Between the years 1978 and 2004 Canadian youth aged 2 to 17 became 11% more likely to experience clinical obesity (Childhood Obesity Foundation, 2015, para. 2). Even more frightening, in 2017, 30% of youth aged 5 to 17 were overweight or obese (“Tackling Obesity,” 2018, para. 1). Between 40% and 70% of obese youth become obese adults at risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes and body dysmorphia (“The Link Between Childhood,” 2017, para. 2). Despite negative consequences, obesity continues to haunt Canada’s youth for many reasons. The obesity epidemic affecting Canadian youth is a result of genes and early experiences, socioeconomic status, and changes in Western culture.
Firstly, youth obesity is strongly influenced by biology, early eating habits, and childhood abuse. Biologically, children with obese parents or certain genetic disorders are more likely to become obese (“Study Finds,” 2013, para. 1). In fact, heredity is responsible for 50% of body weight (“Study Finds,” 2013, para. 1). As well, children can inherit medical conditions which cause weight gain. Prader Willi Syndrome, for example, is a rare disorder caused by chromosomal defects affecting the brain’s ability to regulate appetite (“Disability Benefits,” n.d., para. 2). This information shows the impact nature has on increasing the risk of youth obesity. Medical professionals play an important role in educating adults about their own health and its effect on offspring.
Although nature is important, it is nurture which explains why youth obesity is an epidemic in Canada. Surprisingly, well-meaning parents may actually increase the risk of early onset obesity through rigid rules around eating behaviour. Research has shown that children in preschool often require 10 to 16 exposures to new foods before developing a liking for them (Savage, Fisher, Birch, 2008, The Influence of Genetic Predispositions and Repeated Exposure on Food Acceptance during Infancy and Childhood, para. 2). For this reason, parents must be persistent when introducing their children to healthy foods. However, parents who forbid their children from eating unhealthy treats run the risk of raising children who will later develop self control issues when exposed to freedom of choice in eating practices (Savage, Fisher, Birch, 2008, Parenting Styles and Children’s Eating Behaviour, para. 3). In fact, parents who are overly strict about healthy eating are 5 times more likely to have an obese child (Savage, Fisher, Birch, 2008, Parenting Styles and Children’s Eating Behaviour, para. 8). Therefore, it is crucial that parents find a balance between allowing their children complete freedom and no choice in their eating habits. This will in turn decrease the prevalence of future youth obesity.
Even more damaging is the effect of early abuse on the risk of developing youth obesity. Over six million obese individuals experienced physical, sexual, or verbal abuse during childhood (“The Link Between Childhood,” 2017, para. 5-6). Often, survivors of sexual abuse overeat to make themselves look unattractive and decrease the chance of experiencing such trauma again (“The Link Between Childhood,” 2017, para. 5-6). Scientifically, early trauma alters the reward system of the brain, making youth feel as though they need “extra stimulation,” such as food, to achieve happiness (“The Link Between Childhood,” 2017, para. 10-11). Therefore, in order to treat obesity in youth, it is crucial that underlying traumatic experiences are dealt with first. In summary, both nature and nurture in early childhood set the stage for the development of youth obesity.
Secondly, poor socioeconomic conditions impact the youth obesity epidemic through lack of affordable food, inactive lifestyle, and creation of mental health issues. Canadian citizens of all socioeconomic backgrounds have experienced more difficulty each year affording healthy foods. In fact, 54% of those who made $100,000/year and 57% of those who made $50,000/year have reported noticing a yearly increase in the prices of healthy food options (Ferreras, 2016, para. 3). As a result, 40% of Canadians are buying more unhealthy foods as they are more affordable (Ferreras, 2016, para. 12). Generally, junk food is high in fat, sodium, and calories, all of which contribute to obesity. It is crucial that families prioritize healthy eating and seek out more affordable nutrition rather than turning to junk food.
