Saanich program tackles growing childhood obesity health crisis

MEND program to run out of Colquitz middle school for parents and their children

Fall is right around the corner, which means shorter days, cooler temperatures and for some kids, less time spent outdoors.

But a free, 10-week program beginning this week at Colquitz middle school is aiming to buck that trend by educating kids about what it means to be healthy.

“There’s data now to show that even as young as four or five years of age, if you’re on an unhealthy weight trajectory, you see problems with sugar control, high blood pressure and fatty liver developing later in life,” said Dr. Tom Warshawski, a pediatrician and chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation.

The MEND program, which stands for Mind, Exercise, Nutrition, Do it, is aimed at children ages five to 13 and their parents and caregivers. Using provincial funding, the program has been offered since 2013 as a way of tackling the alarming rise in childhood obesity across B.C. and Canada.

Health Canada numbers show 30 per cent of Canadian children and youth are either overweight or obese, up from 15 per cent in 1978. Obese children have an 80 per cent or higher probability of becoming obese adults, and adults who have unhealthy weights are at increased risk of heart disease, cancer, strokes and type 2 diabetes.

Warshawski has seen the reality of those statistics at his pediatric practice in Kelowna, which has convinced him to become an outspoken advocate for a “sugar tax” on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“A pop once in awhile isn’t all that bad, but Canadian consumption of sugary drinks is on average around 110 litres per person per year,” Warshawski said. “Those who drink a lot, drink a heck of a lot. About 25 per cent of teens drink it daily at an average serving size about 750 ml. There’s a huge consensus on this being unhealthy.”

Altering habits through higher taxes has been shown to be effective through tobacco taxation. According to CRD statistics, tobacco use in the Capital Region is as low as 11 per cent, thanks in part to higher taxes.

Part of the acceptance of exorbitantly high taxes on tobacco stems from peoples’ understanding of its adverse health effects, Warshawski said. Sugary drinks need that same buy-in, he added.

“Drinking liquid sugar is the worst thing to do. There are no nutrients in there, and it promotes weight gain in a very significant manner. Taxing that product would help recoup the cost to the healthcare system this product triggers,” he said.

The MEND program tackles the negative health effects of sugary drinks by encouraging participants to avoid them altogether. Taxing those drinks will require a grassroots movement to pressure government in the future, Warshawski said.

With MEND, parents are also educated about healthy portioning of fruits, vegetables, proteins and starches, and kids are held to two hours or less of screen time daily. In a tablet and smartphone ridden world, that can be a significant challenge.

The program also includes a free, three-month pass to Saanich Parks and Recreation centres.

See bchealthykids.ca for more information.

editor@saanichnews.com