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Food and Drink

Acting up and shaping down

The numbers are rolling in and they aren’t a pretty sight: 26 per cent of young Canadians between two and 17 years of age are overweight, a figure, pardon the expression, that’s tripled over the past three years.

At the provincial level, 37 per cent of B.C.’s adults are overweight and 18 per cent are obese. In the last 25 years, the number of overweight teenagers has doubled, and the number of obese teens has tripled.

And all this in beautiful British Columbia, home of the healthy and fit outdoorsy-types who used to feel more than somewhat smug and chauvinistic as we chided our cousins south of the border for growing larger and larger in the land of too much plenty. Now the “plenty” has caught up with us.

So this spring the provincial government started tackling our weighty problem, and other health challenges, through ActNow BC. The ultimate goal: not just lead North America in healthy living, but be the healthiest jurisdiction ever to host an Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

To tackle a wide range of issues, from smoking to poor eating habits, and give people a wide range of entry points that suit their lifestyles, there are more than 80 programs already underway.

One of the latest was recently launched at B.C. Children’s Hospital. Shapedown BC, aimed at the growing obesity problem amongst children and teens, is a weight management program based on a model that has been used in California for 20-plus years. It’s already helped about 100 families during a pilot project at Children’s Hospital.

In the new program, close to half a million dollars will go towards helping 200 families with youngsters who are obese.

“The criteria has been to select the ones who are most obese and the ones who have not had success working with their family physicians in their communities,” says Gordon Hogg, Minister of State for ActNow BC.

“This is taking a whole different approach and a much more holistic approach. Family physicians, to a greater or lesser degree, already have skills in this area. But this is really bringing together a specialist group that includes a social worker and counselling as well as the medical side.”

The Shapedown team, which consists of physicians, nutritionists and counselors, integrates primary care with specialist health care. These professionals work with families of young people who are dealing with obesity, targetting the underlying factors that often promote poor food choices and physical inactivity.

Parents learn things like the importance of setting limits and boundaries — why love can’t be translated into another piece of pie. And the youngsters involved gain much more.

We learn through other people, so addressing it as a systems approach is far more effective,” says Hogg. “It’s much more comfortable for the child to have consistent messages and a consistent support system, and feel that people are there not to vilify or criticize them but to support them within the challenges that they face.”

Besides health implications, such as higher risk for serious diseases like type II diabetes, obesity remains in the shadows of discrimination.

One of the families Hogg met who had been though the pilot program included two sisters who were both extremely overweight. They described how they felt about that — how they wouldn’t go out of the house, and how they suffered threats and taunting at school.

In a society that vaunts the “you can’t be to too thin or too rich” paradigm, the fallout around being overweight can overflow to the families as well.

“You feel guilty as a parent because your child is overweight and can often face discrimination from peers,” says Ceri Bowles, whose family took part in the pilot project.

To ensure that families across the province have access to Shapedown BC, each health authority has been given information on the program and been asked to develop a model that supports the family physicians within their region.

Families in the Sea to Sky corridor, which is part of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, can access the program through a referral from their family doctor.

A victim of its own ambitions?

ActNow BC has earned the Canadian Public Health Association’s first-ever national award given to a government for a health promotion program, plus it’s being reviewed by the World Health Organization as a potential model.

It has laudable goals and has been around since spring. So why are people in B.C. barely getting it?

Even the Minister responsible for the initiative admits that it might be a victim of its own ambitions. With more than 80 programs and another five to be launched in the next six months, it can be confusing.

People are hearing about things like the B.C. Healthy Initiative, Action Schools! B.C., the School Fruits and Vegetable Program or Active Communities program, but they’re not making the connection they’re all part of ActNow BC.

More importantly, they may not be making the connection that these are all steps toward making us measurably healthier, taking as much as $3.4 billion out of future health care costs and, if you’re into bragging rights, making B.C. the healthiest jurisdiction to host an Olympic/Paralympic Winter Games.

They haven’t all been coalesced under a single vision under the umbrella of ActNow, so a lot of them come under different names,” says Hogg. “Part of what we need to do in terms of branding or raising awareness among the public is to ensure that we have a single vision under which they all fall.”

To that end expect to see a lot more advertising soon about ActNow. In the meantime, here’s the gist:

The initiative hopes to improve British Columbians’ health by getting us to “act now” to address common risk factors and reduce chronic disease. Research shows that inactivity, poor nutrition, overweight/obesity, tobacco use and unhealthy choices in pregnancy are key factors contributing to chronic diseases.

So ActNow BC’s goals by 2010 are to:

• Increase the percentage of the B.C. population that is physically active by 20 per cent;

• Increase the percentage of B.C. adults who eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily by 20 per cent;

• Reduce the percentage of B.C. adults who are overweight/obese by 20 per cent;

• Reduce tobacco use by 10 per cent;

• Increase the number of women who receive counselling about the dangers of alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy by 50 per cent.

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Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who is re-shaping her lifestyle and other components.