Canadian obesity epidemic is a myth, report claims
Published Monday, April 28, 2014 6:30AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, April 28, 2014 10:35AM EDT
Although Canadians are heavier than they've ever been, a new report argues there's no obesity epidemic in the country.
A report from right-wing think-tank Fraser Institute, released Monday, shows obesity levels in Canada have levelled out over the last decade and may be dropping in some segments of the population.
"The evidence that this is a continuously growing problem where more and more and more of us every year are falling in these obese and overweight categories just isn't there," says Nadeem Esmail, the Fraser Institute's director of health policy studies.
While Canadians' expanding waistlines are a problem, "the view that there's an obesity epidemic leading to widespread illness and death and that only government intervention could save us from ourselves is a myth," Esmail told CTVNews.ca.
According to the report, while obesity rates have stabilized, government-led "cut the fat" initiatives such as banning candy and soda-laden vending machines in schools, or proposals to tax junk food and put graphic warning labels on fatty snacks, shouldn't get the credit.
"We find in every case that evidence to support the view that government intervention could systematically reduce the prevalence of obesity just isn't there," Esmail said.
Instead, he said the problem is policy interventions penalize all Canadians, regardless of their weight, or lifestyle choices. He added that such policies could also cost taxpayers.
"Those costs might require newer, larger, government bureaucracies, they may stunt small business growth, they may generate higher business costs that would be passed on to consumers," Esmail said. "These are not costless interventions, and their ineffectiveness in dealing with the problem suggests that this is just bad policy."
The report used self-reported body mass indexes collected by Statistics Canada. BMI is a relative measure of an individual's body fat based on height and weight.
A normal weight individual has a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9, an overweight individual has a BMI between 25 and 29.9 and someone who's obese has a BMI of 30 or higher.
Fraser report is 'attack' on obesity prevention measures: doctor
Obesity researcher Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, meanwhile, says the Fraser Institute's use of self-reported BMI is a serious flaw in the report.
Freedhoff said Statistics Canada studies have shown that both men and women tend to over-report their height and under-report their weight, which would make self-reported BMIs inaccurate.
The 2012 data from Statistics Canada used in the Fraser Institute showed 34 per cent of Canadians adults were overweight – a number that's remained the same since 2003.
But obesity levels in Canada have increased from three per cent to 18.5 per cent between 2003 and 2012.
The number of obese males has remained unchanged since 2007, and may be dropping, according to the study. However, obesity rates among Canadian women are on the rise.
Freedhoff points out that while the report focuses on self-reported obesity rates since 2003, the rates have actually tripled since the mid-1970s.
He also said BMI is a poor method to measure obesity, as it includes people in good health that have higher weights.
"People shouldn't judge their health on the basis of their weight," Freedhoff told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. "Scales do not measure the presence or absence of health."
He described the report as an "attack" on initiatives to treat or prevent obesity.
"Even the most conservative of data would suggest thousands of weight relatable deaths per year in North America,” he says.
Freedhoff stressed that a single solution or intervention will not have an impact on a complex problem such as obesity.
"I would hate to consider the fact that politicians themselves, who might not be experts in nutrition in health, might read this and think that it's actually useful information," he said.
The Fraser report also looked at the burden of obesity on the health care system.
Pointing to a recent study from the Netherlands, Esmail said researchers found that obese individuals generate higher health care costs on an annual basis, but were less expensive to care for over their lifetime. That’s due to "the longevity consequence," he said, as obese individuals have shorter lifespans.
"So there might actually be no net negative impact on the Canadian health care system over a lifetime where on an annual basis there is some."