Preventing childhood obesity: 70% nutrition and 30% exercise? Or is the answer education and accessibility?
By Lysanne Desharnais and Anne Kim
Special Guest Writers
Lysanne Desharnais and Anne Kim are 4th year Faculty of Medicine students in the Honours Bachelor of Science Program in Translational and Molecular Medicine. They wrote this story originally for their Science Communications course as part of a series profiling researchers at the Faculty of Medicine. MedPoint will be publishing profiles from this series throughout 2019 .
When duty calls, you answer. For international student Silvia Gonzalez, receiving the Ontario Trillium Scholarship meant packing her bags and leaving her home of Bogotá, Colombia to complete her PhD at the School of Epidemiology and Public Health (SEPH) at the University of Ottawa.
Although relatively new to her life in Ottawa, what remains constant is Gonzalez’s dedication to research in child obesity. Having obtained a Bachelor’s degree in nutrition from the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Master’s in public health at the Universidad de los Andes. She is now conducting her PhD research at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) as a member of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group (HALO).
Her supervisor is HALO director and Faculty of Medicine professor Dr. Mark Tremblay. When Gonzalez first met him in 2015, she was looking to obtain a more international perspective of health for her doctorate.
Inspired by Dr. Tremblay’s work leading the creation of physical activity guidelines for children and a global surveillance of their physical activities, she knew immediately that she wanted to be a part of his research team in Canada.
“His team offers a very inspiring and collaborative environment with diverse perspectives,” says Gonzalez.
It’s no secret that obesity prevalence is increasing in North America, but how do these trends compare to Latin America where Gonzalez is from? She says that in Colombia, obesity rates are not as high, but the observed patterns are concerning.
Currently, in higher income countries such as Canada, obesity prevalence is highest among individuals with lower socioeconomic status. In Colombia, the current obesity trends suggest it to be more prevalent in higher socioeconomic demographics. However, statistics show that the country is in the midst of a shift in this dynamic.
“Over time, the poorest people will be more likely be obese,” says Gonzalez. She further explains that in the near future, the rates of childhood obesity in Colombia will be similar to those in North America.
The recommended healthy living formula suggests that health is 70% diet-based and 30% exercise-based. Although these are both important factors, Gonzalez argues that health is not quantifiable into specific percentages. The fact is that there is no single cause of obesity.
“A multitude of factors including genetics, socioeconomic influences, and misinformation can cause this disease,” explains Gonzalez. “We must consider these other components to create a healthy balance."
For her home country, Gonzalez believes that preventative actions must be taken immediately to control healthy weight management in children and address the most fundamental issue in Colombia, which is malnutrition.
“We need to create environments that allow people to make healthier choices,” Gonzalez adds. “One way of doing this is by improving food labelling systems to indicate accurate nutritional values. People have the right to be informed of what they are consuming so that they can make conscious, educated decisions on food consumption.”
Although she is far from her home in Bogotá, Gonzalez feels extremely lucky to study at the University of Ottawa.
“I couldn’t have chosen a better place to study,” she says in awe of the abundance of green space found in Ottawa’s downtown core and its friendly citizens. Motivated to create change, she hopes to return to Colombia one day to work in health policymaking so that she can directly improve and promote nutrition and physical activity within Latin America.
“Don’t forget, a balanced lifestyle should include eating, exercising, educating and enjoying,” says Gonzalez.
The Science Communications course is designed and taught by Dr. Kristin Baetz, director of the Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology and professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology, to foster in students the ability to convey complex science to a lay audience – an essential skill when making presentations, applying for grants, composing abstracts for research papers and generally communicating one’s work in the biomedical sciences.