By Lorna McCue, HC Link & Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition (OHCC)
On July 8 HC Link hosted the first of a series of webinars based on the report of the Healthy Kids Panel "No Time to Wait: The Healthy Kids Strategy". The registration for this webinar had to be cut off at 100, showing that there is great concern about the increase in childhood obesity and a strong interest in working to change this trajectory.
Obesity can lead to diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and costs Ontario's health care system about $4.5 billion annually. In January 2012 the Ontario government announced an ambitious target of reducing childhood obesity by 20 per cent over five years. They then convened the Healthy Kids Panel to develop recommendations for strategies to meet this target.
When I read the report of the Healthy Kids Panel I was impressed with the thoroughness of the research and consultation process that went into developing it. Thus I was pleased to have the opportuntity to help organize this series of three webinars, each one addressing one of the three main prongs of the Healthy Kids Strategy. A similar series in French will be held in October 2014.
The first webinar opened with an overview of the report and its recommendations. Following their investigation of the subject, the panel concluded that: "No one policy, program or strategy will solve the problem of childhood overweight and obesity." They also recognized that health is about more than weight. "A child who is a little overweight and who is fit and active is healthier than a child who is the "right" weight for his or her age and height but is more sedentary." Focusing too much on weight is stigmatizing and will not address many of the factors that contribute to unhealthy weights.
The Panel developed a comprehensive three-pronged strategy to address this complex issue. They unanimously adopted a series of recommendations on how we can best promote the health and well-being of children and youth:
- Start all kids on the path to health. Laying the foundation for a lifetime of good health begins even before babies are conceived.
- Change the food environment. Parents know about the importance of good nutrition but while trying to provide healthy food at home, many feel undermined by the food environment around them. They want changes that will make healthy choices easier.
- Create healthy communities. Kids live, play and learn in their communities. We need a co-ordinated all-of-society approach to create healthy communities and reduce or eliminate the broader social and health disparities that affect children's health and weight.
This webinar focussed on the first prong "Start all kids on the path to health". Our first guest, Dr. Zach Ferrar, is a recognized leader in prenatal health and wellness and co-author the Best Start report "Obesity in Preconception and Pregnancy." He oberved that pregnancy is a critical period of growth, development and physiological change in the mother and child. Prenatal obesity, due to being obese prior to conception or gaining excessive weight during pregnancy, poses significant health risks to both the mother and baby during pregnancy and beyond.
Zach's talk centred around research findings related to gestational weight gain (GSW). One of the concepts he described was the "complexity energy balance", which identifies the many determinants involved in maintaining a positive energy balance and avoiding unhealthy body weight. He noted that 55% of North American women of childbearing age are overweight or obese, and that the situation is compounted by the weightism, bias and discrimination shown by society, including health professionals. He explained that as GWG increases so too does the proportion of neonates that are larger at birth; i.e. overnutrition in pregnancy may result in the fetus having an increased risk for obesity through life. He also talked about epigenetics, referring to genetic control by factors other than an individual's DNA, such as nutrition. These factors can affect future generations, creating intergenerational cycles. Dr. Ferraro also dispelled a number of myths about physical activity and food consumption during pregnancies, and stressed that during pregnancy is not a good time to try to lose weight. He concluded his talk by inviting participants to join the Canadian Obesity Network for free at www.obesitynetwork.ca and inviting them to follow him on Twitter at @DrFerraro.
The second speaker in this webinar was Hiltrud Dawson, a health promotion consultant with the Best Start Resource Centre (BSRC) at Health Nexus. Hiltrud provided an overview of the consultation services, resources and training available through the BSRC. She then described several current projects that are relevant to the recommendations of the Healthy Kids Panel, including :
- The development of an online learning module about healthy weights in children to increase the knowledge and skills of service providers in promoting healthy weights in children aged 0-12 in Ontario.
- Provision of consistent prenatal information to women in Ontario, including information that supports healthy weights before and during pregnancy, as well as for children, and the development of tools, resources and training to support the uptake of the key messages.
- Baby-Friendly Initiative Strategy for Ontario: This project involves several partners in creating engagement strategies, tools, resources and training to encourage baby-friendly policies, programs and locations.
- Breastfeeding Community Project: Since breastmilk is ideal nutrition for babies, and may have several mechanisms to prevent later obesity, the BSRC is providing small grants for community projects to reach and support populations with lower rates of breastfeeding.
Evaluations from the webinar indicate that it was well-received and provided important information to the participants. The webinar slides, recordings and a list of suggested resources are available below.
Stay tuned for a blog on the second webinar of this series, on "Changing the Food Environment".