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A new study warns that, if the recent trend continues, more than one in five Canadians will be obese by 2019.Tomasz Caderek

The number of obese Canadians has tripled since the mid-1980s, a phenomenon driven by a sharp rise in the number of extremely overweight adults whose health complications are expected to place a heavy burden on the health-care system.

That burden is not spread evenly, with the highest proportion of obese adults in the Atlantic provinces and the lowest in wealthy and healthy British Columbia, according to a new study that predicts the country's weight problem is only going to get worse, especially in the fattest provinces.

The study warns that, if the trend continues, more than one in five Canadians will be obese by 2019. In five provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – there will be more adults who are overweight and obese than adults who tip the scales at a healthy weight that same year.

"We have a growing number of these people and we haven't really sorted out the treatment for obesity. We're not actually curing it," said Laurie Twells, an associate professor in the school of pharmacy and faculty of medicine at Memorial University in St. John's and co-author of the study, published Monday in the journal CMAJ Open. "We haven't managed to help people lose weight and keep it off, other than through something like bariatric surgery."

The study, which drew on data from three Statistics Canada surveys conducted over a 26-year period, found that 18 per cent of Canadians were classified as obese in 2011, up from 6 per cent in 1985.

The increase was even steeper among the fattest of the fat, considered to be classes 2 and 3 on the obesity scale. In 2011, 3.6 per cent of Canadians were ranked class 2 obese, up from 0.8 per cent in 1985, and 1.6 per cent were ranked as class 3, up from 0.3 per cent.

The study's conclusions were no surprise to Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Institute in Ottawa, who noted that public-health officials have been keenly aware of the country's expanding collective waistline for three decades now. The reasons are fairly well understood, he added: A flood of cheap, attractively packaged empty calories has washed over the grocery shelves and oversized plates of the nation in that time.

"I do not believe we've experienced an epidemic loss of willpower since 1980," Dr. Freedhoff said. "I think the world around us has changed."

Canadian governments have taken tentative steps to curb the problem, including banishing junk food from school cafeterias and putting limits on fast-food advertising to children.

The federal government is in the midst of consultations to reform the nutrition panels that appear on packaged goods, as the U.S. government announced it would do last week. Ontario's government has introduced a bill that would compel restaurants to post calorie counts to their menus and menu boards.

But the results of those interventions could be years, even decades away – assuming they work at all.

The study relied on three Statistics Canada-administered surveys where participants reported their own height and weight to determine their body mass index, a scale that does not distinguish between lean muscle mass and fat, but which is useful for tracking long-term trends in weight.