This Halloween, Ontario’s doctors are suggesting that we scare kids – and parents – by putting gruesome images on their candy. Similar to anti-smoking campaigns, the hope is that people will avoid unhealthy foods if they can see the diseases it contributes to.
We know that diet and nutrition contribute to obesity – that isn’t a tough sell. But diet is only part of the problem. To address childhood obesity in its entirety, we need to look past the candy.
When you open the door on Halloween night, take a moment to look out onto your street. Does your neighbourhood have sidewalks? Research shows that children tend to be less active in neighbourhoods that lack sidewalks. Neighbourhoods that are walkable, are bicycle-friendly, and have good transit connections allow people to be physically active while getting from place to place.
Look even further down your street. Is there a park, green space, or recreation centre within walking distance? Having access to spaces where children can safely play contributes to lower obesity rates and lower rates of chronic conditions like diabetes. Having plenty of green spaces in your neighbourhood also helps to keep the city cool during the hot summers.
Next, take a look at the houses in your neighbourhood. Living in a home that is safe, affordable, and well-maintained has positive health impacts for children. Housing affordability is a big issue across Canada and many low-income families have to choose between keeping a roof over their heads and paying for essential items like healthy food or heating. When families have to make these tough choices, children suffer.
Finally, think about your food. Does your neighbourhood have grocery stores that people can walk to that sell affordable food that is healthy and nutritious? Or, like many neighbourhoods, is your only local option the convenience store with its highly-processed foods or the pizza joint on the corner? Studies show that children who grow up in families that can’t afford or don’t have access to healthy and nutritious food are more likely to become obese.
Let’s make the connections.
All of these things affect the chances of children being overweight and obese. But some children are at greater risk than others: kids who live in poverty, who don’t have safe and affordable housing or access to good food, or who are socially marginalized fare poorly in many areas of health. Obesity is no exception.
Whether or not your neighbourhood has sidewalks, parks and green spaces, safe and affordable housing, and access to healthy and nutritious food largely depends on your income and your neighbours’ income. Neighbourhoods that are better off tend to have more features that encourage physical activity and good health than poorer neighbourhoods.
Research shows that even if children who grow up in poverty are able to move up the socioeconomic ladder during their adulthood, they are still more likely to have physical and mental health problems, like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease, as a result of their childhood.
We need to take action, and the right kind of action, on childhood obesity now. If we don’t address the underlying causes of obesity, today’s kids will develop health problems that will last a lifetime. It is estimated that if current childhood obesity rates persist, children will live three to four years less than today’s adults due to obesity.
The good news is that there are plenty of things that we can do to ensure all of our children grow up healthy.
We can reduce poverty by making sure that families receiving social assistance have an adequate income and that minimum wages and employment standards are set at levels that support good health for families and children.
We can provide supports to facilitate healthy early childhood development. Affordable child care is important for kids to get a good start in life, as are breastfeeding supports, healthy food allowances, housing supports, and regular well-child visits.
And we can improve the neighbourhoods in which we live. We can make sure that every neighbourhood has sidewalks and good transit connections, parks and green spaces, safe and affordable housing, and access to good food.
There are many things that we need to address in our society that are far scarier than candy, even if the candy has gruesome images.