Childhood Obesity: Advocating for Change

Obesity scares me. My experiences and education have taught me that it is a frightening reality. Thus, I am pleased to now be advocating to change this scenario with OMSA Political Advocacy Committee (OPAC).

By the time I was 8 years old I weighed 130 lbs. By the time I was 12 years old I weighed 180 lbs. People said I was chubby, big-boned, or ‘hardy’. But, really, I was obese, and that was scary. I was scared of being ridiculed and left out. I was scared of type II diabetes. I was scared of dying young. So, with the support of my family and doctor, I worked hard to regain a healthy weight. 

My experience, though, is not an anomaly. 

Currently, over 30% of children aged 6-17 in Canada are overweight or obese. That is almost 1/3! As medical students, we all recognize the immense risk obesity poses for developing Type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The good news is that if a child that is obese regains a normal weight by adulthood, that additional risk actually disappears. Unfortunately, unlike my story, 70% of overweight children remain overweight in adulthood. Food and exercise habits formed in childhood are difficult to break.

So, now, that I am becoming a doctor, and I look at the people who will one day be my patients, I find that obesity still scares me. I am scared that our healthcare system will not be able to cope. I am scared of watching people suffer from obesity-related illnesses. I am scared that obesity will define Canada’s future. 

Recognizing that the key to reducing obesity rates in adulthood is to prevent and combat childhood obesity, in 2012, the Ontario government set an ambitious goal to reduce childhood obesity by 20% over five years. A Healthy Kids Panel was commissioned to investigate the best strategies to reduce childhood obesity, which was released last year. Similarly, Public Health Ontario and the Ontario Medical Association have also released reports, providing similar findings and recommendations to combat childhood obesity. 

One of the most striking findings is that childhood obesity is not equally distributed throughout the population. Children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families are much more likely to suffer from obesity. The primary reason for this was lack of access to healthy fresh foods. After all, unhealthy processed foods are often more affordable than fruits and vegetables. Therefore, many of the recommendations aim to increase availability of affordable food options for children and families. 

Thus, OPAC has decided to join the efforts to reduce childhood obesity by urging the Ontario government to continue to expand the Ontario Student Nutrition Program to reach all publicly funded elementary and secondary schools in Ontario. Currently, Ontario has a patchwork of these programs, run on a community basis, which have been shown to be beneficial. Expanding this program would mean that children are guaranteed at least one nutritious meal a day, as well as education on nutrition. 

Ontario is in a position now to make strong steps to reduce childhood obesity. The immediate costs of investing in obesity prevention programs are much lower than the long-term costs of obesity on our health care system. The research has been done and recommendations have been made. As medical students, we can add our voice and ask the Ontario government to take action and improve the health of the next generation. 

And that makes me a little less scared.

- Joanne K. (McMaster University, Ontario Political Advocacy Representative)

If you are interested in finding out more about how you can advocate for this recommendation, please contact Heather Smith, OMSA Director of Representation, at representation@omsa.ca