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Lucie Lévesque

Getting proactive for children's health

Lucie Lévesque wants kids in Mexico to get active and achieve a healthy body weight, but her task is easier said than done.

For years, the United States held the dubious distinction of being the world’s fattest nation. No more. In June 2013, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reported that 32.8 percent of Mexicans over age 20 – compared to 31.8 percent of Americans – had a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more. In other words, fully one-third of adult Mexicans are obese. This may not have come as a surprise to some, as the country’s former president, Felipe Calderón, had revealed two years earlier that Mexico had the world’s highest rate of childhood obesity.

Lévesque, a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s, says this troubling phenomenon is the result of rapid urbanization, widespread poverty and something known as the “nutrition transition.” The term refers to the fact that the traditional (and healthy) Mexican diet of beans, rice and corn has largely been supplanted by cheap processed foods that are high in fat and sugar, and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Such dietary factors, combined with an urban population that is largely sedentary and a lack of open spaces like parks where people can exercise, help explain Mexico’s obesity crisis.

The disturbing trend has enormous implications for the personal well-being of Mexicans and the country’s economy and health care system. Given that researchers in Canada have been studying obesity and inactivity since these issues arose in our country 40 years ago, a collaboration was initiated to improve research capacity in the area of childhood obesity in Mexico. This is the primary goal of CAMBIO, a multidisciplinary network of academics and researchers from Queen’s and the University of Guadalajara. Funded originally through a Global Health Research Initiative Grant through the International Development Research Centre, CAMBIO brings together experts from both countries who represent diverse fields, including obesity, epidemiology, nutrition, pediatrics, population and community health, sociology, health surveillance, physiology, and other areas. CAMBIO’s experts focus on battling childhood obesity in Latin America’s second largest country, and promoting health-related knowledge transfer among universities, non-governmental organizations and other groups.

Lévesque is one of CAMBIO’s principal researchers. She specializes in physical activity and health promotion – essentially, figuring out how to get people more physically active – but her specific role in CAMBIO is to collaborate with Mexican researchers to evaluate policies and intervention programs implemented by Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health (INSP) to reduce obesity and poor nutrition in kids. Her collaborators are other Mexican academics and graduate students, some of whom travel to Queen’s for training that may not be available in their home country.

One of Lévesque’s recent grants (from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, with co-principal researcher Dr. Simón Barquera from the INSP) took her into 20 Mexican schools to evaluate the effectiveness of the school component of the Mexican government’s anti-obesity policy. She and her Mexican colleagues measured children’s height and weight to determine their BMI, observed what they ate at lunch, and whether or not the kids were getting their mandated 20 minutes of daily “physical activation.” The government policy recommends the phasing out of soft drinks in schools, so the researchers checked to see whether this was happening.

So far, Lévesque has gone through this process twice, and gathered field observations that will be critical to the success of the government scheme.

“These data are quite valuable for Mexico,” explains Lévesque. “Now we have two time points that serve as evidence about the health of Mexican schoolchildren. If the government wants to continue to fund the program, they need to be able to see change. Our data will help them do that.”

Profile by Alec Ross
(e)Affect Issue 4, Fall 2013