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Turning research into action on childhood obesity

March 04, 2010
Noreen Willows

How’s this for a reality check? Based on the results from two communities, two out of every three children in Eeyou Istchee are overweight or obese. Most of them are out of shape, and many children don’t like the way they look.

These facts come as no surprise to those who live and work in the Cree territory, but now, thanks to the Active Kids Project (Emiyuu Ayayaachiit Awaash Project), there is hard evidence to support the argument that community partners need to work together with parents to do something now about childhood obesity.

The Active Kids Project started as a collaborative project between the Cree Health Board and University researchers. It was carried out in Mistissini and Waskaganish in 2004 and 2005. The project looked at the weight, physical fitness, eating habits and self-image of 203 children in grades 4-6.

Why are Cree children so overweight and out of shape? Some of the culprits include “liquid calories” from pop and juice, children who walk, run or play very little, and a surprising amount of take out and poutine lunches.

“People think that in small communities everyone is eating home cooking, but that’s not always the case,” explained Noreen Willows, Associate Professor of Community Nutrition at the University of Alberta. In northern Canadian communities like Mistissini, it is common for children to eat several times a week at the local chip stand, with serious implications for their lifelong eating habits, as junk food habits are hard to break.

The study found that those children who eat even a small amount of eeyou meechum (traditional foods) have better nutrition. “Traditional food – even a little bit – does a lot to give children the nutrients they need, like zinc and iron,” said Noreen.

“The ‘take home’ message from the Active Kids Project is this: we need to encourage children to be more active, and we need to encourage caregivers to feed their children good, home cooked food,” Noreen concluded. The focus needs to be on promoting healthy lifestyles, not weight loss, so that children are not made to feel bad about the way they look.

A call to action

Now that the evidence is gathered, it’s time for Noreen Willows and her colleagues to return to Eeyou Istchee with some tools to help the community deal with the child obesity problem.

As part of a second study, called “An ecological approach to understanding and improving the nutrition and health of Cree children,” a two-day workshop in Mistissini in early March 2010 brought community partners together to brainstorm. Warmed by wood stoves in the traditional “Sabtuaan” building, they filled flip charts with ideas. A key idea was that many resources exist to support child health, but they are not always well promoted or coordinated. It’s important for different entities to talk to each other. “Talk is free,” said Jane Blacksmith, Director of Social Development for the Cree Nation of Mistissini.

The solutions that people came up with reflected their knowledge that health is shaped not only by the choices of kids and their parents, but also by the whole environment they grow up in - from the cleanliness of playgrounds to the price of broccoli in the local store. As Noreen observed, “researchers talk about social determinants of health. People here don’t talk about it in those terms – but they live it.”

Keeping it real

In the next part of the project, Noreen Willows’ colleague David Dyck Federeau will consult with children, asking them what they think about different foods, and what kinds of activities they like – and what they don’t like. “They come up with brilliant ideas. Nobody ever asks them what they want or how they understand the issues. We want to change that.”

The final phase of this follow-up study will look at parents and caregivers; how do they understand their responsibility for giving their children good food? The idea is to get a picture of why parents are making the choices they are.

All this information will be used to help plan programs to improve child health in Eeyou Istchee, so that our children grow up healthy in body, mind and spirit.