bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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More on fat tax

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Recent research showed that a combination of factors was best at discouraging purchasing of “junk” foods. It also showed that, on their own, cheaper healthy options, anti-obesity advertising, and healthy food advertising were ineffective at dissuading “customers” from purchasing the junk food. However, increasing the price of the “junk” by 20% was persuasion enough for customers to select the healthier options.

While an interesting result, there are a number of problems with applying these findings in the real world. The research was done with participants in a laboratory. Thus, their economical means and purchasing behaviours may not have been representative of how they would act in “reality”. Also, were participants representative of the population? I worry the most about the impact of jacking up prices on “junk” food on those who are experiencing food insecurity. Increasing the cost of these foods may cause more harm than good.

In addition, as mentioned in the article we’ve already seen the failure of the “fat tax” in Denmark. Why would we think that increasing the price of “junk” food would be any more effective in North America? And who will decide what foods are healthy and what foods are unhealthy and deserving of taxation. I’ve seen granola bars that were not permitted under school nutrition policies that (in my opinion) were healthier than those that were permitted. The ones that were permitted contained chocolate chips. The ones that weren’t contained almonds, causing the fat content to be too high to meet criteria! Research is always evolving and even within the dietetic world there isn’t consensus on some matters. Some dietitians would rule out butter in favour of margarine. Some would be okay with added sugars, while others would eschew them. Most would say that all foods are okay, with some being everyday foods and others being occasional foods.

Also, what would happen with the increased revenue from “junk” foods? Would it go to the food industry? Would it go to the government? Or would it go to subsidise vegetables and fruits or create community food initiatives?

Yes, this research provides some insight into human behaviour. However, I’m not sure that it’s all that useful of a weapon in the war against obesity.


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The argument against school box lunch police

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A school in Ontario has decided to ban students from eating “junk” food on school property. This means that any student sent to school with a chocolate bar or other banned food will be asked to take it home with them to consume. Unfortunately, there’s no list of criteria, or banned foods, available online. The principal does say that there will be some exceptions around holidays and while chocolate bars are a no-no, granola bars are fine. Sigh. There are a few issues I have with this policy. No, I am not concerned about the Nanny State. Honestly, considering our inability to care for ourselves properly as a society I think that we would all benefit from a little nannying.

My primary concern is the seeming lack of understanding of food insecurity. No matter how many celebrity chefs will publicly state that healthy eating is cheaper than eating “junk” there are still going to be a disproportionate number of food insecure families relying on packaged, processed foods. This is partially because of the perception that healthy food is expensive, and in some cases this is true. It’s also because food insecurity is a complex issue. Many people lack food skills to prepare healthy meals and snacks for their families. There may also be a lack of access to kitchen tools and appliances necessary for the preparation of many healthy options. There may also be a lack of time available to prepare healthy snacks, or a means to transport fresh vegetables home from the grocery store. To ban children from bringing “junk” food to school is an act of privilege which will only serve to ostracize children from less privileged families.

My second concern is with how this ban might affect eating habits later in life. Teaching children that some foods are forbidden, but then sending them home to eat them could potentially contribute to disordered eating later in life. While I don’t support the sale of nutritionally void foods at schools – schools should be providing children with the best possible nutrition for learning and growth and should not be turning a profit from selling them “junk” – I don’t think that policing lunch boxes is healthy. Imagine being a 6 year-old child sent to school with a cookie and being told you weren’t allowed to eat it at school. What lesson is this instilling? Is it teaching the child to make healthy choices. I don’t think so. I think it’s instilling a sense of shame and promoting “secret” eating. Children are extremely impressionable and this is when we should be ensuring that they develop lifelong healthy relationships with food.

My final concern is more with the practicality of implementing this policy. Who is going to be responsible for searching students’ lunches, backpacks, coat pockets for contraband? How much time will this take away from the ever deteriorating curriculum? How will it be decided which foods fit and which foods are banished? As many granola bars are essentially chocolate bars in disguise as health food is there really much point in implementing a ban on chocolate bars but allowing granola bars? What about home-made treats? How will the teacher (or other food policer) know if a muffin is healthy or essentially an un-iced cupcake?

I really do think that we need to be feeding children better diets and teaching them to enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods. However, I don’t think that policing children’s lunches is going to do anything to achieve these objectives. In fact, I think it’s liable to do more harm than good.


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Chocolate for charity

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I was disappointed to see the above tweet from Food Banks Canada. Following the link I found a contest on Oh Henry’s Facebook page (which tried to access all of my contacts and my timeline… no thank you!). The contest is to win “an NHL experience, plus weekly prizes”. For every entry received, Oh Henry will donate 50 cents to the food bank.

