A new food report from the University of Toronto says that Canada needs to do more when it comes to fighting obesity and chronic disease. The Food Environment Policy Index Canada report claims that in comparison to other countries, Canada’s food policies need an upgrade on areas such as the marketing of junk foods to children and in setting policies for food sold in retail stores and restaurants.
Canada is currently in the middle of an obesity epidemic, with 26.7 per cent of Canadians classified as obese as of 2015, meaning that they have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. Physical inactivity and eating habits are prime causes of the problem, which can come with a range of health complications from breathing disorders and cardiovascular disease to diabetes and cancer.
Health Canada is currently in the midst of revising its national healthy eating strategy, including a revised Canada food guide and a strengthening of regulations around ingredient labelling and product claims.
But while Canada’s policy record is promising on some levels, on others there is more work to be done, say the new report’s authors who consulted with a panel of more than 70 non-governmental experts from 44 universities and organizations across the country, arriving at a set of recommendations for federal, provincial and territorial action.
The researchers concluded that while Canada is doing well when it comes to requiring nutrition labels on foods, a national strategy on menu labelling is still wanting, and it calls for a tougher stance on junk-food marketing to children, along with the ushering in of food taxes for sugary drinks and other foods of public health concern.
“Canada doesn’t have taxes on unhealthy foods, such as sugary drinks, even though the evidence from other countries suggests these work. If we don’t move on this front, we’re going to fall behind,” says the report’s co-author Lana Vanderlee of U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, in a press release.
In Mexico, where obesity rates are some of the highest in the world, a soda tax was introduced in 2014, applying to all beverages that include added sugar such as soft drinks, fruit drinks and sweetened iced teas. So far, the initiative has produced encouraging results, with sales of sugary drinks falling every year since.
“The evidence is mounting that these kinds of government interventions work,” says Vanderlee. “But we know no individual policy is a silver bullet. That’s why Canada needs a comprehensive and coordinated strategy if we want to move the dial on obesity and diet-related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer and keep up with international leaders.”
The report found a wide disparity among the Canadian provinces and territories when it comes to food policies. Quebec was deemed most progressive and an international leader due to its banning of all marketing of junk food to children, while Ontario was praised for implementing mandatory calorie labelling in chain restaurants.
The report also calls on provincial and territorial leaders to establish fruit and vegetable programs in all schools and to harmonize school nutrition standards.