Assoc. Prof. Louise Mâsse is launching a study to examine how school efforts to advance nutrition and physical education are implemented - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 6 | Jun 7, 2007
Unplugging the Pop Machines
Prof. examines school efforts to reduce obesity
By Hilary Thomson
Regularly labeled an epidemic, the rapid rise in Canada of childhood obesity has grabbed the attention of government, school administrators, parents -- and researchers like Louise Mâsse.
An associate professor of pediatrics, Mâsse is an expert in obesity prevention and physical activity for children. Recently returned to Canada from the U.S., she will soon launch a study to examine how school policies related to nutrition and physical education are implemented and to what extent the policies influence children’s behaviours. She will also look at barriers to instituting school-based healthy eating and physical activity programs.
“There is no silver bullet in obesity prevention,” says Mâsse, who is a member of the Child & Family Research Institute (CFRI). “We really need to look at the whole picture, the influence of the school environment, community and home.”
A March 2007 House of Commons Report of the Standing Committee on Health, called Healthy Weights for Healthy Kids, stated that Canada has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the developed world, ranking fifth out of 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
The report also notes that 26 per cent of Canadians between the ages of two and 17 are overweight or obese. In 1978 the combined rate was 15 per cent. In B.C., rates for childhood obesity match the Canadian average.
Overweight measurements and obesity are calculated using the body mass index (BMI), a formula based on the relationship of weight to height. In children, the index is adjusted for the age and gender of each child to account for different growth patterns.
In a two-year study, Mâsse plans to interview 25-30 school principals, teachers and parents from a sampling of B.C. schools. Topics will include physical education curriculum, school-provided lunches, vending machines, as well as nutrition and exercise policies currently implemented or proposed. She will also canvass 400-600 students (age range not yet determined) to find out about their eating and exercise behaviours and to disentangle influences of school, community and home in shaping physical activity and eating behaviours.
School policies that affect child health can be complex, says Mâsse. Policy-makers must consider matters ranging from insurance liability for after-school exercise programs to contract obligations for vending machines and costs of hiring a specially trained PE teacher or school nutritionist.
Influences such as bringing lunch and eating dinner at home with family were associated with a decreased likelihood of obesity, according to a study published in 2005 that surveyed 5,200 Grade 5 students in Nova Scotia. Also, routines that include more than two hours a day watching TV, playing video games or using the computer -- activities collectively known as screen time -- doubled the likelihood of obesity or being overweight, compared to those whose viewing was an hour or less, according to a 2004 Canadian Community Health survey.
And though schools take a lot of criticism for contributing to obesity, for many kids it is summer vacation that packs on the pounds via an increase in screen time and freedom to “graze” all day on snack foods, according to a Ohio State University study published in the April 2007 issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Data from a survey of more than 5,300 children from around the U.S. showed BMI scores increased on average more than twice as much over the summer compared with the school year.
“During the school year, the hours from 3 to 6:30 p.m. are critical,” says Mâsse. “Some children are at home without parental guidance and may be discouraged or disallowed to go outside because of perceptions of danger. For many, this is a time to engage in sedentary activities and snack on unhealthy food. These patterns can intensify in the summer months.”
Although current interest in childhood obesity helps raise awareness, it can result in too much emphasis on obesity and too little on overall child health, she says.
“We want kids to be concerned with health and to know that healthy eating and exercise is beneficial regardless of weight. Skinny doesn’t necessarily mean healthy and dieting is hard on growing bodies. Well-balanced living that includes nutritious food, sweet treats in moderation, exercise and some down time is the goal.”
Mâsse’s research is supported by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR) and CFRI.
MSFHR leads, partners and serves as a catalyst to build British Columbia’s capacity for excellence in clinical, biomedical, health services and population health research.
CFRI works in close partnership with UBC; BC Children’s Hospital and Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children; BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre, agencies of the Provincial Health Services Authority and the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. It is the largest research institute of its kind in Western Canada and conducts discovery research to benefit the health of children and families.