Where you live may affect your weight

UBC nutrition researcher Jennifer Black has found that B.C. has the lowest rates of obesity in Canada.

“It appears that men in Vancouver have the lowest obesity rates in the nation. For women the lowest obesity rates are in Richmond,” says Black, an assistant professor who joined the Faculty of Land and Food Systems (LFS) this January.

Black conducted a literature review on the distribution of food and obesity in Canada, analyzing data from 28 published studies. She discovered that higher rates of obesity are reported in Canada’s eastern provinces, rural areas and northern Aboriginal communities than those for Western Canada.

Her next step, says Black, is to look at the larger contextual issues for obesity in Canada. “These factors include family income, the availability of healthy and affordable food and opportunities to be physically active.”

Black is now teaming up with UBC sociologists Rich Carpiano and Nathan Lauster to take a closer look at access to healthy food in B.C. A registered dietitian, Black specializes in social determinants of health and dietary choice. Prior to joining UBC, she worked in low income neighbourhoods of New York City as a nutritionist for the Institute for Urban Family Health. This work inspired her to investigate the large differences in obesity rates among New York City’s neighborhoods.

“It’s not randomly distributed,” says Black. She found that even though obesity rose between 2003 and 2007, New Yorkers were less likely to be obese if they lived in wealthier areas and neighborhoods well served by food stores and fitness amenities. Her findings were recently published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

A native Torontonian, Black says it was an eye opener to visit neighbourhoods where affordable fruit and vegetables were hard to come by. “It was really tough for many of my clients to make healthy choices, even those with advanced diabetes and heart disease who were very motivated.”

All in all, she says the reasons that influence people’s nutrition and health are myriad and complex. “Not only are we looking at socio-economic issues, but also a person’s attitudes and behaviours about eating, cooking and body weight, and how people are influenced by where they live.”

To probe the Canadian food psyche, Black will be mining the rich data of the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS). Black, along with LFS Nutrition Prof. Susan Barr, is developing UBC know-how and research infrastructure to work on CCHS, the first set of comprehensive Canadian nutrition data generated in more than 35 years.

“The information the survey generated is enormously detailed, for example, what people ate on weekdays versus what they ate during weekends.”

Released in 2004, the CCHS surveyed more than 35,000 respondents across Canada about their dietary intake, vitamin and mineral supplement use, health risks and behaviours.