Childhood obesity rates inching down

Study suggests more work needed

Bonnie Belec
Published on March 1, 2014

Ten years ago, preschool children in Newfoundland and Labrador were heavier than they are today, according to a study that looked at the prevalence of obesity and weight in that age group.

“We still have unacceptably high rates and need to do more work, but progress has been made in stabilizing, even reversing, overweight and obesity in the Newfoundland and Labrador preschool population,” Patricia Canning, a professor in the faculty of education at Memorial University told The Telegram Friday.

In 2004, Canning and Lynn Frizzell from MUN’s department of psychology published their first study on the issue in the Canadian Medical Journal, reporting almost 39 per cent of the province’s children — age 42 to 66 months — were either overweight or obese. They had analyzed data from 2001-02.

“We were the first in Canada to research measured heights and weights in this group,” Canning said.

Their most recent research, analyzing data from 2009-10, published in the Canadian Journal of Public Policy a decade later, indicates the rates have dropped to around 36 per cent.

“Which is a few hundred kids and it is significant. Australia, the United States and some other countries have reported the same rates,” said Frizzell.

The rate is still higher than the 33 per cent reported by the World Health Organization in its growth charts for children under five years of age in 2010 in developed countries.

“And given the potential associated health consequences, it is a cause for great concern,” the researchers’ report says.

“A period of stabilization can be followed by further increase, thus continued intervention and surveillance are necessary in order to guide and evaluate the public health measures intended to reduce the impact of overweight and obesity on the current and future health of children,” it says.

Frizzell said they also reviewed old records dating back to the early 1980s and found the obesity rates to be the lowest, around 26 per cent.

“What happened after that? TV, cable, satellite, remote controls, video games, fast food, the erosion of family time. Everything began to  change,” she said.

Over the past several years, the growing number of overweight children has become a legitimate health concern coupled with the increase of Type 2 diabetes, normally referred to as adult onset diabetes.

Canning says it’s all related and they are seeing children as young as eight diagnosed with the chronic condition that affects the way the body uses sugar.

According to, 95 per cent of the children with Type 2 diabetes are overweight at their time of diagnosis.

After their first report in 2004, Canning said, the provincial government took the data seriously and implemented obesity-prevention initiatives such as new nutrition polices governing schools and childcare centres, parent education and support programs as well as the provincewide poverty reduction strategy.

Canning and Frizzell also had some ideas of their own.   

“So having done all this, obviously, the next thing to do was look at prevention, which is the HealthSTEPS program we have developed in collaboration with Medavie Health Foundation and family resource centres,” Frizzell said.

According to the program’s outline, HealthSTEPS: A Model for Health and Development Skills, Tools and Education for Parents of Young Children, is a six-week program that aims to improve parents’ knowledge, skills and practices concerning children’s nutrition and activity.

Each week includes a brief presentation by the facilitator, group discussion, demonstrations and hands-on group activities — particularly food preparation.

The emphasis is not just on providing information on the key messages, but also on increasing skills so parents know how to use and apply information.

Facilitators address issues such as portion distortion, obesity risks, reducing screen time by taking TVs out of preschoolers’ bedrooms and healthy cooking.

Canning said family resource centres are the best place to implement healthy-living policies because they are part of the community, supported by the people, and their mandate is to help and encourage families.

Canning said HealthSTEPS has been piloted at the Gander Bay Family Resource Centre, in collaboration with executive director Melissa Blake and a funding grant from the Medavie foundation for about two years and is ready to roll out across the country.

“We’re now looking for funding to bring it nationwide. So this is an important opportunity to let  family resource centres and parents know it is coming and that their, and others; input have contributed significantly to the development of HealthSTEPS,” said Canning.

“The fact that there has been a reduction in rates goes to show that the broad community-wide and government response since our initial study was published in 2004 has resulted in this small, but significant decline. We are going in the right direction, but obviously we still have a problem. We believe that HealthSTEPs will promote the key knowledge and skills that parents need to get their children off to the right start,” she said.