On Monday our esteemed Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq announced funding for a national healthy eating initiative at the Summit on Healthy Weights. It seems that finally, after years of talking about what we should do to address the obesity epidemic in Canada the government is ready to take action. Unfortunately, that action is destined to be woefully inadequate. What action are they taking you ask? Well, they started off with the Nutrition Facts Campaign in the fall of 2010. This campaign introduced the notion of “A little or a lot” and focussed on teaching consumers how to use the Nutrition Facts table and the Percent Daily Value to help them make healthy food choices. Anybody feel like they’re making better food choices since that campaign launched nearly a year and a half ago? How many people (outside of those in health care and government) are even aware of that campaign? As a dietitian, I don’t even use the Percent Daily Value when making food choices (yes, I do use the remainder of the Nutrition Facts panel) so I wonder how many consumers actually use it. I don’t think the Percent Daily Value is a great tool because it’s based on an “average” person and most of us have varying caloric and nutrient needs, most of us are not actually average. The Nutrition Facts panel is not great, why are we basing an education campaign around an inferior tool? Wouldn’t it be better to be creating better labelling that’s easier for consumers to use? And how about encouraging consumer to eat foods that don’t have nutrition labels, i.e. vegetables and fruit, arguably the foods that most of us do not consume enough of? Okay, so the next phase of campaign will be doing that along with encouraging consumers to reduce their intake of food and drinks high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium. How will the government do this? It will be “promoted creatively through various outreach partnerships, social media engagement and web tools.” They’re also going to provide advice on “how to follow Canada’s Food Guide by choosing the right amount and types of food at home, at the grocery store and when eating out.” I’m all for education and increased awareness but I don’t think that knowledge alone is enough to change behaviour. Take us dietitians again, it’s been shown that we fall prey to the same portion distortion tricks and underestimation of calories when eating out, as other consumers and we have at least four years of nutrition education. How can we possibly think that one little public awareness campaign is going to help consumers avoid these pitfalls. We have engineered an obesogenic environment and now we expect individuals to save themselves from it by telling them to eat less junk and eat more vegetables? I’m pretty sure people already are aware that these are things that they should be doing. Unfortunately, our society is set-up to make these changes incredibly difficult. Yes, we need to increase awareness but that should only be the smallest part of our efforts. As hard as it’s going to be we need to redesign the environments in which we live, work, and play to make healthy eating the easiest and most desirable choice.
I just happened across this “Continuum of Education, Marketing, and Law” in an article about active living. It states that educational approaches to manage behaviour should be used when: 1. Target market is prone to behave as desired, 2. Self-interest and benefits of the behaviour are easily conveyed to target market, 3. There is no or weak competition. Social marketing approaches to manage behaviour should be used when: 1. Target market is neither prone nor resistant to the behaviour being promoted, 2. Self-interest and benefits can be conveyed to target market by enhancing and managing the offer, 3. The competition is active. Law-based approaches to manage behaviour should be used when: 1. Target market is resistant to behave as desired, 2. Self-interest and benefits cannot be conveyed to target market, 3. The competition is unmanageable. I would argue that all three approaches are needed, particularly the third one, as we are not liable to change our eating behaviours through healthy messaging alone.