Unhealthy living



Commons health committee study offers MPs a grim menu

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The Commons health committee chose the title Healthy Living for its study of the state of well-being of average Canadians.

It might have been better titled Unhealthy Living.

A growing list of medical, nutrition and active living groups have painted an unappetizing portrait of a nation of unhealthy overweight citizens at risk of debilitating chronic diseases. Heart disease and diabetes come from a diet full of sweetened soft drinks and food containing too much sodium and transfats and a lack of sufficient physical activity.

At the same time, there’re too many kids going to school hungry affecting both their long term well-being and their ability to learn, the MPs have heard.

Dr. Anne Doig, past president of the Canadian Medical Association, said doctors want to make Canadians aware of the health consequences of poor nutrition and lack of physical activity and the challenge of obesity. “We know that obesity is a contributor to a number of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and liver disease, as well as breast, colon, and prostate cancer.

“We know that over-consumption of salt, sugars, and saturated and transfats can be a factor in hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke, and kidney disease. And we know that Canadians have become dramatically less physically fit in recent decades,” she pointed out.

For starters, the CMA wants schools “to provide at least 30 minutes of active daily physical education for all primary and secondary grades, given by trained educators in the field; to provide access to attractive, affordable, healthy food choices, and clearly post the nutrition content of the foods they sell; and to ban junk food sales in all primary, intermediate, and secondary schools in Canada.”

Governments also need to pay attention to diets, she said. “The proliferation of packaged prepared foods and fast foods has contributed to excess amounts of salt, sugar, saturated and trans fat, and calories in our diet. While we welcome the federal government's support for the reduction of transfats and sodium levels in processed foods, reliance on the food industry to reduce these ingredients voluntarily has not been successful. We believe that regulation is needed to safeguard the health of Canadians.”

Barb Mildon, president-elect of the Canadian Nurses Association, said “Inactive Canadians are at greater risk of heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer and depression. Among Canadians aged 45 and older, 70% report one or more chronic conditions directly related to physical inactivity.”

Governments should put more resources into preventive healthcare services and programs, particularly those addressing physical activity, and nutrition education and counseling, she recommended.

“Given the huge scope of the issue, however, the public health sector needs more financial resources and more people to get the job done. Stable, long-term funding is needed to ensure proper integration of services and foster greater inter-professional collaboration. Successful programs need to be scaled up and extended deeper into the communities that need them.

Kelly Murumets, President and CEO of ParticipACTION, said failing to address the need for Canadians to become more active “could bankrupt the future of our country through chronic dieases.

“Only 7% of our kids have adequate physical activity,” she added. Her organization is trying to connect with young people to get them involved in more sports and activities.”

The Canadian Diabetes Association and the Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems said nearly one quarter of Canadian adults are obese while one quarter of the children are overweight. Overeating, poor food choices and a lack of physical activity runs up a tab of $30 billion a year in health care costs and lost economic productivity.

Yet Health Canadahas dragged its feet on stricter nutritional labeling and educating the public while the federal government hasn’t followed Quebec’s lead in regulating food marketing directed at children, the groups said. Existing labeling on products can be misleading.

The Weight Coalition even suggested a tax on soft and energy drinks could be reinvested in educating Canadians about taking care of their health and eating smarter. Director Susie Pellerin said the World Health Organization has asked governments to restrict the promotion of products with low nutritional value. The United Nations has scheduled a summit on the issue in New Yorkin September and Canadashould take a position by then.

Aileen Leo of the Diabetes Association said Ottawaand the provinces need to develop a Pan Canadian strategy on healthy weights and promoting healthy eating to Canadians. The cases of diabetes in Canadahave doubled in the last decade and will likely double again in the next one, she added.

Bill Jeffrey, head of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, said Ottawa could also help by making a plan to reduce sodium in the Canadian mandatory and stop stalling on reducing the use of transfats in prepared and restaurant foods.

Meanwhile, Liberal and NDP MPs are concerned about hungry school children.

Canada needs a national school breakfast program to ensure kids can pay enough attention to learn to their potential, Liberal MP Kirsty Duncan says. “Canada is the only industrialized country without such a program. If kids are hungry, they can’t learn.”

Duncan, who was involved with a school breakfast program in Toronto before she entered politics, says breakfast programs have proven highly effective. “Too many kids go to school hungry and that affects their ability to learn as well as their long term health. Canada is the only industrialized country without a national program.”

Duncan said health officials should look at what school breakfast programs have accomplished in the United States. “This is a national program across Canada and you can see it in every city.”

NDP MP Carol Hughes supported Duncan. “It’s crucial to get a healthy breakfast program launched for school kids. We also have to make sure social assistance rates are high enough to support a healthy diet.”  It’s also important to help kids in remote communities.

Conservative MP Patricia Davidson said the government needs to clear up the confusion caused by a lack of standardized serving sizes on the nutrition facts box required on all packaged foods. They were required several years ago to help consumers select the most nutritious foods but they make comparisons among products almost impossible.