bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Leo Glavine: Meet the social determinants of health

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I had another post scheduled for today but then I read this article and got all fired-up. Just to cement the fact that I’m never going to be able to get a job working in public health in this province – you know, a master’s degree is far more important than actual experience in this province – I have to say: I am appalled that our provincial minister of Health and Wellness would write such an ignorant column.

To boil it down, the minister, Leo Glavine, states that to earn healthcare Nova Scotians must first prove that they’re taking care of their own health. This seems to particularly apply to those with lower-income levels as they are the ones who would be applying for financial assistance. This is so backwards!

I find it highly disturbing that Glavine appears to be unaware that income is the number one determinant of health. A whole other raft of issues go hand-in-hand with insufficient income; lack of time (how does one find the time to exercise, grocery shop, cook healthy meals, etc. when one is working a couple of part-time minimum wage jobs in an effort to pay the bills?), lack of access to programs and services (part-time work means no benefits which means no access to dietitians – let’s not get into the fact that we are woefully under covered by the majority of health care plans anyway, fitness facilities and equipment – some might argue that no equipment is necessary, everyone can walk, walking is great but not sufficient for optimal health and besides, many people who are living in poverty may live in dangerous areas and places without sidewalks and even in the city, the state of sidewalk clearing has been abysmal this winter, other healthcare providers – with the current lack of family doctors many of us don’t have a primary healthcare practitioner regardless of income or benefits). You get the point.

Aside from the fact that the social determinants of health undermine what Glavine is saying, isn’t it the government’s job to improve population health? This is done by implementing programs and policies which are designed to improve the health of all Nova Scotians. To tell us that we should be making more of an effort to improve our own health is tantamount to victim blaming. Yes, there will always be people who are not going to exercise or eat enough vegetables. Is that reason to stop encouraging everyone to lead healthier lives. The burden of proof should not be placed on the individual. We should not be being asked to “improve our attitudes” by the minister. Our government should instead be looking inward and asking themselves why we, as a population are unhealthy, and what they can do to change that.


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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 bank fare

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I was at the grocery store on the weekend and as I was leaving I noticed a display in support of our local food bank. It was one of those pre-made packages where you pay something like $5 and items to feed a family of four are donated to the food bank. I didn’t get a very close look at all of the contents but I did notice a package of Kraft Dinner. Perhaps it’s the dietitian in me. Perhaps I’m too much of a food snob. Whatever the reason, the inclusion of Kraft Dinner in this package really bothered me.

Kraft Dinner is pretty inexpensive. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen boxes of it on sale for $.99 before, possibly even less than that. Even when it’s full-price I think it’s only marginally more than that. Wouldn’t it be better to donate something that food bank users might have more difficulty purchasing? Perhaps something with a little bit more nutrition, and something which doesn’t necessitate the purchase of other more expensive foods (i.e. milk and butter or margarine) to prepare? Why not buy some pasta and a jar of sauce, for example.

Pick up an extra (or extras) of something that you’re buying for yourself or your family, rather than relying on the prepackaged selection in the store. Some other nutritious non-perishable items include: whole grain crackers or cereals, canned tuna or salmon, canned beans, powdered milk or shelf-stable milk, nut butters, canned fruit (in juice or water), canned vegetables. Even better, donate money directly to the food bank so that they can purchase fresh food for their customers. Spices and condiments are also a much neglected category when it comes to foods banks. Think how much better you can make the most basic meal taste if you have some herbs and pepper.

Think outside the blue box of orange pasta when donating to the food bank.


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Nutritious Food For All!

After taking yesterday off in a show of support for the SOPA/PIPA protest I’m glad to be back!

For some reason this letter to the editor made it into one of the daily digests of nutrition articles I receive. Although I am not entirely sure what his point was I still felt compelled to comment on a few of the statements he made. He mentions that many seniors are able to eat healthy diets on meagre pensions. This is not, in fact true. Many seniors living on pensions or government benefits are struggling with food security. In Ontario we do an annual costing of a “nutritious food basket” which we then use to determine if particular families and individuals are able to afford a basic nutritious diet. These results consistently show that seniors are one of the populations that may be unable to afford a basic diet. In addition, as dietitians we often hear about seniors surviving on a diet of “tea and toast.”
The author seems to be implying that because seniors can afford a nutritious diet with a limited income that those living on disability pensions or other forms of social assistance must be mismanaging their funds if they are unable to afford a basic nutritious diet. He also mentions that there are people working multiple jobs who are still living in poverty. This is an unfortunate perception that I hear all too often, that there’s a “deserving” poor and an “undeserving” poor. People should not be categorised into deserving and undeserving. No one wants to live in poverty. Everyone deserves the right to a basic nutritious diet. Unfortunately, there are many people in Canada (nearly 10% of the population) who, for various reasons, are unable to afford a basic nutritious diet. Letters like this only serve to further perpetuate negative stereotypes.


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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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