March 01, 2012

30% of Teens are Overweight

Canada's chief public health officer said recently, "Canada is facing an obesity epidemic." Thirty years ago, about 15% of teens were overweight. Today 25% of girls and 31% of boys are overweight or obese.

Everyone blames parents, but I think there's such an obvious solution to obesity, I hesitate to mention it - education. Children who are overweight or obese are obviously not eating properly, or are eating too much manufactured food and fast food high in salt, fat and sugar. I have to assume that their parents also do not know how dangerous fast food and boxed meals are, or maybe they just don't have the courage to set standards for their kids.

When I was growing up in another province, we took mandatory weekly classes in health and physical education right through grade 12. In health class, we learned about nutrition and the types of foods required for good health, including Canada's food rules. We learned about important nutrients in food such as vitamins and minerals and the foods that contained them. Pretty basic stuff - I still remember the foods containing vitamin C listed "grass" - it really does have vitamin C, but I sure hope they weren't suggesting we eat it! The most important influence in my life-long eating habits was my mom, who grew up on a pioneer wheat farm. She made meals out of basic real food - this was what your grandmother ate. We sometimes ate canned veggies in the Saskatchwan winter. Breakfast was oatmeal or shredded wheat with fresh squeezed orange juice; lunch at school was a sandwich, apple and milk; lunch at home was boiled eggs, bread and cheese; supper was meat, potato and veggies. No snacks or desserts, but on special occasions, mom made 'flapper pie'. Took me 20 years to find the recipe - a friend in Ontario had it pasted in her recipe scrapbook. It's basically egg custard on a graham cracker crust with a meringue on top - the description hardly does it justice!

The phys-ed classes in my youth taught us a variety of exercises from basic gymnastics to dancing. I was busy with activities after school, including clubs, swimming, music lessons and even playing "scrub" at the school yard - that's pick-up baseball to the uninitiated. But I actually got most of my exercise running to school every day (I always seemed to sleep in). At 30, after some years of working in a lab, I took a fitness test - the tester blamed bood genes for my great results, but I credit my youth - not sports, but always active.

Living in a small town and close to school and work also meant I walked everywhere. Most city kids seem to get around in buses and cars and rarely walk anywhere or play ball after school. I wonder how many of these kids could do a somersault, run 2 km. or swim 200 metres. I rarely see children playing outside or doing sports - there's a soccer/baseball field near our home that is always empty. In winter, some parents make and maintain really nice outdoor ice but I never see kids playing shinny or just skating. Are they all sitting in front of computers, TV's and phones? Why are their parents allowing them to turn into couch potatoes?

The schools have really let us down. It was only recently that Ontario schools started removing machines selling junk food and soft drink from the elementary schools. Since I have never gone to school in Ontario, I was stunned - why was non-food ever allowed into schools in the first place? I guess schools saw an opportunity to make a quick buck. But by trading off our children's health seems too high a price. It's hard to imagine how parents and trustees alike went to sleep on this one.

Following Jamie Oliver's acclaimed "Food Revolution" project to improve nutrition in American schools was a real eye-opener. School administrators and food services fought him every step of the way. All they cared about was the status-quo until they learned how poor food can ruin their childrens' health. In fact, no one seemed to have any idea that prepared school food purchased from the food industry could lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other lifestyle diseases.

Canada warned of obesity epidemic: 70% of country could be overweight by 2026, nation's top doctor says (The Ottawa Citizen 28-Feb-2012)