Home Perspectives Advice Healthy Aging: The origins of the obesity epidemic

Healthy Aging: The origins of the obesity epidemic

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Obesity rates for both men and women are about twice as high today as they were in 1981. In Canada, approximately 25 per cent of adults are obese. Along with its growing prevalence, obesity is also becoming more severe, and research shows that overall fitness levels are decreasing, as the incidence of obesity rises. Overall, 67 per cent of Canadian men and 54 per cent of women aged 18 to 79 are overweight or obese, according to results from the Canadian Health Measures Survey (2009-2011).

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at obesity among American adults and found that obesity rates increased by approximately 50 per cent in the 1980s and ’90s, after having been relatively stable in the ’60s and ’70s. Likewise, a 2016 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that age-adjusted death rates in 2015 increased significantly from the year before, and that causes of death related to obesity were a major factor in the increase.

The same article points out that life expectancy in the United States increased consistently between 1961 and 1983, but decreased between 1983 and 1999. The article states that “in addition to the health-related effects, the economic effects of obesity-related disease are substantial and predicted to worsen.” We can, therefore, reasonably conclude that there really is an obesity epidemic – and not just in the U.S.

But what exactly do we mean by obesity? Obesity refers to excessive weight for one’s height and body frame, based on body mass index (BMI) guidelines. This is a useful tool, but it has its drawbacks. For instance, it is based on the ratio of a person’s weight in kilograms divided by their height in metres squared, but it does not take into account how much of their weight comes from fat and how much from muscle. Because muscle weighs more than fat, people who are muscular may have a higher BMI and still be in excellent health.


If we don’t know the fat-muscle breakdown, another – and perhaps even more useful – way to measure obesity is to look at waist circumference. Ideally, a healthy waist circumference should be no more than 94 centimetres (37 inches) for an average man and 80 centimetres (31.5 inches) for a woman. Healthy waist size varies, of course, based on a number of factors, including height and bone structure, and even ethnicity (as a rule, Asian people have lower numbers).

Waist circumference is a helpful health indicator because it correlates more closely with a number of health risks than either weight or BMI alone. And it turns out that the old apple or pear comparison is accurate. If we look at two women who are the same height and who are equally overweight, and one carries most of her excess weight in her hip area, while the other carries it mostly in her protruding belly, we find that the second woman is more at risk for heart disease, diabetes and other metabolic conditions.

So let’s stop using all the shortcuts: fast food delivery, using Alexa to shut off the lights or taking an Uber instead of walking. We need to get up off the couch, get out the door and get going. We have great Canadian food guidelines, but we need to follow them. We have a country known for its geographical beauty. We need to explore, experience and get outside. We need to be active and energetic, as if our lives depend on it – because they do.

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