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What Canada should do to tackle childhood obesity

I have had an incredible week in Canada. It's a stunning country with beautiful food and produce, and I've been blown away by the welcome I've received. The warmth and passion of everyone I've met are second to none. With Thanksgiving upon us, Canadian hospitality is in full swing, and it has been a real joy to be part of it.

However, I had the privilege of speaking to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, and one thing we can't ignore is the big challenge that Canada, like the United Kingdom, faces when it comes to tackling childhood obesity. In fact, all over the world, we are failing to provide people with good, proper, healthy food. Obesity is destroying children's futures, while malnutrition is also wreaking havoc.

It's a mess. So what are we going to do about it?

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The problem is immense

According to a powerful report released this year by the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, between 48,000 and 66,000 Canadians – roughly a full house for a Blue Jays home game – die every year from conditions linked to obesity.

Since 1980, the committee discovered, the number of obese adults has doubled, while the number of obese children has tripled. Today, roughly one in four Canadian adults, and one-third of children, are overweight, if not obese. This pushes Canada into fifth place among industrialized nations for the incidence of adult obesity.

That costs the country between $4.6- and $7.1-billion every year in additional health care and lost productivity. Just think what could be done if that money were used to help people eat better. This is a global problem: There must be a way to feed ourselves, without killing ourselves. It's not that we don't want to eat more healthily, it's just not as easy as it should be.

Hope on the horizon?

The Prime Minister shows that his government is serious about junk-food marketing and labelling in his mandate letter to Health Minister Jane Philpott. I met her in May, and I know that she is also passionate about tackling childhood obesity (and she's a real expert on the subject). In the wake of the Senate report, it looks as if she and Mr. Trudeau have some brilliant plans in place. I'm behind them all the way – let's hope it all goes through.

Canada has a history of leadership on these issues. In 1980, Quebec stuck its neck out and banned fast-food ads that target children – the impact was huge. There was a 13-per-cent drop in weekly spending on fast food, and billions fewer calories consumed by children. But that was 36 years ago. Since then, Canadian schools have taken steps to ban pop and confectionery sales within their walls, and deep-fryers have been removed from cafeterias.

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Where next?

Those are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done to protect Canadians' health – particularly in places where people struggle to access good, healthy food.

In Canada's First Nations communities, obesity rates are well above the national average, and diseases such as Type 2 diabetes are almost becoming normal among people in their 30s – that's disturbing.

It's estimated that eight in 10 First Nations young adults will develop Type 2 diabetes, compared with five in 10 in the general population. Something is obviously very wrong.

Can we make a difference?

I've spent the past 10 years being a pain in the butt, trying to find answers to these problems – we can't let another generation die while we debate the facts in front of us.

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Here's what I've learned: People buy better food when there are fewer incentives to buy the bad stuff.

I'm not the only one to realize this. There are some fantastic ideas out there to help take rubbish food off our tables:

Mexico, where 35 per cent of kids are overweight and sugary drinks are seriously cheap, imposed the world's first tax on such drinks in 2014. In a year, sales fell 12 per cent. Mexico got healthier – and wealthier, putting the tax money back into fantastic, healthy initiatives.

This summer, Philadelphia, where more than 68 per cent of adults and 41 per cent of children are overweight or obese, became the first U.S. city to impose a similar tax. It is expected to raise about $91-million annually, to be spent on education programs, community projects and employee-benefit schemes.

And this year, Chile introduced labels for all foods high in sugar, calories, sodium or saturated fat. The new law bans the sale of any of those products in schools, or advertising them to children under 14.

Obesity is a complex problem, but we don't need to feel powerless. It's a question of culture change. Governments and businesses can do a lot. And so can teachers, parents, kids – all of us.

Here are six simple, practical suggestions to sink our teeth into:

1. Make marketing fair

Don't teach kids to want the wrong things. Junk food shouldn't be advertised before their bedtime or on kids' weekend TV.

2. Make sugar pay

Raise money by adding a fee to pop that is then invested in good food projects at the provincial level.

3. Draw the line

Set mandatory targets to reduce excessive sugar in all products, and penalize those who don't comply.

4. Be transparent

Make labels easy to understand. Information about sodium, trans fat and sugar needs to be put on the front of packaging – right where we can see it.

5. School food for everyone

Give all children a good meal each day, so they are ready to learn. And that learning should include helping them understand what they're putting in their bodies.

6. Educate the public

Update Canada's food guide with accurate information on what children should eat, and provide practical resources for home and school.

In short, you have to put your money where your mouth is. I live and breath the values that I hammer on about – in my own life, and through my business. I have put a surcharge on fizzy drinks in my restaurants in Britain, and will introduce a similar, 10-cent fee in Jamie's Italian restaurants in Canada next February. The funds raised will go into community-run food programs like The Stop in Toronto.

Beyond raising money, this is about giving families the information they need to eat healthily, and to understand the dangers of sugar. It's about starting a conversation so people can make informed choices.

I'm in this for the long haul, using every tool I can to shake things up. There has never been a better time for Canada to be a leader. This is it – let's start a food revolution.

Jamie Oliver is a renowned British chef-restaurateur also known for his fight to improve society's eating habits.

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