The hurtful remarks. The alarming health risks. How kids, and parents, can respond to the obesity epidemic sweeping the developed world.

JOHN DEMONT August 5 2002


The hurtful remarks. The alarming health risks. How kids, and parents, can respond to the obesity epidemic sweeping the developed world.

JOHN DEMONT August 5 2002




The hurtful remarks. The alarming health risks. How kids, and parents, can respond to the obesity epidemic sweeping the developed world.

SUMMERTIME and the living is easy as the bus pulls up to Emerald Lake, a onetime limestone quarry now filled with spring water near Hamilton. Twenty-five kids aged eight to 12 pile out, laughing and squealing in the sunlight. Some scramble up a platform and dive, making big splashes in the green water. Others float around

in a knee-deep wading pool or beat the heat running through a sprinkler. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just nice to have the chance to spend a few days like so many other kids their age do during a steamy July. At what may be Canada’s only camp specifically for overweight kids, no one points when they strip down to their

bathing suits. No one giggles. No one whispers any of those hurtful names. “I always walk away from it, but I get upset,” says Carly Dziob, a smiling 10-year-old forming a semicircle in the wading pool with two other girls. “Here I don’t get teased, and it’s easier to make friends.”

The timeless fusion of sparkling, sunlit

‘If people make fun of me, I just say worse things

about them.’ JENNIFER BORGES, 9

water and free-and-easy children makes Carly’s innocent words all the more poignant. This camp is about more than how these children look in a bathing suit. Some of the kids happily splashing in the water could already suffer from soaring blood pressure, abnormally high cholesterol levels and other cardiovascular ailments which may be the precursors of heart disease and strokes. Some might already exhibit the first hints of arthritis from carrying those extra pounds. Some may even be demonstrating the first signs of Type 2 diabetes, another disease that used to strike only in adulthood but is now hitting pre-teens in Canada. That affliction can lead to blindness, kidney failure, nerve damage and heart disease in later life.

Worst of all, unless something changes, many of these obese kids will become obese adults—with an increased risk of dying from a range of causes compared to adults of normal weight. “Childhood obesity is an epidemic,” warns Dr. Claire LeBlanc of Ottawa, chair of the Canadian Pediatric Society’s Committee on Healthy, Active Living for Children and Youth. “We’ve got to treat it like one.”

Alarmist? Well, just walk into any Cineplex or McDonald’s and gaze upon the jiggling jowls and beach-ball bellies on the grade-schoolers and teenagers lining up for those free popcorn refills and gargantuan Cokes. Better yet, look at the numbers. According to a recently released study, 33 per cent of Canadian boys were overweight in 1996—triple the rate in 1981—while the number of overweight girls swelled to 27 per cent from 13 per cent. The ranks of obese children—the kids truly in danger of getting adult-type diseases before they stop believing in Santa Claus—have soared even more dramatically: 10 per cent of boys and nine per cent of girls are now considered obese, generally defined as being at least 20 per cent above ideal body weight. That’s a five-fold increase from 1981. “Compared to the rest of the world, our kids are leading the pack,” says Mark Tremblay, dean of kine-

siology at the University of Saskatchewan.

Why now? Why, at one of the most body-conscious periods of recent history—when skinny TV stars and singers built like welterweight boxers are the youthful role models of choice—do so many young people seem to be eating themselves into an early grave? On one level the explanation is as simple as it’s always been: too much in, too little out. But

the surge in obesity in most countries of the developed world shows it will take more than a little will power to beat back this epidemic.

Genetics is part of it; some kids are just naturally bigger than others. For them, all the good eating and active living in the world just doesn’t seem to do the job. Got one obese parent? Whether it’s genetics or lifestyle, there’s a 50-per-cent chance

you’ll be obese too. If both parents are obese, the odds rise to 66 per cent. Prosperity levels also have something to do with it. While no one has broken the numbers down province-by-province, experts say it’s reasonable to conclude that the fattest kids tend to live in the places with the fattest adults—the Atlantic and Prairie provinces as well as rural Canada and Aboriginal communities—which also hap-

pen to be where incomes are the lowest in the land.

But this isn’t just a question of the size of the household paycheque. It’s also a matter of growing up in a world the parents of today would barely recognize. They weren’t kids in the Fast Food Nation, a term author Eric Schlosser coined for the United States but is just as applicable here. Visits to fast-food restaurants in

‘Everybody’s different. You’ve got to respect who they are.’ DEVINTROTTIER, 12

Canada ballooned by 200 per cent between 1977 and 1995 as parents opted for handy, cheap (and fat-laden) grub over the home-cooked variety. And waistlines are thickening at home, too, as kids sit down to high-sugar breakfast cereals and suck up bottles of pop in front of the TV.

Which brings up another problem— the tube. According to various studies, the average Canadian kid spends anywhere from 15 to 26 hours a week—or more—watching television, playing video games or sitting in front of the computer, time an earlier generation might have spent running around outside. As Steven Gortmaker, a professor of health and social behaviour at Harvard University, points out, those children are bombarded by TV ads for high-calorie junk food. “The American TV networks,” he declares, “are making your kids fat.”

