Every day, it feels as though we get scarier and scarier news about the state of our nation's health — but the most recent report from Ontario about its children's weight could be the most frightening yet.
In "No Time to Wait: The Healthy Kids Strategy," the Healthy Kids Panel reported that by 2040, up to 70 per cent of people in Ontario could be overweight or obese. The panel was intended to help the Ontario government with its aim to reduce childhood obesity by 20 per cent by 2017.
The damage wreaked by obesity is well-known, but it's worthwhile to get a reminder, particularly as it pertains to long-term effects that can be seen from childhood onwards. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children who are obese have been shown to demonstrate at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, are more likely to have prediabetes, and are at greater risk for bone and joint problems. In the long-term, this can mean they're more likely to be obese as adults and at increased risk for different types of cancer.
Although obesity rates have remained the same for children in the past decade, they have jumped from generation to generation. As reported by the Childhood Obesity Foundation, in 1978, 15 per cent of children were overweight or obese, but that number has climbed to 31.5 per cent for 5-to-17 year olds by 2012, notes the CBC.
But what is it that's causing this increase in weight in our younger population? The Healthy Kids Panel identified several factors that all play a role in this epidemic — and can also play a part in stopping it.
LOOK: 15 reasons why young Canadians are increasingly overweight, and how to prevent it:
The issue: As the "No Time to Wait: The Healthy Kids Strategy" report notes, there are more than 50 different genes that have been found to be associated with obesity, and likely more that haven't yet been uncovered. Some of these include genes that contribute to people feeling hungry, even when they're not.
The potential solution: For some genes, breastfeeding has been found to help stave off these effects. A Harvard study also found that exercise can be another preventative measure.
The issue: Thanks to the way evolution works, our bodies tend to crave high-calorie foods over other types to ensure we have enough to sustain our energy — even when there's plenty of options around us.
The potential solution: The answer could start in utero — correlations have been found between women eating high calorie foods while pregnant and children growing up with weight issues.
The issue: Just like for adults, getting enough sleep in childhood is closely linked to weight gain, and according to Time, children have been getting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes less sleep in the past decade.
The potential solution: Ensure children are getting the sleep they need, according to their age. For newborns (0-2 months), that's 12-18 hours; infants (3-11 months) 14-15 hours; toddlers (1-3 years), 12-14 hours; preschoolers (3-5 years) 11-13 hours; school-aged children (5-10 years) 10-11 hours; and adolescents (10-17 years) 8.5-9.25 hours.
The issue: While research is still being conducted on the relationship between weight and mental health, some links have been made with medication and weight gain, as well as a lack of self-esteem and less physical activity.
The potential solution: Definitive research is still needed, but there's a potential for children falling into a vicious cycle of, for example, depression and not eating properly or exercising regularly. Incorporating physical activity can help reduce stress as well as potential for mental illness, while medical professionals can help advise on alternatives to medications that cause weight gain.
Time Crunch For Cooking
The issue: Parents point to a lack of time to prepare healthy meals, and are serving more fast food and processed food to their kids.
The potential solution: Ensuring family meals are a regular occurrence, where both kids and parents pitch in with healthy menu ideas and preparing the food. This helps ensure everyone knows what ingredients are going into their bodies.
Cost Of Groceries
The issue: Fresh fruits and vegetables tend to cost more than fast food or prepared meals, and it can be difficult for families, especially those with less income, to buy healthy food all the time.
The potential solution: One suggestion nutritionists often make is to buy frozen fruits and vegetables (not frozen meals) to cut down on costs and seasonality, making them an easy addition to most meals. Just watch out for seasonings, which can contain lots of sodium.
Access To Fresh Food
The issue: For smaller towns and communities, fresh food isn't available all year round, but fast food is plentiful.
The potential solution: These so-called "food deserts" are an issue across the continent, but some potential innovative solutions have been cropping up, like mobile markets and fresh food in reclaimed regions like shipping containers, as CBC reported.
The issue: We might have a ton of information about nutrition at our fingertips, but not a lot of it is sinking in. According to the Panel, parents report not knowing how many calories their kids need each day, or what nutritional information on foods actually means.
The potential solution: Reading articles about deciphering nutrition labels is always helpful, but giving kids a holistic education in school on their daily needs, and which foods will actually deliver them in a healthy manner, could also change the tide.
Changes In Kids' Activities
The issue: There's no question kids are more attached to electronics than ever before (as we all are), and it's impacting how much they are moving around. As the Panel reports, kids now spend 62 per cent of their waking hours sedentary.
The potential solution: The CDC recommends children get at least one hour of physical activity each day, so parents need to make an effort to ensure that's happening with their children, whether it's walking to and from school, playing in the backyard or engaging in extracurricular activities.
No Time To Walk
The issue: Along the same lines of the issues with physical activity, the busier schedules get, the more likely kids are to get around by car and less by their own physical effort, whether that means walking, biking or even being pushed in a stroller.
The potential solution: Planning enough time to allow children to walk to and from activities and school, and building that into the daily schedule. Stopping the reliance on the car will be good for the wallet, the earth and the body!
Cost Of Activities
The issue: For kids who want to get involved in sports or extracurricular activities, this can mean a significant financial investment — and often for parents who can't afford it.
The potential solution: Looking into secondhand equipment or even scholarships for sports is an option, as are lower-cost leagues or sports that require fewer pieces of equipment, such as track and field.
The issue: Along with busy schedules that compel parents to drive are neighbourhoods that do the same thing, thanks to a lack of sidewalks — or other areas that don't allow for outdoor playing, as when ball hockey is banned on streets.
The potential solution: Finding open spaces in your neighbourhood for kids to play together, whether it's on playgrounds or even someone's big front yard. Parents can also band together to talk to town officials about restrictions in order to find a way to get kids moving.
The issue: A combination of potential dangers and parents who are possibly more nervous than those in generations past can make for situations where children aren't allowed to go outside and play, keeping them from their healthy physical activity.
The potential solution: Talking to other neighbourhood parents about the issue can help create an organization that allows for kids to play safely together, possibly with a rotating chaperone.
The issue: The massive prevalence of junk food advertising directed at children — according to the Panel, in one week, 2,315 food-related ads were shown on free channels in Ontario and Quebec, 257 of which aired when at least 20 per cent of the audience was targeted at 2-to-17 year olds.
The potential solution: The Ontario government is currently taking into consideration the recommendation that junk food ads be banned from being shown to kids, though nothing has yet been set in place.
The issue: This massive topic obviously affects everything from health to education to relationships. But when it comes to obesity, lower incomes mean fewer fresh foods, both in supermarkets and restaurants. It could also mean living in an area where such options aren't even available, and for immigrant families, not having access to (or enough time to prepare) traditional ingredients and meals.
The potential solution: This issue encompasses almost every factor mentioned in the report, and each step forward from both a personal and governmental level can help alleviate the issues, if not completely correct them.