Critics respond to Fraser Institute study targeting Canadian obesity ‘myth’

Obesity rates surged 200 per cent between 1985 and 2011 among Canadian adults over age 18. (CBC)

Great news, there is no obesity epidemic in Canada. Apparently the entire hullabaloo surrounding the predominant social struggle of our generation has been wantonly overstated. This according to a conservative think-tank that believes attention paid to the issue by Canadian governments is completely unnecessary. Reckless, even.

The Fraser Institute released a study on Monday that called government intervention "costly, poorly targeted and likely ineffective."

“Despite claims from public health advocates, politicians and media members, it’s a myth to say there’s an obesity epidemic in Canada leading to widespread illness and death, and that only government intervention can save us from ourselves,” Nadeem Esmail, Fraser Institute's director of health policy studies, said in a statement.

Those who are not swayed by a concrete declaration that something is "likely" ineffective, please follow along with the report's findings. Then we'll see what the other side of this battle of superlatives has to say about the study.

According to the report, titled Obesity in Canada: Overstated Problems, Misguided Policy Solutions, the rate of obesity in Canada has been stable over last past decade, with no notable increase from 2003 to 2012. The rate of obesity rose from 15.3 per cent to 18.4 per cent, but has stabilized since 2009, according to the Fraser Institute. The report goes on to note that obesity levels in adult males and children seem to have "stabilized" in recent years.

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"Overall, while the prevalence of overweight and obesity may remain relatively high historically, the state of Canadians’ waistlines is only really continuing to expand among adult females," says the report. "On the other hand, the shares of Canadian adult males and Canadian youth carrying excess weight appear to have stabilized and may be turning a corner among obese adult males."

There is, of course, a difference between being overweight and being obese – both in terms of health concerns and classification. Obesity is considered to be a Body Mass Index score of greater than 30, while overweight is anything between 25 and 30.

And the health concerns associated with obesity appear to be up for debate in the report as well – at one point suggesting health concerns really only kick in for the highest levels of obesity - those with BMI over 35.

But that's not the Fraser Institute's actual focus. The think-tank is, after all, not a health advocacy group but a policy-minded organization that tasks itself with weighing in on matters of government policy and public freedom.

The matter of debunking the "myth" of Canada's obesity epidemic is simply a vehicle the Institute is driving to target the value of government health spending – such concepts as additional taxes on fatty foods, or requiring restaurants to include nutritional information on menus. Other program in question include including warning labels on packaging, banning vending machines with unhealthy snacks or reducing access to fatty foods.

According to the report, health-focused programs and proposals attempting to address obesity in Canada are wasting money. Because obesity is not a problem in Canada and even if it were, trying to stop it is useless.

“Government interventions impose costs indiscriminately, inappropriately vilifying particular foods, food manufacturers and distributors. If the interventions fail to shrink waistlines across Canada, we’ll likely see advocates arguing that the policies weren’t strong or intrusive enough," Esmail states. "But in reality, governments have little ability to change the behaviours that lead to overweightness and obesity, and the case for government intervention is neither as strong nor as clear as advocates claim.”

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It is a difficult argument to follow, primarily because the claims that obesity isn’t an issue are constantly couched by suggestions that, even if it was, the government shouldn’t intervene. Secondly because the study wantonly uses the term “expanded waistlines” as a softer way of calling Canadians fat.

On top of that, the study targets the process used to measure obesity while occasionally relying on those results to make its case.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff writes in his health blog Weighty Matters, that the Fraser Institute's report is "so biased, massaged, and cherry picked that it's almost not worth commenting on."

Freedhoff particularly takes note with the self-reported figures selected to be portrayed in the report, countering with figures that suggest self-reported obesity rates have actually tripled since the 1970s and that people tend to under-report their weight (men by about nine per cent, women by six).

He goes on to state that BMI is a sub-par measure of health, which is why Canadian doctors prefer systems that consider the weight's impact on personal health.

"The fact that BMI is a sub-par measure of health isn't disputed by anyone, though you wouldn't know that from the Fraser report," Freedhoff writes.

"Next the report cherry picks from the research to pull those papers that demonstrate less awful morbidity and mortality with obesity but yet do so with that same crappy BMI value that the report so rightly said was a poor measure as it falsely includes people with great health but higher weights."

Freedhoff's full take down is worth reading. It concludes by skewering Fraser's targeting the success or failure of various public programs as a failure to understand that there is not a singular solution to obesity. It is more a matter of increasing awareness and changing the culture that leads to unhealthy eating.

"Getting worked up about singular interventions not working is akin to getting mad at a single sandbag for not stopping a flood," he writes.

Hey, you can’t blame the Fraser Institute for trying. Targeting government initiatives is sort of its reason for existing. It describes itself thus: “The Fraser Institute measures and studies the impact of markets and government interventions on the welfare of individuals.” Questioning the worth of junk food bans surely falls under that mandate.

Either way, get back in those buffet lines, Canada. And stop asking whether that second chocolate-glazed croissant will kill you. Even if it will, it’s your right as a Canadian to eat it without being reminded.

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