Many different organizations and health experts have purposed various solutions to solve the western world's obesity epidemic. A large majority of the population has hypothesized that the problem is related to governmental food guides, video games, a fast paced society and a lack of focus on nutritional education. These are all contributing factors to the obesity epidemic and I don't argue that it is a multifactorial problem, however none of these purposed hypotheses address the root of the problem.
The underlying problem and forgotten solution
The underlying problem to the obesity epidemic is the current population's lack of connectivity to the soil, the environment and the food supply. There was once a time when food was scarce and acquiring a healthy food supply required hard work and sacrifice, nowadays you can purchase a thousand calorie meal (albeit with no nutrients) for a just a few dollars on nearly every street corner. Presently, kids, and many adults for that matter, have little knowledge about where there food comes from and how it was produced. Unfortunately, a large portion of the population understands their food comes from a box in a grocery store or from the delivery guy at the pizza parlour, and that's the extent of their knowledge. A hundred years ago people knew which farmers raised their chickens and which gardener grew their vegetables. They were connected to their environment and connected to their community; unfortunately many of us have lost this connection, which is vital to our health and well being.
Where to start?
The best place to start is with yourself and those around you. Get familiar with your local food supply and where it comes from. When you become interested in where your food comes from and how it became available to you, you begin to develop a curiosity about nutrition and your health. You may question if antibiotics or hormones were injected into your meat, or if your vegetables were sprayed with pesticides. You will no longer mindlessly place boxed hamburgers and canned vegetables into your shopping cart without considering the nutritional and ethical ramifications of purchasing low quality food. This type of questioning and thinking is critical if our goal is to develop a healthier population and more sustainable environment.
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<b>The issue</b>: As the "<a href="http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/common/ministry/publications/reports/healthy_kids/healthy_kids.pdf">No Time to Wait: The Healthy Kids Strategy</a>" 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: For some genes, breastfeeding has been found to help stave off these effects. A Harvard study also found that <a href="http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/genes-and-obesity/">exercise can be another preventative measure</a>.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
<b>The issue</b>: Just like for adults, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/sleep-weight-loss_n_1891171.html">getting enough sleep in childhood is closely linked to weight gain</a>, and according to Time, children have been <a href="http://healthland.time.com/2012/02/13/a-history-of-kids-and-sleep-its-never-enough/">getting anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes less sleep in the past decade</a>. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
<b>The issue</b>: Parents point to a lack of time to prepare healthy meals, and are serving more fast food and processed food to their kids. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: One suggestion nutritionists often make is to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/11/foods-for-flu-protection_n_2638834.html">buy frozen fruits and vegetables (not frozen meals) to cut down on costs and seasonality</a>, making them an easy addition to most meals. Just watch out for seasonings, which can contain lots of sodium.
<b>The issue</b>: For smaller towns and communities, fresh food isn't available all year round, but fast food is plentiful. <b>The potential solution</b>: These so-called "food deserts" are an issue across the continent, but some potential innovative solutions have been cropping up, like <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/strombo/show-news/get-on-the-bus-serving-food-deserts-with-mobile-grocery-stores.html">mobile markets and fresh food in reclaimed regions like shipping containers</a>, as CBC reported.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: Reading articles about <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/nutrition-labels-how-to-read_n_1889011.html">deciphering nutrition labels is always helpful</a>, 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.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: The CDC recommends children get <a href="http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/children.html">at least one hour of physical activity each day</a>, 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.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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!
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: The Ontario government is currently taking into consideration the recommendation that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/04/junk-food-ban-ontario_n_2805670.html">junk food ads be banned from being shown to kids</a>, though nothing has yet been set in place.
<b>The issue</b>: 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. <b>The potential solution</b>: 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.
Do health professionals know how to grow food?
During my academic career I completed a nutrition degree, a medical degree and a two-year family medicine residency program. That's over 10 years of health related education, yet I was never taught how to grow my own food. I believe that if you work in healthcare, it should be required to spend some time with an organic farmer. Organic farmers are the unsung heroes of the world and provide us with what is vitally important to our health and well being; high quality organic food that can prevent and treat disease. Organic farmers may not be trained to memorize the exact recommended daily intake of every vitamin and nutrient, but they know how to produce healthy sustainable food, critical knowledge that many health experts are lacking.
How to get your kids to eat vegetables
If you're having difficulty getting your child eating vegetables, I have a solution for you. Teach them to grow their own vegetables. You teach your kids to grow kale and they'll eat kale. You teach them to grow spinach and they'll eat spinach. It's that simple. They'll also start to develop an appreciation for food, soil, the environment and earth itself. In addition, it teaches kids valuable life lessons about community, teamwork, patience and respect for one another and their local community.
What should schools do?
Let's call a spade a spade. There's a lot of useless materiel in the curriculum of public education. I think we can all agree that it would be reasonable to eliminate some of the materiel in favour of teaching valuable lessons such as growing and preparing food. The fact that you can graduate high school without knowing how to grow and prepare a nutritious meal is not only pathetic, it's detrimental to our kids' health and well-being. The good news is that it can easily be taught. If you can perform grade 12 math calculations, you can learn how and what nutrients are necessary to allow our body to function properly.
The disconnection western society has from its environment -- the soil and the food supply -- is the underlying issue in the obesity epidemic. If we can reconnect our current population with the food supply and the community, we will create a healthier and brighter future for generations to come.
Follow Dr Mike Hart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drmikehart