I promise, this time round, I will not ask “why’d you let yourself get so fat?”

When I wrote that blog column in 2008 for the Edmonton Sun, it drew over 1,000 comments. And I won’t comment on obesity expert Dr. David Macklin’s theory that some individuals are genetically programmed to be more addicted to sweet, salty or fatty foods.

This column, being business oriented, will simply look at the actual costs, money and otherwise, of the fat epidemic in our society – that one in four Canadians/Albertans are now officially obese, defined by being extremely overweight in relation to their height. And that one in every 11 kids, according to the Canadian Institute for Health’s “Obesity in Canada” report from 2011, is overweight.

The simplest definition of adult obesity that I’ve come across: If you’re 5 ft. 3 in. and weigh over 170 lbs.; 5 ft. 7 in. and over 185 lbs.; 5 ft. 11 in. and over 200 lbs.; 6 ft. 3 in. and over 230 lbs … unless it’s mostly muscle, you are obese.

The Obesity in Canada report – the most thorough Canadian report on the subject in recent years – suggests the direct health costs of obesity range from $4.6 billion a year (treating its eight most commonly associated chronic diseases) to $7.1 billion (treating 18 associated chronic diseases).

The report doesn’t try to put a figure on the indirect costs of obesity – lost productivity due to poor health, inability to work, the “lost opportunity” cost of being unemployable due to extreme weight. Unhealthy employees impact their employers’ bottom line, no matter what.

Alberta – with the launch of the Alberta Health Services five-year Obesity Initiative in 2011 – estimated direct and indirect costs of obesity in the province at $1.4 billion.

And for all the talk and obsession with weight, for all the societal and corporate costs, governments continue to opt for the carrot, not the stick. Education, counselling and additional medical services, like the Alberta Obesity Initiative, are the norm. Financial penalties are not.

But we keep getting fatter. The number of obese adults in Canada has doubled since 1980, as has the cost of health-care premiums in the same time frame. “Genetics,” writes Dr. W. Gifford-Jones in his popular Sun column, “do not explain how any nation, especially the USA, could development an epidemic of obesity in less than a lifetime.”

Except in Japan: The country with the least number of obese people – 3% of the population according to the 2010 report of the OECD, compared to 33.8% in world-leading USA and 24.2% in sixth-place Canada – actually cracked down on obesity in 2008, as numbers crept up from near 0% to 3%.

In 2008, the Japanese government imposed the “metabo law”  – a maximum waistline size allowed for any Japanese citizen over 40, a 33.5 inch waistline for men, 35.4 inch waistline for women.

Anything over … you don’t go to jail, but if you are working, your company must place you in compulsory weight counselling. An ultimatum was issued: If Japanese corporations didn’t reduce the number of overweight employees by 25% by 2015, the offending companies will be required to pay more than others into health care programs for the elderly.

It may sound draconian, but here’s a country whose citizens, because of good diet, active living and societal disapproval of flab, live five years longer on average than in the USA, have far lower rates of illness and disability among their (numerous) elderly, and, in general, consume 25% fewer calories per person than North Americans. And now they are nipping the fat problem in the bud, before it becomes epidemic.

The carrot is obviously not working. Is it time to pull out a Japanese-like stick?


Iris Evans was Alberta’s Minister of Health from 2004 to 2006.

In 2006, Iris went to Dr. Bernstein’s diet clinic, and lost 62.5 pounds.

“I saw the diabetes II coming on strong, the growing waiting lists for hip and knee replacements often caused by weight stress on the joints. The use of pills for everything from sleeping to waking up … the demand for Aids to Daily Living … I couldn’t be a hypocrite,” says Iris. “I had to practice wellness as well as speak about it.”

No matter the method of (sensible) weight loss, Iris is a cheerleader for those making the effort. “In the long range, your health is so much better; your blood pressure is lower, cholesterol levels drop. I have cultivated a love of veggies.”

The former politician can’t see any way out of this current fat epidemic other than prevention, other than on-going campaigns emphasizing good eating and exercise, especially in the schools. “Wellness is where the health savings have to come from. I’m concerned that we’re not concentrating on wellness to the same degree as we used to.”

Even ex-health ministers have to keep working at it. “I had a little stress in my life this past year. I gained 20 pounds. But I’m glad to say I’ve taken 18 of them off. When I’m slimmer, I’m happier. My mental image of myself is just so much better.”

Graham Hicks