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Health Research

Obesity in Canadian Aboriginals: Some Facts and Figures

aboriginal obesityTo say that obesity is caused by merely consuming too many calories is like saying that the only cause of the American Revolution was the Boston Tea Party. Adelle Davis, a harsh critic of food industry, atleast pinpointed through these words the complexity and prevalence behind the chubbiness.

Obesity is an issue of concern for Aborginal community as it is more widespread compared to the rest of the Canadian population. Take for instance a study on this topic by Peter Katzmarzyk that appeared in Nature in 2008. It states:

The prevalence of obesity in adults was 22.9% (men: 22.9%; women: 22.9%), and the prevalence was higher among Aboriginals (37.8%) compared to non-Aboriginals (22.6%). The prevalence of obesity in children and youth was 8.2% (boys: 9.2%; girls: 7.2%), and the prevalence was higher among Aboriginals (15.8%) compared to non-Aboriginals (8.0%). In both youth and adults, the odds for obesity were higher among Aboriginals (youth: OR = 2.3 (95% CI: 1.4–3.8); adults: OR = 2.4 (95% CI: 1.6–3.6)) after adjustment for a number of covariates. There were no ethnic differences in the prevalence of physical inactivity; however, physical inactivity was a predictor of obesity in both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal samples.

Health Canada also reinforce these health concerns for the Aboriginal people through 2007 Canadian Community Health Survey. Their report on 'Obesity in Canada' draws the following scenario:

Obesity is an important health issue among First Nations, Inuit and Métis populations. Self-reported data from 2007 show that obesity rates are higher among off-reserve Aboriginal adults compared to non-Aboriginal people (24.8% vs. 16.6%). Indeed, self-reported data from the 2002/03 First Nations Regional Longitudinal Health Survey demonstrate that prevalence of obesity is particularly high among on-reserve First Nations people: 31.8% of adult men, 41.1% of adult women, 14.0% of youth and 36.2% of children were considered obese.

Besides Canada, obesity is also prevalent among Aboriginal people in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands. The question may arise, what is meant by obese. Well, adult obesity is based on body mass index (BMI), with those above 30 kg/m2 in BMI considered as obese. Also, the term overweight is limited to individuals with BMI greater than or equal to 25 kg/m2. 

Ontario and western provinces are at the centre on the debate on obesity among adult Aboriginals as suggested by 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS).  The prevalence of obesity among 19- to 50-year-olds and specifically Aboriginal women, was much higher among off-reserve Aboriginal people than among non-Aboriginal people.

All these studies agree on differences in obesity rates between Canada's aboriginal and non-aboriginal population. As far as the reasons are concerned, one study by Statistics Canada in particular mentioned the poor eating habits especially among young aboriginal women as the main culprit behind obesity. Pinpointing these poor eating habits, the reports states:

Aboriginal women simply consumed more calories than non-aboriginal women -- an average of 359 more per day. And many of those calories were not coming from fruits and vegetables or other healthy foods. The data showed, for example, that aboriginal women consumed about three times as many non-diet soft drinks a day as non-aboriginal women. Aboriginal women were also getting a greater share of their caloric intake from the "sandwich" category of foods, a category that includes sandwiches, submarines, pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs.

Although there are a number of programmes to arrest this health issue among the Aboriginals. For instance, the Children's Fitness Tax Credit, the Aboriginal Diabetes Initiative, and the half-a-billion dollars recreational facilities across Canada. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to highlight the long term consequences of obesity among Aboriginals and its effects on family life and the broader Canadian economy.

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