Mar 01

OTTAWA — Who are you calling fat? Canadians may be losing the battle of the bulge, but we’re still slimmer on average than our supersized cousins to the south.

A new Statistics Canada survey found that between 2007 and 2009, 24.1 per cent of adults in Canada were obese. In that U.S., that number was 34.4 per cent.

The gap was widest for women: 23.9 per cent of Canadian women qualified as obese, compared to 36.2 per cent of American women. Of Canadian men, 24.3 per cent were obese, while 32.6 per cent of American men tipped the scales.

But Canadians have no reason to feel smug about their comparative lack of bulk, said one obesity doctor.

Dr. Arya Sharma, professor of medicine and chair for cardiovascular obesity research and management at the University of Alberta, said Canada is eating its way into a public health crisis.

“We’re not where the Americans are yet, but the numbers are still very alarming,” he said. “When you consider the medical costs of obesity, of treating related cases of diabetes, heart disease, hip and knee replacements, it’s clear that we have a serious problem.”

The Canadian numbers are based on results of the Canadian Health Measures Survey, while the U.S. numbers come from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

During the past two decades, the rate of obesity has increased significantly in Canada and the United States.

For men, the prevalence of obesity increased by about 10 percentage points in Canada and 12 percentage points in the U.S. Among women, the increase was about eight percentage points in Canada and 10 percentage points in the United States.

The increase was highest among males aged 60 to 74, while highest jump among females came from those aged 20 to 39.

Sharma said obesity has to be treated as a “chronic disease” by the public-health system despite the cost of radical interventions, such as surgery.

“For many, surgery may be the only alternative,” he said. “Can we afford it? What we can’t afford is to do nothing.

“In severe obesity cases where surgery is appropriate, we find that the health system starts saving money on the patient two years after surgery because we’ve brought other health risks under control.”

For those patients who haven’t yet reached the stage where surgery is required, said Sharma, the health system has to do a better job of addressing the lifestyle factors that go into obesity.

“We’re good at looking at what people do to their bodies. We’re not so good at asking why,” he said. “One person might overeat because of depression, another because of lifestyle issues, like stress and a lack of sleep.”

For men and women 20 years of age and older, obesity is defined as a body mass index of 30.0 or higher.

BMI is calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared, rounded to one decimal place.

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