We can’t blame the ad execs for everything. Suspicions are spreading that the low-protein, high-carbohydrate diet long favoured by the health establishment may actually have contributed to obesity rates. In any case, today’s food habits might have been less damaging in other times, when many more people were active enough to burn off the calories they consumed. Now, in the age of school buses, the parent taxi service, elevators, escalators and remote channel changers, it’s a different story.

Only a third of young Canadians aged five to 17 are active enough for what the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute calls “optimal growth and development.” It estimates that only one in five walks to school. Think they’ll get the heart going in gym class? With phys. ed. often the first casualty when school boards curtail spending, a study as early as 1998 found only 10 per cent of Canadian schools offering gym daily. A tenth of schoolkids had no gym class at all.

Many of today’s youngsters may not even know how to play like their parents used to. Involvement in organized sports is actually increasing for many Canadian

kids. But as early as junior high school, only elite athletes—the people who least need the help—will still be lacing up the sneakers. Unstructured play, where kids used to burn most of their calories, is a dying art as children wait for parents to set up play dates with other kids or sign them up for organized activities. Playgrounds often sit empty. In schoolyards, some safety-conscious administrators have banned such time-honoured games as tag and dodge ball. And playing kick-

the-can on the street corner with the kids is unheard of in neighbourhoods where parents fear a pedophile lurking around every corner. “Most Canadian kids grow up indoors,” says Peter Katzmarzyk, a Queen’s University kinesiologist and spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. “Play to them is having a Game Boy in their hand, the satellite TV

on or dad taking them to the arena and lacing up their skates.”

To be fair, adults are starting to notice what’s happening to their kids—and what a generation of unfit youth will do to an already overburdened health-care system. In April, Health Minister Anne McLellan rolled out Canada’s Physical Activity Guide for Children and Youth, urging the inactive to exercise at least an extra half hour and cut idle time by 30 minutes each day. Forward-looking educators talk of


For all the concerns about overweight kids, worried parents are still largely on their own in addressing the problem, particularly in the rural areas or have-not regions that tend to be home to the heaviest Canadians. But that doesn’t mean there’s no way to help little Joshua or Madison slim down. Far from it. The key, according to pediatricians, nutritionists, educators and exercise kinesiologists, is patience, persistence and a little common sense. Some tips:

PUSH THE KIDS OUTSIDE: Now would be a good time to start. Oded Bar-Or, director of the Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Centre

in Hamilton, says shoving your kids out the front door does two things: it multiplies their opportunities to be active since there’s way more to do outside, and it gets them away from the siren song of the fridge. “People who eat get cues from different things-from the television, from closing the door after they come home from school. Often,” he says, “it’s just looking at the refrigerator.”

LET THEM HAVE FUN: Kids don’t exercise to lose weight. They exercise to have fun. So let them do whatever they want-skip, dance, play tag, climb a tree, bounce the ball against the wall-just so long as they contract those muscles and burn some calories. Playing in

the water is particularly good for obese kids since they are more buoyant, which means their size is actually an advantage. To reach the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute’s suggested daily activity level, a child would have to, say, walk for the equivalent of an hour a day and spend another half hour doing martial arts. But don’t think you have to force your out-of-shape offspring to expand all that energy at once. “If you break exercise down into small chunks,” says Ottawa pediatrician Claire LeBlanc, “it’s amazing how quickly you can accumulate enough minutes a day.”

MAKE THEM WALK: Or ride their bike. Or scooter. Or skateboard. The point is to work

mandatory daily gym classes and phys. ed. “homework.” Politicians ponder a “fat tax” on junk-food purveyors, and making fees for sports activities tax-deductible.

Parents are understandably petrified by what the future holds. In desperation, they sign up their pre-schoolers for play groups designed to raise their little heart rates. They spend thousands sending their children to U.S. camps specializing in helping them shed pounds in the great outdoors. And they pack their kids off to

the few child obesity clinics operating across the country, places like Hamilton’s Children’s Exercise and Nutrition Centre and Toronto Western Hospital’s Child and Adolescent Health Unit, both of which have 500 new referrals a year.

Some parents get a little lucky. Maybe they live in Surrey, B.C., where the municipal administration has bought into the importance of keeping kids active. In the past year alone, Surrey has spent $15 million on a new indoor pool and $12 million

on a recreation centre. It plans to open a new artificial field annually for the next three years so its youth can play soccer, field hockey and rugby 12 months a year. Or their kids attend a school like St. James Catholic High in Guelph, Ont. The head of physical education and athletics there is Steve Friesen, a former university football and junior hockey player who is more interested in getting kids active than hanging championship banners in the school gym. By placing the emphasis on

exercise into the daily routine. The easiest way is to stop chauffeuring them around. Getting them to do some chores around the house-cutting the grass, walking to the store for milk-will also do the trick.