However, youth obesity is not only caused by an excess of calories taken in, but also a lack of calories burned. Youth from poor socioeconomic backgrounds often have less access to exercise facilities, causing an increase in the risk of developing obesity. Nowadays, the cost to attend sports programs such as swimming lessons for youth are over $1,000/year (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC], 2010, para. 11). As a result, struggling parents often choose to buy inexpensive technology to keep kids entertained, leading to sedentary lifestyles (CBC, 2010, para. 10). Moreover, low income neighbourhoods often lack outdoor play facilities due to safety concerns (CBC, 2010, para. 12). Rather than sitting their children in front of a screen to mindlessly watch television, parents who can not afford to send their children to sports programs can find other ways to encourage active living. For example, kids can follow inexpensive workout videos within their own homes.
Unfortunately, financial stress can cause youth to experience depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and general feelings of negativity (Hemmingsson, 2018, para. 12). All of these mental health issues are associated with an increased risk of developing youth obesity (Davies, 2016, para. 2). The link between financial stress and youth obesity is especially influential on teenage girls. Consistent exposure to financial stress puts female teenagers at an increased risk of becoming obese by age 18 (“Stress and,” 2015, para. 3). Although financial stress is unavoidable in many families, what can be minimized is how much youth are exposed to it. Parents must understand that financial issues should not concern children. If parents keep this burden away from their kids, youth obesity rates would likely decrease, especially in females. In summary, socioeconomic difficulty impacts Canadian youth through poor physical and mental health - both exacerbating the youth obesity epidemic.
Finally, changes in food, technology, and bullying in society impact the rise in youth obesity. Research shows that for each year a student is banned from buying junk food at school, his or her BMI decreases by 0.05 (MacDonald, 2017, para. 5). However, the banning of junk food in high schools has less of an impact than in elementary schools, as older students can leave the school during lunch to purchase junk food from elsewhere (MacDonald, 2017, para. 10). This research shows that availability of junk food is directly linked to youth obesity. This is extremely relevant in today’s society because between 2012 and 2017, Canada’s fast food industry grew by 2.8% (Watts, 2017, para.1). To combat youth obesity, these numbers need to decrease rather than increase. Moreover, if junk food were banned in all schools from elementary to high school, students would be conditioned into healthy eating and obesity rates would fall.
Studies also show a relationship between playing video games and youth obesity through increasing sugar intake and decreasing sleep (Maclean, 2017, para. 1). A study of youth age 9 to 17 tracked abdominal measurements, sugar intake, sleep, and exercise over 6 weeks (Maclean, 2017, para. 2). At the end of the study, kids who played video games within 4 hours before going to sleep gained weight (Maclean, 2017, para. 3). Since video games are a relatively new development, today’s youth are suffering the consequences of excessive gaming more than any other generation. Thus, parents must set limits for their children surrounding when and for how long they can game.
Bullying is another factor which is linked to obesity. Not only are obese youth commonly victims of bullying (Gordon, 2018, para. 5), but bullying may also cause obesity in kids of average weight (Vienneau, 2018, para. 1). About 44.4% of extremely obese youth experience name calling at school compared to 10.1% of normal weight students (Gordon, 2018, para. 5). On the flip side, it has been determined that experiencing childhood bullying increases the likelihood of developing body dissatisfaction as well as obesity (Vienneau, 2018, para. 3). What separates bullying today from bullying in previous generations is the addition of cyberbullying. The availability of technology has allowed bullying to follow kids home from school and take over their lives. Therefore, youth today are at an increased risk of experiencing severe bullying and thus developing obesity. Although changes in Canadian culture have bettered the nation, it is crucial that the cons of certain advancements are considered, specifically in terms of their impacts on health and weight of youth.
In conclusion, the obesity epidemic Canadian youth are facing has been caused by genes and early experiences, socioeconomic factors, and various changes in Western culture. Even before a child is born, there are factors in place impacting future likelihood of developing obesity. However, the more abundant and powerful influences on a child’s weight occur after exposure to family, peers, media, and society as a whole. Youth obesity is a crisis which will only worsen unless it is tackled and prioritized in Canadian society. The process will not be fast or easy but if all parts of society work together to create a more healthy and well-rounded environment for youth to grow up in, the youth obesity epidemic will be conquered not only in Canada but also worldwide.