Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ontario's Expert Childhood Obesity Panel Conspicuously Lacking in Experts

Did you hear?  Ontario is planning on reducing childhood obesity by 20% in the next 5 years!

I first heard that target when I was contacted by Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews' office back in early February. They wanted to chat with me about my thoughts regarding childhood obesity. I told them that I thought it was a symptom of a broken environment and that unless they focus on the environment as their target for change, they're not going to get anywhere. That'd be like trying to deal with chronic flooding not by building a levee, but rather by focusing on swimming lessons. Furthermore I told her that if the campaign targets obesity itself as the problem, that it might well increase societal weight bias and stigma as it suggests a blame and shame based individualized cause of obesity.  I also told her that I thought their 20% reduction in 5 years target was miles beyond hopeful.

I'm guessing what I had to say wasn't what they wanted to hear as I was not invited to join her office's Healthy Kids Panel.

So who was invited to join?

The panel is made up of a random hodge podge of folks. It's being co- chaired by a very nice former local politician turned newly minted hospital CEO and the dynamic head of a national encourage kids to exercise program. Having spoken with both in the past, I've no doubt they'll be able to "build consensus" (that's what the Ontario Healthy Kids Panel's webpage suggests they're there to do) among the members, but will the consensus be useful?  That would depend on the members.  So who is on their expert panel which according to the Healthy Kids Panel webpage, "possess(es) a broad understanding of childhood obesity"?:
  • 2 physicians, neither of who list obesity even as an interest on their own official bio pages.
  • A PhD researcher who while interested in obesity, is interested in the impact of the baby's in womb environment on obesity - fascinating, but far from prime time when it comes to interventions.
  • A Registered Nurse without any special interest in obesity mentioned in her Ontario Healthy Kids Panel bio.
  • A "young First Nations mother" (that's how she's billed by her official bio) who refers to herself as a "Senior Communications Specialist" on her LinkedIn page. 
  • An "award winning journalist and mother of 3". Despite trying, I couldn't find any mention of her having a special interest or expertise in obesity.
  • The Senior Vice President of Health and Wellness for Loblaw Companies Limited - a massive Canadian grocery store chain.
  • The President of YMCA Ontario.
  • A healthy living cookbook author and caterer.
  • The Executive Director of the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact whose biography doesn't list obesity as an interest or background.
  • The CEO of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College and author of XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame. He has a true interest and expertise in obesity and while I may not share all of his views, I'm glad at least there's one person on the panel where obesity is a major part of their life's work.
  • The Vice-President, Food Policy Scientific and Regulatory Affairs with Food and Consumer Products of Canada - a food industry advocacy organization
  • A marketing and advertising expert with no reported special interest in obesity.
  • The head of the Canadian national office of Right to Play - a wonderful organization that aims to improve the lives of children through play. His biography lists no special interest or background in obesity.
  • The MPP for Scarborough-Agincourt and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. According to Google, the word "obesity" doesn't appear once on her official campaign webpage.
I don't doubt the panel's sincerity for a moment, but caring about children or childhood obesity is not the same thing as having expertise, and while there are one or two panel members who truly do have expertise in childhood obesity, shouldn't there be more?  Moreover, do you really think the panel chairs are going to be able to build any consensus that would impact negatively on the food industry given their representation at the table?

As a highly complex and multi-factorial problem perhaps the silver-ish lining is that there is no shortage of initiatives we could undertake to tackle childhood obesity. Here's hoping that when I blog about this panel's actual recommendations down the road I'll be referring back to this post as prematurely negative and will speak glowingly of the panel's plans.

So here's my plea to the panel - please make me look bad.  Put out something more useful than just the same old, eat less move more drek we've all come to know and loathe.  Actually tackle issues like predatory food industry marketing and front-of-package deceptions, nutrition facts panel reforms, actually useful school food policies including the removal of sweetened milk from sale, childhood advertising bans, the return of home economics, zoning laws for fast food around schools, innovative incentive or disincentive taxation, an explicit recommendation that juice be limited to a maximum half a cup a day and that it's basically just flat soda with a smattering of vitamins and certainly not a fruit equivalent, a true discussion of energy balance that explicitly hammers home the fact that exercise is insufficient by itself to make any dent in weight, a campaign designed to combat caloric illiteracy, mandatory calorie labeling in restaurants, a fight against the ugly prevalence of weight bias, a massive campaign designed to increase home cooking by specifically recommending we eat out less frequently in restaurants and purchase fewer boxed meals - just to name a few.

There's nothing I'd love more than to have to eat a huge serving of crow.