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Ministers' 'national dialogue' on obesity falls short for health advocates

Health ministers from across Canada have announced a national dialogue in the battle against obesity - but some experts say it's time to stop talking about weight and go about actually fixing unhealthy lifestyles.

More than a year after U.S. first lady Michelle Obama launched a high-profile anti-obesity campaign aimed at children south of the border, health ministers from across Canada announced on Monday an attempt to tackle the issue here.

The Canadian initiative is being called a "national dialogue" that will solicit feedback from the public, non-governmental organizations, industry and other groups to help figure out what actions to take to combat childhood obesity.

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The majority of Canadians are overweight or obese, a serious public health problem leading to predictions of countless new cases of chronic disease that, if left unchecked, could overwhelm the health-care system.

While some experts welcomed news that provincial and federal governments are talking about the issue, others say the time for dialogue is long over. The areas of concern and potential solutions to the country's obesity crisis are well known, according to health experts. They say the only thing missing is a commitment by government to act on the key issues.

Smoking rates didn't go down by banning cigarettes, and the key to fixing Canada's obesity crisis is not outlawing junk food or vilifying those who are overweight. Instead, experts say, Canada needs to develop measures to make it easier for children to walk to school, get exercise during the day and cut the amount of time they spend in front of the TV or online.

Robert Ross, professor in the school of kinesiology at Queen's University and director of the school's Centre for Obesity Research and Education, said the idea hinges on finding ways to put "unstructured physical play back into life." Such a policy would involve measures including building more neighbourhood playgrounds, addressing safety issues that prevent parents from letting their children walk to school, having classrooms where children aren't required to sit at desks, increasing public education about the detrimental effects of too much screen time, and making it easier for people of all incomes to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.

Prescription for health care

One of the most effective ways to stop rising rates of obesity is to keep people from becoming overweight. Revamping the health-care system to put major emphasis on the prevention of unhealthy weight gain and related problems is necessary to fight the obesity crisis, experts say. Mark Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said medical schools should formally train doctors to better understand good nutrition and healthy behaviours, such as the amount of exercise children and adults should get each week. Dr. Tremblay said health professionals, such as kinesiologists, should be brought into family health teams to promote proper physical activity and prescribe exercise to prevent obesity and related health ailments. He even suggests the creation of a financial incentive for doctors to see healthy patients seeking advice on exercise and nutrition.

New laws and cash

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Whether Canada reverses the trend of rising obesity rates will depend largely on the level of legal and financial commitments the government makes, experts say. They describe the obesity crisis as one of the most complex public-health issues to have ever faced Canada, and one that will require comprehensive - and possibly controversial - government intervention. For instance, a tax on pop and other sugar-sweetened beverages is one way to help curb weight gain among children, said Manuel Arango, assistant director of health policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation. The federal government should also make it illegal for companies to market unhealthy food to children, he said.

Dr. Tremblay said the government invests very little in fighting obesity. To achieve real change, current and successive governments will need to invest hundreds of millions in a national strategy to build more bike lanes, shift the health-care system toward obesity prevention and improve public education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles. To some, the ideas may seem radical. But as Dr. Tremblay points out, it wasn't that long ago smokers were allowed to light up on airplanes.

"We've got to stop saying, 'We can't,' " he said. "We need to accept this is the state of things."

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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