Picture of Diane KelsallDiane Kelsall is Deputy Editor at CMAJ, and Editor of CMAJ Open


“Just because obesity is complex, it doesn’t mean that we should be paralyzed by inaction.”

 So said Dr. Kim Raine, Professor, School of Public Health, University of Alberta, at the opening ceremonies for the 2015 Canadian Obesity Summit. The conference, being held in Toronto, Ontario, from April 28 to May 2, 2015, brings together researchers, clinicians, policymakers and industry to discuss advances in understanding of the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity.

Raine went on to say that making meaningful change in such a complex issue as obesity will require “the cumulative action of many small steps.” There is no one single action, no matter how large, that will fix it all.

And so, I decided to look at the conference itself. What small steps did the Canadian Obesity Summit organizers undertake to address obesity at the conference itself, to perhaps model best practices in healthy behaviours?

While this is my first conference focused on obesity, I have attended many, many medical conferences over the years. I have sat in dark rooms, been plied with fat- and sugar-laden baked goods and suffered dehydration without water in sight in venues across the world. Is this conference different?

Yes and no. The rooms are still for the most part dark and most sessions involve sitting, as with other conferences. But there are some substantial differences.

The food is much more healthful. Snacks so far have consisted Picture of a lunch served at the 2015 Canadian Obesity Summit, Toronto, Ontario, 2015of bowls of fresh fruit. Lunch today (see photo, right) included a low-fat curry chicken salad with toasted almonds, sultana raisins and low-fat yoghurt. The wrap was whole wheat with turkey slides, low-fat cheddar, red pepper hummus and baby spinach. A container of raw vegetables was included with a white bean and roasted garlic dip. The meal was rounded out with an apple and water. A far cry from most lunches I have had at conferences.

There is plentiful water available throughout the day, and the drink options at lunch and breaks are low-calorie. Some might argue that diet pop should not be offered, but, since I happen to enjoy Diet Coke, I was happy to see that something other than water was on tap at times.

Exercise options at the conference include a free three-day pass to a nearby fitness club, morning yoga class and a running group.

Having the conference on the waterfront in Toronto with easy access by public transit and walking trails also increases the opportunities to exercise.

There is still too much sitting, although participants in one session yesterday were taken out to trial fitness poles. I would like to see standing tables in more of the rooms to reduce the sedentary nature of the sessions. I also don’t see why conferences need to be held in such gloomy rooms for the most part. But overall, this is probably the most “healthy” conference I have ever been at.

One conference in one city. Small steps indeed. But the conference organizers at the obesity summit have made a deliberate choice to demonstrate to all those attending that living healthily even at a research conference is feasible.

Who knows what is possible if that attitude moves outside of the conference venue?