March 2004 Edition
Healthcare: Obesity - A Big Problem

by Susan Wesenhagen

Take a look around you, and you may notice that as a nation we have ever-expanding waistlines. According to Statistics Canada 47.9% of Canadians were overweight in 1998.

A University of Saskatchewan study published in the April 2002 issue of the International Journal of Obesity, reported similar findings - nearly half of all adult Canadians aged 20-64 years, are overweight, and among this figure they estimate a quarter of them are obese.1

But why should obesity garner all this attention, and just what is it about obesity that is causing health professionals to sound alarm bells across the nation?

Quite simply, obesity increases the risk of developing life threatening and debilitating disorders such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and hypoventilation syndrome which causes respiratory failure.

Obesity is characterized by excess body fat and is usually measured by a person's Body Mass Index or (BMI). BMI is a formula that takes into consideration your weight relative to your height and is a useful way to measure body composition. However, BMI calculations aren't for everyone - they are not accurate for pregnant women, children, or athletes with more than average muscle development.

For obese and overweight people, where they store body fat is also important. Excessive abdominal fat, (often called central obesity) for example, is linked with even higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Besides putting people at risk of suffering with disease, obesity also has negative social and economic consequences. In Canada, the health care costs are staggering. "A study at York University's School of Kinesiology and Health Science found that inactivity kills 21,000 people prematurely and costs the Canadian economy about $3.1-billion a year."2

So it's in the best interests of all of us to help prevent obesity.

Just who’s at risk of developing obesity? It would seem that almost anyone, including children, could be at risk of developing this condition, though some people may be genetically predisposed to developing obesity. Preventable forms of obesity are most often associated with a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits or poor nutrition.

Fast Food has come under fire recently for contributing to the obesity epidemic, and in the U.S. several fast food chains have had lawsuits filed against them for contributing to the obesity of their customers.

Obviously it is up to the individual to monitor their caloric intake and ensure that they get enough exercise to offset the amount of calories they consume. However, as a foodservice provider you can play a part in helping customers to choose foods that are appropriate.

Take a look at your menu and identify items that are low in carbs or fat, and consider identifying them for the customer. Be ready to adapt menu items to accommodate special dietary requests, and examine your portion sizes carefully.

Create an artful plate - add a few carrot or celery sticks - it adds colour, variety, and increases the likelihood that the customer will eat better at your establishment.

Focus on presentation, quality and variety, and support your plated creations by providing menu descriptors that identify low fat choices, or balanced meals - ones that include vegetables, grains and meat or meat alternatives.

Ask the chef to offer baked, broiled or steamed menu items in addition to regular menu items. Offer fibre in the form of whole grain breads in your bread basket, and include complex carbohydrates such as pasta and rice along with fruits and vegetables. And be sure to educate your staff about the healthy choices on your menu so they can make recommendations to customers with concerns.

To combat obesity Canadians will have to maintain an active lifestyle as well as take control of what they eat. That's where you can play your part - by promoting and providing healthy choices. ¨

1 Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

2 cbc.ca Marketplace - Canada's Investigative Consumer Program