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Wpg Free Press: The kids’ diets are not all right

March 29, 2017 — 

The following is an analysis piece from Joyce Slater, associate professor of human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba, originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 29, 2017. 


Do you know what your kids are eating? Neither does your kids’ school, or the provincial department of health, because we don’t track children’s nutritional health in Manitoba.

A recent pilot study of 130 Grade 9 children in Winnipeg suggests we should be finding out, though — and soon. That small study, which looked at diets and food behaviours, gave clues as to the rest of our youths’ nutritional health. Most of those 130 students were not meeting the minimum servings from any food group — not just the standard fruits and vegetables (which 90 per cent did not meet), but milk and alternatives (80 per cent did not meet), meat and alternatives (68 per cent) and grain products (55 per cent)!

So what did they eat? Junk food that doesn’t fit into the four food groups: soft drinks, candy, sweet baked goods and other sugary foods; fast food, chips and other salty snacks. This translated into low fibre and key nutrient intakes, such as calcium and vitamin D, but too much sodium, saturated fat and calories.

And it’s not just what they ate (or didn’t eat) which is alarming: fewer than half ate breakfast and almost one-quarter were trying to lose weight, but not through healthy eating.

Why is this all a problem?

Over-consumption of calories, especially from highly-processed junk food, is the main cause of excess weight gain in kids — not inactivity. And while we need to get our kids more active, we need to really look at their nutritional habits.

It only takes an extra 70 to 160 calories per day to trigger weight gain — that’s a mere six to 12 ounces of soda or juice, or a handful of chips, or a few extra mouthfuls of just about any highly processed “convenience” (junk) food — which now accounts for more than 60 per cent of the calories in the Canadian diet.

This is hardly surprising, given the availability of junk food in every corner of our lives.

The fact we don’t know what Manitoba kids are eating is stunning, given that obesity and nutrition-related chronic diseases are skyrocketing and costing taxpayers a bundle. While we don’t have measured height and weight data at the provincial level, we do know that 15 per cent of Canadian boys and 11 per cent of girls aged five to 17 are obese, with another 20 per cent at risk of becoming obese. We also know that overweight kids tend to become overweight or obese adults and most obese kids remain obese adults: 18 per cent of 20- to 34-year-old Canadians are obese.

The price we pay? Beyond the personal and social, in 2008, obesity (independent of physical inactivity) cost Manitobans $747 million. Obesity is a major, if not the major, risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Thirty per cent of obese people have diabetes and 85 per cent of people with diabetes are overweight. Regardless of the specific disease process, there is no debate that obesity and diabetes go hand in hand and are costing us dearly, not only in terms of our health but our provincial pocketbook.

The Canadian Diabetes Association reports that in 2009 the economic burden of diabetes was $498 million in Manitoba alone. This diabetes “tsunami” is expected to cost our province $639 million by 2020. And that doesn’t account for other nutrition-related disorders such as heart disease, several cancers and joint problems.

Let’s take an analogy. If car crashes were costing Manitoba more than $1 billion per year, you can bet we would be demanding answers: what’s causing the crashes, are the cars or roads faulty, and do drivers know how to drive? Yet, while child obesity has been ringing alarm bells for years, there has been little attention paid to the nutritional health of our kids. Provincial policies such as the Manitoba School Nutrition Handbook, which provides guidelines for food served in schools, aren’t enough.

You can bet the food industry knows what our kids are eating — they monitor every mouthful through sales and market trends. Why don’t we? Maybe because we really do believe all they need is a little more gym time, instead of taking stock of what they eat.

The largest threat to our health-care system — and our health — is sick Manitobans. We urgently need a report card on the nutritional health of Manitoba’s children in order to plan effective, feasible health promotion and disease prevention strategies.



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