TORONTO - Obesity rates are at an all-time high, especially in certain parts of the country, say researchers, who have "mapped" the changes to illustrate how Canadians' waistlines have expanded over time.

Overall, at least one-quarter of Canadian adults have a body mass index of 30 or greater that puts them in the obese category, concludes a study that provides a comprehensive look at rates across the country, complete with "obesity maps."

"Our analysis shows that more Canadians are obese than ever before — on average, between one-fourth and one-third of Canadians are obese, depending on the region," said principal author Carolyn Gotay of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

The Atlantic provinces and the two territories — Nunavut and the Northwest Territories — had the highest obesity rates between 2000 and 2011, with more than 30 per cent of the population in these regions estimated to be obese.

Obesity map by total populationcanada obesity map 1

British Columbia had the lowest overall rates, but obesity still increased from less than 20 per cent to almost 25 per cent in that province. In Quebec, the rate stayed at about 24 per cent.

Gotay said mapping regional rates provides more than a decade of easy-to-use visual snapshots that should help researchers, policy makers and the public identify where investments are especially needed to fight the obesity epidemic.

"It seems to tell us that certain areas are definitely experiencing more heavy people," she said from Vancouver. "In certain areas, the percentage of people who are obese is alarming and does have implications for health care costs and quality of life down the road."

The effects of obesity are indeed expensive: in 2008, they were estimated to cost the Canadian economy $4.6 billion, up about 20 per cent from 2000.

Being obese can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers, among them breast, prostate, colorectal and pancreatic tumours.

The study, published Wednesday in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, used self-reported BMI data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, which researchers adjusted to get more accurate obesity estimates. Over the 11-year study period, the researchers found the greatest increases occurred between 2000 and 2007.

Obesity expert Dr. Mark Tremblay, who was not involved in the study, said the maps give "a nice pictorial summary" of current obesity rates region by region, which is helpful in knowledge translation.

"You see across time that the colours get darker or more ominous, showing very effectively visually the transition that's occurred in a rather short period of time," he said Wednesday from Ottawa.

The two territories and the Atlantic provinces have had long-standing problems with obesity among their populations, said Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

"In the (Atlantic provinces), they also tend to be less active and less fit. We don't see that same pattern for the North," he said. "Those trends have been there for a while, so I guess what is concerning is that they're not being resolved."

In the 2011 annual Active Healthy Kids Canada Report Card, which Tremblay helped pen, the provinces and territories were given an overall C-minus grade for investment in public health promotion.

B.C. and Quebec led the pack in per-capita investment; Ontario was No. 3, though at a much lower level than the other two, and the fall-off in dollars spent on health promotion continued from there.

While Tremblay is not saying there is a cause and effect between more money spent on promoting a healthy lifestyle — including keeping trim with diet and exercise — and lower obesity rates, "its interesting that they align."

Obesity map by female population obesity map female population

Obesity map by male population obesitymapmalepopulation

Gotay hopes the study and obesity maps will encourage provinces and territories to look at their individual rates and come up with programs that target the factors that contribute to obesity within their own populations.

"So I think it helps us to see, and for those provinces it may give them an impetus to understand more about what's going on with their people and develop programs that might be able to reverse these trends."

Online:

http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/?p=80011

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version referred to the Maritimes instead of the Atlantic provinces

Loading Slideshow...
  • Smoking Rates Among Genders

    Smoking rates for both men and women have fallen over the last decade. Rates for men fell from 28.1 per cent in 2001 to 22.3 per cent in 2011 and for women, from 23.8 per cent to 17.5 per cent.

  • Smoking Among Teens

    Since 2001, the largest smoking decline for both sexes occurred among teens. Young people aged 15 to 17 saw rates falling from 20.8 per cent to 9.4 per cent in 2011. And teens aged 18 to 19 saw rates drop from 33.7 per cent to 19.1 per cent.

  • Second Hand Smoke

    The proportion of non-smokers aged 12 and older who were regularly exposed to second-hand smoke at home declined from 10.6 per cent in to almost half at 5.5 per cent in 2011.

  • Fruits And Vegetables

    In 2011, 40.4 per cent of Canadians aged 12 and older reported that they consumed fruit and vegetables five or more times per day. This was down for the second year in a row from the peak of 45.6 per cent in 2009.

  • Physical Activity

    In 2011, 53.8 per cent of Canadians were at least 'moderately active' during their leisure time, up from 52.1 per cent the year before. 'Moderately active' would be equivalent to walking at least 30 minutes a day or taking an hour-long exercise class at least three times a week.

  • Overweight

    At least 60.1 per cent of Canadian men, about 7.6 million, and 44.2 per cent of women, roughly 5.6 million, had an increased health risk because of excess weight. These rates have remained stable since 2009.

  • Obesity

    In 2011, 18.3 per cent of Canadians aged 18 and older, roughly 4.6 million adults, reported height and weight that classified them as obese. This rate was unchanged from 2009. <br>Between 2003 and 2011, obesity rates among men rose from 16 per cent to 19.8 per cent, and among women, from 14.5 per cent to 16.8 per cent.

  • Heavy Drinking

    In 2011, 19 per cent of individuals aged 12 and over reported heavy drinking, up from 17.3 per cent in 2010. Heavy drinking increased for both sexes. The proportion among males rose from 24.8 per cent to 26.8 per cent and among females, it rose from 10.1 per cent to 11.4 per cent. <br> Heavy drinking refers to consuming five or more drinks per occasion and at least once a month during the year prior to the survey.