Weighing in on obesity

If you had childhood obesity expert Dr. Glenn Berall cornered for 10 minutes, what would you ask him about your kid’s eating habits, pop consumption and Wii time?


Obesity is an epidemic in this country and many others. Fifty-nine per cent of adult Canadians are obese or overweight, and obesity rates in children have tripled. Heading into the calorie-heavy holiday season, we tracked down Dr. Glenn Berall, of North York General Hospital, to get some info.

We've all heard that childhood obesity is a growing problem, but what are the long-term impacts?
Consequences include heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea. In children, we have seen the slippage of growth plates in hips. We’re seeing a lot more type 2 diabetes in children. This is a obesity-related illness, which used to be called adult-onset diabetes.

How much exercise do children realistically need to get each day?
Sixty minutes a day, but that’s a minimum. I always say as much as possible.

Does this include low-impact activities such as walking or playing catch?
It does include that, but there should be a mix of activities. You need to be doing different levels of exercise.

What about active game consoles such as Wii?
If the child is actually using the physical activity part of it, yes. It’s not as intense as being out on the field playing soccer, but it’s better than nothing.

Although just nine per cent of Canadian boys get the recommended amount of exercise per day, for girls that number drops to a startling four per cent. Why the gender gap?
First of all, nine per cent and four per cent are both atrocious numbers, but yes, there is also a tendency for girls to lean toward more sedentary activities, particularly when they become teenagers.

What can parents do to encourage more activity in their kids?
They can be active themselves; there is nothing like modelling behaviour. If the parent comes home to eat in front of the television, they’re setting a pretty strong example. Some parents sign their kids up for active activities, like hockey or swimming lessons, and I think that’s helpful, but free active play is an important component, too. Maybe that means walking to school, instead of driving. Maybe on the way back it means stopping at the park to let them play.

What’s your opinion on the great debate about soda pop in schools?
I look at school as the place where we put students to learn how to be constructive citizens. If you put them in an environment where there is pop, there is a nuance that this is normal and you’re supposed to drink this. It’s different than seeing pop at the corner store. The school is where they should be learning to do the right thing.

Does including nutritional information on menus and packaging deter people from eating unhealthy food?
I don’t know if it deters them, but it helps them make more informed decisions. This is a public health battle. If you look at smoking, it’s on the decline because there was a concerted effort in education, policy and labelling. It’s important to take a similar approach to healthy eating and lifestyle.

What do you say to people who think the government is overstepping by regulating our eating habits?
I am a great believer in freedom of choice, but many of the unhealthy changes in our society have actually been supported by the government. As they support mass transit, computerization, cafeteria policy, the question for me isn’t “Should the government be involved?” They are already. The question should be what we want the regulations to be.

So is the freedom of choice lobby fighting a misguided battle on obesity?
The freedom of choice lobby should really support nutrition labelling, so people can actually make informed choices. It’s not called “freedom of guess.”

Talking about obesity can seem like a bit of a lost cause in December. Any tips?
I think people should have an enjoyable Christmas dinner where they can eat what they want and not worry. The trouble is when Christmas dinner lasts seven meals. You can’t stretch your holiday eating out for long without facing the consequences.

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