tends to have high obesity rates, while Canada has more East and Southeast Asian residents, who have fairly low obesity rates.
But even if Canada's obesity rates never catch up to those in the U.S., that doesn't mean we should look at the United States with disdain, Dr. Tremblay said. "You're in the bottom 10 per cent of your class, but you're not in the bottom 1 per cent and so should you be happy?" he said. "I don't think it's a good-news story."