TURN OFF THE SCREEN: Most experts say no more than two hours a day on the computer or in front of the television. Harvard’s Steven Gortmaker says limiting the number of TV screens in the home helps. So does keeping them out of the bedroom, where it’s harder to monitor use. Glenn Berall, the pediatrician in charge of Toronto Western Hospital’s Child and Adolescent Health Unit, recommends having children buy their video-game or TV time by doing, say, five or 10 minutes of exer-

cise for every half hour in front of the screen. “And when they’re playing video games, don’t let them have a chair,” he adds.

THROW OUT THE DIET: Most adults know the grim figure: 90 per cent of us regain most or all of the weight we lose on a diet. Since it’s no different with kids, the experts say stick to the tenets of the Canada Food Guide-daily rations from the four food groups; limit fat intake-and focus on the size of portions. Even high-calorie foods don’t do a lot of harm, in moderation. Instead, follow the Rule of Twenty espoused by the Hamilton clinic: before getting a second helping of a meal, a youngster must wait 20 minutes, the time it takes for the brain to sense that the stomach

is full. A couple of other tricks to keep consumption down: don’t feed the kids in front of the TV (because it encourages overeating), and use small plates to give the impression of big portions.

BE A ROLE MODEL: Parents are their kids’ greatest influence, so practice what you preach. Start walking to work, take up a sport, watch what you eat. If it’s hard for your child to be active in your neighbourhood, lobby for better street lights, safe playground equipment, more bicycle paths. If they don’t get enough gym time at school, bug the principal, the school board or the provincial education minister to help you get your kids moving.


fun rather than competition, he convinced 70 per cent of the school’s 1,300 students to sign up for phys. ed. last year. He even filled an old gym with 25 exercise bikes and rowing machines.

Then there’s the get-off-your-butt attitude infecting New Minas, a pleasant village of 5,000 in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. It bills itself as “the soccer capital of Atlantic Canada,” but also boasts excellent youth basketball and golf programs. If any one person is responsible, it’s Dave Harris, phys. ed. teacher at Evangeline Middle School and the village’s unofficial, unpaid recreation director. His credo: “Anything that gets the kids out and moving is good.” At his school, for starters, students have gym class every day. Intramural sports are mandatory—and they take place during regular class hours, not at lunch or after school.

Harris also ensures the school gym is open every night, every weekend and throughout the summer. And no one gets cut from Evangeline teams, even, for example, when 72 girls come out for volleyball, as they did a few years ago. Harris had to run six squads. “As educators,” he explains, “we have to take a serious look at the 92 per cent of the population who are not competitive athletes.”

Ian Traverse is one. Just 18 months ago, Ian, who lives with his parents, two brothers and a sister on Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation land 270 km north of Winnipeg, was a low-energy 11-year-old whose fivefoot frame sagged under more than 180 lb. His main hobby? He would have said watching television, with a bag of chips and a bottle of pop beside him. Now look at him. Throughout the school year Ian walked or rode his bicycle the three kilometres back and forth to class. He lifts weights. And now he wants a canoe so he can paddle around Lake Winnipeg. Television, for the most part, bores him. When he sits down for a snack, more than likely it’s a sugarfree drink or an apple. And despite sprouting five inches, he has managed to lose 30 pounds. “I should have done this long ago,” says the 13-year-old, who begins Grade 8 in the fall. “It was so easy.”

What motivated Ian was learning that his blood sugar levels were dangerously

Do you find it difficult to maintain healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle? Vote on-line.


high. He knows he’s a prime candidate for Type 2 diabetes, at epidemic levels among adult Aboriginals in the Interlake region of Manitoba where he lives. Now it’s afflicting the overweight young in an area where 60 per cent of the sevento 18-yearolds are considered to be above a healthy weight. The community is fighting back. Its main weapon: an integrated program run by Anishinaabe Mino-Ayaawin, a tribal health provider serving the seven First Nations in the area. Education is the key: teaching kids and their parents to eat healthy foods and stay active.

Most of that happens in workshops and school classrooms. But there are also healthy breakfast and lunch programs in schools, and plans are being finalized for new or upgraded community recreation facilities, with baseball diamonds, basketball courts and gymnasiums to encourage people to exercise. Getting the young to listen requires some ingenuity. First Nations boxing clubs from Winnipeg put on demonstrations to underline the importance of being in shape. Kids receive lessons in healthy cooking. And a

travelling theatre group is spending the summer visiting Interlake communities, raising awareness about the dangers of diabetes. “People are starting to listen,” says Ian, who’s proof positive.

Whatever the approach, it’s going to take dedication. Even professional clinics, with all their resources, may only boast a success rate of 50 cent or less in getting obese kids down to a healthy weight. That’s a hard fact to accept, watching the happy young campers at Emerald Lake goof around in the summer sunlight. Adolescence, after all, is difficult enough for the slim kids. When others mock you because you can’t play ball and have to wear adult-sized clothes, it can be a nightmare. “If people make fun of me,” nineyear-old Jennifer Borges says matter-offactly as she cools off in the wading pool at Emerald Lake, “I just say worse things about them.” But how hard is it to shed the pain from moments like that? As hard as losing those extra pounds? R1

Danylo Hawaleshka

Susan McClelland