Canadian obesity levels at historic high: Maritimes and territories lead the way

While it's likely not news to you that Canadians are getting fatter, did you know that national obesity rates are at a historic high?

At least, that is what a University of British Columbia study, published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, would lead you to believe.

"It's a serious health concern and seems pretty dangerous to me," study author Carolyn Gotay, professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, tells the Toronto Star.

Researchers used data from the Canadian Community Health Survey and adjusted self-reported Body Mass Index data to get the most accurate obesity estimates, then compared Canadian obesity rates from 2000 to 2011. The research team used colour-code surveillance maps of the country to identify where in Canada obesity is most prevalent, and where rates are increasing the most.

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"You don't need to speak or understand English or read numbers or tables — maps are a very dramatic way to convey the information," Gotay explains.

According to Gotay, in 2003, 22.3 per cent of the population was estimated to be obese. Today, that percentage is 25.3 per cent, a significant increase.

Gotay notes there is a silver lining to the study's otherwise uncomfortable findings: the major obesity increase in Canada appears to have happened between 2000 and 2007. Rates have been relatively stable since.

"It looks potentially as though things are levelling off, but rates are going up so that’s not really a firm conclusion," she says.

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In Ontario, almost 29 per cent of the population is obese, up from almost 24 per cent in 2009.

In Quebec, rates remains fairly stable, just below 24 per cent.

Obesity levels are currently highest in the Maritimes, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, where rates are greater than 30 per cent — even topping 35 per cent in some areas.

"In the (Atlantic provinces), they also tend to be less active and less fit. We don’t see that same pattern for the North," obesity expert Dr. Mark Tremblay, director of Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, tells the Globe and Mail. "Those trends have been there for a while, so I guess what is concerning is that they're not being resolved."

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Rates are lowest in British Columbia but are still rising. Obesity increased from under 20 per cent to almost 25 per cent.

Richmond, B.C., has the lowest rate of obesity in the nation — and also has the highest Asian population, at more than 50 per cent.

Gotay suspects that this will change over time. While immigrants are less likely to be obese, each successive generation usually adopts a more Western diet.

"B.C has the lowest smoking rates in Canada, we have better physical activity indicators, we eat more fruit and vegetables, but that doesn’t make it optimal," Gotay tells the Vancouver Sun. "Even here, between one in five and one in four would be categorized as obese."

Canadians living in remote areas and aboriginals living on reserves were not included in the study.

The study follows a report from last year's by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) in which one in four Canadians were found to be obese. That report indicated that the rate of increase was one of the slowest in the OECD.

"The impact of obesity on chronic disease incidence takes time to emerge, and even if rates level off, they are historic highs," the researchers of the UBC study conclude.