There is no childhood obesity epidemic in Canada and the hysteria surrounding reports that there is do more harm than good.

That’s according to child psychiatrist Leora Pinhas, psychiatric director of the Eating Disorders Program at the Hospital for Sick Children.

“The word epidemic means occurring at higher rates than previously… that word can mean, scientifically, a very small increase but the way that it’s talked about in public is that we’ve got an urgent situation where the majority of people are suffering from something that is dire,” she says. “If you use that definition, no we don’t have an obesity epidemic. There’s lots of data that says, yes, we are heavier than we may have been post World War II. It’s not clear whether it causes poor health or is just an associated feature.”

For example, she says, someone living in a city where people have to walk around more to get to places instead of driving will probably have lower rates of obesity and also have lower rates of cardiovascular disease. “That does not mean that lower obesity is the reason for the lower rates of cardiovascular disease,” she says. “Maybe being physically active affected both simultaneously. They do tend to travel together but the one does not necessarily cause the other. That, I think, is really important to think about.”

Ten percent of kids are obese

In Canada, she stresses, the majority of kids are not obese. About 10 percent would fall into the category of obese, according to 2004 Statistics Canada figures.

“What we tend to do is say obesity is a problem and then we lump the ‘overweight’ category in with the obese and start quoting numbers like 28 percent or 30 percent, which makes people confused,” she says. “How we present the data actually can be anxiety producing and I think that’s a problem. The overweight category is particularly a problem because certainly Canadian data shows that the people who live the longest in Canada are in the overweight category.”

Pinhas says that begs the question, why do we call it the overweight category?

“I think we should petition a change and call it the Live the Longest category,” she says. “I think what we see is how much weight stigma even effects the research and how we think about how we label things. What’s overweight for one person is perfectly healthy for another.”

Focus on thin a problem

Western culture has become too focused on weight itself as opposed to health, she says.

“It’s become its own category of how we judge people which, in fact, rather than solving problems actually creates more problems,” she says. “Weight, like height, comes across a wide range of what’s normal for the individual. We do have population averages that we like to aim for but if we change the word weight for height… If I told you hypothetically that the healthiest height for women is between 5-feet 4-inches and 5-feet 6-inches, would we suddenly start to put girls who are getting over that line on a diet to stunt their growth? Because that’s certainly our approach to weight. Some people are meant to be chubby, some people are meant to be fat, some people are meant to be skinny. And that’s healthy for them as an individual.”

It’s simply impossible to tell what the exact right weight for an individual is, Pinhas says. “What we know is, if you lead a healthy lifestyle, if you exercise regularly and moderately, if you eat a range of foods, and focus on healthy foods, with treats, and eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full and follow an intuitive approach to eating, that you will be at whatever your healthy weight is meant to be,” she says. “And it’s not going to be the same for every person.”