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The University of Saskatchewan Health Sciences Building is home to the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition and the School of Public Health, where the study was led.

Poor diet, sedentary lifestyle put newcomer children’s health at risk

A comprehensive study by University of Saskatchewan researchers involving 300 immigrant and refugee children in Saskatoon and Regina shows that many newcomers embracing a western diet and lifestyle are on their way to developing chronic health problems within five years of their arrival.

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Dr. Hassan Vatanparast (MD, PhD), professor in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition and the School of Public Health.

Saskatchewan became home to nearly 48,000 immigrants and 3,800 refugees between 2011 and 2016. As Canada’s immigrant numbers continue to rise and events such as the Syrian crisis add to the refugee flow, the health of young newcomers becomes an important economic and social consideration for the long term.   

“Refugee children are at risk of stunted growth and high cholesterol, while immigrant children are more at risk of being overweight or obese,” said Dr. Hassan Vatanparast (MD, PhD), professor in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition and the School of Public Health, who led the study.

Healthy Immigrant Children, the first study of its type in Canada, was designed to characterize health and nutrition issues that affect newcomer children aged three to 13 years.

It gathered quantitative information such as family socioeconomic status, food security, diet, activity levels, biomarkers, andbody composition. In-depth interviews provided qualitative data such as family experience with accessing health care, and lifestyle habits.

Previous studies have shown that adult newcomers arrive in better health than Canadians, but their health status declines most in the first five years and eventually is comparable to the general population.

Vatanparast and four other researchers published a paper on their findings earlier this year in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.

On average, 12 per centof the girls studied were obese compared to nine per centof boys, indicating an emerging obesity problem among newcomer girls. Some cultural and religious traditions that preclude girls from participating in physical activity outside the home could be part of the reason.

“Understanding children’s pathways to obesity is important because obese children and adolescents are more likely to develop early health problems including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hightriglycerides, and type 2 diabetes that contributeto heart disease,” said post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Ginny Lane (PhD), lead author of the paper.

Whether children arrive in Canada as immigrants or refugees, many may be at risk because of their families’ social and economic conditions related to poverty and marginalization, combined with poor access to health, economic and social support systems, said Vatanparast.

While immigrant adults are better educatedthan refugees, many are working at survival-level jobs. The failure to achieve a desired middle-class lifestyle contributes to the decline of their mentaland physical well-being. Refugees, faced with educational and language barriers, struggle at the bottom of the economic scale.  

Nearly 62 per cent ofrefugee families in Saskatchewan experienced food insecurity—a lack of access to sufficient amount of food for normal growth and an active, healthy life—compared to 43 per centof new immigrants. Nearly60 per centof refugee children had high or borderline cholesterol levels, compared to 42 per centof immigrant children – both figures much higher than for Canadian children.

“The reality is that an apple costs about the same as a soft drink and a bag of chips, but a child is still hungry after eating an apple,” Vatanparast said about the choice made by parents to fill up children with high-fat, high-sugar foods.   

Of particular concern to researchers is that 36 per centof refugee children had an inadequate intake of zinc, while 23 per centof immigrant kids fell short. About three per cent of Canadian children were deficient in zinc, which is essential for growth and development.

Newcomers also had an inadequateintake of vitamin D, importantfor bone growth. The study found 44 per centof refugee children and 38 per centof immigrant kids had low bone mineral content for their age, gender, andethnicity.

Nearly half (49 per cent) of the immigrant families were from the Middle East, and most of the refugees in the study (69 per cent) were from Southeast Asian countries.

These findings point to the need for public health and social services systems to consider social factors affecting families in designing and delivering culturally sensitive screening and health promotion programs to prevent chronic health issues among new Canadians, Vatanparast said.

Other authors of the journal article are: Marwa Farag, USask School of Public Health; Judy White, University of Regina Faculty of Social Work; and Christine Nisbet, USask College of Pharmacy and Nutrition. 

The study was funded by Canadian Institutes for Health Research, Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Prairie Metropolis Centre.  Community partners include the Saskatoon and Regina Open Door Societies, Regina Community Clinic, Saskatoon Health Region, Regina Catholic School Board, and the Saskatchewan Intercultural Association.

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