Over the last year I was asked to sit on an Obesity Task force, by the Honorable health minister, Deb Matthews. The aim of the panel was to decrease obesity in children by 20 per cent over the next five years. There were 18 experts in various industries.
Once a month we spent a full day, for the duration of six months discussing strategies that could be implemented to reduce the risk of obesity in young children across the province.
The three pronged strategy is to:
• Start all kids on the path to healthy eating
• Change the food environment
• Create healthy communities
I don't have to tell you that this is a very tall order! Obesity in children is a complicated issue. It's complex due to the outside numerous issues affecting us such as our home environment, parents, schools, peer groups, food manufacturers, restaurants and fast food establishments.
We live in a toxic food environment where we are constantly exposed to foods that contain excess salt, fat and sugar producing an ongoing addiction. Processed and fast foods are at the crux of the problem. The restaurants, food manufacturers and advertising campaigns are the only ones benefiting from this negative food environment.
There isn't a parent I know that doesn't want the food environment to be healthier. Stress and time restraints force many to get the "quick" fix when it comes to food, and fewer families are preparing meals from scratch. Fast food is convenient and inexpensive now, but at the risk of our children's future health and longevity. Children of this generation are expected to live 10 years less than the current generation.
Start all kids on the path to healthy eating
• Pre-pregnancy health is vital -- what the mother decides to eat and drink for the next 9 months will determine the health of the child
• Breast feeding is the healthiest option for feeding a newborn and should continue for at least the first 6 months
• Parents are responsible for the health of their young children and expected to be their role models
Change the food environment
• The current voluntary programs used to reduce the impact of food advertising to young children have not been effective. It is the time for government to step in to begin the process of devising clear and strict regulations on marketing junk food to children under the age of 12
• Lack of education in food knowledge is one of the causes of why consumers eat poorly.
• Food labels can be misleading and difficult to understand. Consumers are also confused about what they need in terms of calories, fat, sodium, protein and carbohydrates.
• Printing the nutrients on menus or posting on the menu boards would allow for more educated decision
Create healthy communities
• Parents want their children to be in healthy communities where schools offer daily physical activity and healthier foods are readily available.
• Community activity programs must be available in small and large communities
• "Food deserts" known as those small communities who don't have access to supermarkets have the highest rate of obesity. Junk food is cheap whereby fruits and vegetables are more expensive. Healthy foods should be subsidized by the government in these areas.
I feel proud of the report written by my fellow members. But as stated this is a huge undertaking that will take time and patience. I hope I will see the Health Minister be able to implement even small recommendations to our government and manufacturers. But remember that junk food today is addictive and breaking this addiction is not an easy task.
We need support from not only the government but also the manufacturers. In time if changes are not made on a volunteer basis the government must have the strength to begin regulating industries and restaurants. An overweight child means an overweight adult, and this serious cycle will have no end. We no longer have a medical system that can afford to have children who will have full blown serious disease by the time they are in their 30s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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