I’m sure many of you are thinking “that’s great! More money for food banks is fantastic!” There’s a part of me that thinks that as well. But there’s another part of me that is turned-off by the use of a charitable donation to garner positive publicity. It also doesn’t sit well with me that it’s a chocolate bar manufacturer donating to the food bank. Yes, they’re donating money, not chocolate bars, but it’s a bit of a slippery slope. It’s akin to the candy stores donating money to the childrens’ hospitals or the pop company donating money to fund diabetes research; a step away from the dietetic organization accepting funding from the food industry.

Do you really think that Oh Henry’s goal is to eradicate hunger? Call me a cynic, but I’m thinking that however much they end up donating to the food bank is going to be considerably less than any marketing campaign would cost them, plus it provides them with the opportunity to seem like a charitable organization. Let’s not forget that they are candy bar manufacturers. They are not Doctors Without Borders. They are not providing us with a nutritious (albeit an arguably tasty source of calories) food. They are putting their brand at the forefront of peoples’ minds. They are associating themselves with alleviating food insecurity. They are allowing people to feel like they are doing a good deed by entering a hockey contest.

I propose that instead of (or at least in addition to) entering Oh Henry’s contest that everyone donate at least 50 cents directly to the food bank or, next time you’re grocery shopping, pick-up an additional non-perishable item and donate it to the food bank.


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Food insecurity is not simple math

A recent study showed that healthy food is actually less expensive than “junk” food. This study eschewed the usual caloric comparison of foods for a portion-based comparison. Based on this comparison the researchers found that many healthy foods are, in fact, cheaper than their less nutritious counterparts. For example, a serving of carrots was found to be less expensive than a serving of potato chips. I agree that healthy food is not necessarily all that expensive and some options (e.g. beans, legumes, and root vegetables) can be quite economical. However, I have several major issues with this study.

Having worked with people experiencing food insecurity I know that the first concern of most of them is getting enough calories into their family members and keeping them as full as possible. So, even if this study is showing that by portion size and by edible weight, healthy foods are less expensive than unhealthy foods this is not how the majority of people who are suffering from food insecurity are thinking. They’re trying to get caloric bang for their buck. Sadly, carrots are not going to give them as many calories for their dollar as pop and hot dogs are.

Even if we accept what the study is telling us, there is a lot more to consider beyond the face-value of these foods. Many of these healthy food items are not ready to eat as is. Do you know anyone who’s going to eat onions straight-up? How about dried chickpeas? These foods require cooking skills, equipment, and additional ingredients (e.g. herbs, spices, oils, etc. to make them palatable). Many people, be they food insecure or not, are lacking in the food skills department and may not have the confidence or knowledge to cook a rutabaga. Do they have a stove to use? What about pots? Knives? Vegetable peelers? All of the additional ingredients and supplies can add a considerable amount of cost to the meal.

Another major issue when it comes to food insecurity is oral health. If your teeth are sore or missing it’s going to be mighty difficult to chow down on raw carrots and apples. Potato chips and spam are much easier to manage when you’re lacking quality teeth.

So, sure, serving for serving some fresh vegetables may be less expensive than “junk” food but food insecurity is not simple math.


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Food security

Contrary to popular belief, not all dietitians work in hospitals or client counseling settings. I work in public health and my primary program area is food security. Even when talking about food security with colleagues in different positions I’m met with constant confusion. No, it’s not about locking up our food and protecting it from terrorists. It’s about making sure that everyone is free from hunger. That everyone has access to nutritious, affordable, safe, personally and culturally acceptable foods at all times. And that these foods are accessible in a way that maintains human dignity. Many Canadians are affected by food insecurity. It’s a continuum, and it’s not usually a constant state of being. Some people are food secure at certain times of month, or year, and not at other times. According to the most recent Stats Can data 7.7% of households in Canada were food insecure at some time between 2007 and 2008. Food insecurity can have a direct impact on health. Without a nutritious diet people are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, have poor birth outcomes, and perform poorly at work and/or school. Food costs are going up, as are many other expenses (such as gas, rent, and utilities) which can impact on the ability to purchase adequate healthy food. Food banks, soup kitchens, and meal programs provide some immediate relief but they are not a long term answer to the core problem, poverty. We need widespread systemic changes in our food systems, social assistance programs, and minimum wage rates. Everyone deserves the right to afford a nutritious diet.

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