Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Canada’s not-so-innovative strategy to achieve healthy weights

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A few weeks ago, to little fanfare, the government of Canada announced an “Innovation Strategy” to achieve healthy weights in Canada. My coworker alerted me to it and got me going out on a rant on a Friday afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some good stuff in here: promoting active neighbourhoods to increase access to green spaces and encourage active transportation, promoting traditional foods, and early childhood interventions for priority populations. However, for the most part I was hugely underwhelmed by the strategy.

Most of the initiatives involved some form or other of food charity, such as expanding the community food centre model. While I appreciate the CFCs efforts to improve on the traditional food bank through the addition of cooking programs, gardens, and social inclusion, when it comes down to it, they’re still a charitable organization doing the work that our government should be doing. These programs also still put the onus on the individual to seek out and access the available services, rather than implementing programs that would be universally available. Also, I understand the desire to target people living on low incomes and experiencing food insecurity but I don’t believe that obesity and unhealthy lifestyles are something that only affect that population.

I know that it would be more complicated than throwing some money at some existing programs but I think that there are many things that the government could have chosen to do that would have a much greater impact on the health of Canadians. How about a national school lunch program? This would reach every child in school without stigma and would ensure that children had the nutrition needed to learn and grow. How about bringing back mandatory home economics or teaching food literacy in schools and supporting school gardens? Yes, I realize that the curriculum is under provincial jurisdiction but there must be some way to get this back in schools. That would ensure that all children learned food skills rather than just those attending limited classes. As we know, food skills are lacking across all income levels in Canada and are not just an issue for those living in poverty. How about subsidizing fresh vegetables and fruit making it easier for Canadians to afford these nutritious foods? I know that this one is working its way through government right now, but how about putting a ban on marketing to children? And not just “junk” food but all food as we know that children (and even teens, and let’s face it, adults) are ill-equipped to contend with the marketing abilities of the food industry (possibly more on this next week). How about increasing access to registered dietitians so that people who want to speak with a RD can do so? How about collaborating with doctors, farmers markets, and grocery stores to enable all physicians to “prescribe” vegetables and fruit? These initiatives would have far greater reach and impact than the ones selected by the government. It really makes me wonder who’s informing these decisions there and it enrages me that our governments continue to throw our money at piecemeal initiatives that are unlikely to make any significant long-term change in our health.

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Why we need to stop with the meat and alternatives

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Ever since the new Food Guide consultations began the dairy and beef industries have been pushing back hard. They’re afraid that if the traditional food groups are dismantled, and if the food guide encourages people to consume more plant-based sources of protein, as has been put forward in the consultation, that there will be decreased consumption of dairy and beef. It’s understandable that they would want to protect their interests. After all, going from being featured prominently in the current (and previous versions) of the Food Guide with food groups named: Milk and alternatives and Meat and alternatives, to receiving little-to-no mention is a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, it’s a hugely positive step for the health and wellness of Canadians.

You see, words matter. “Alternative” is generally different than the norm. According to the dictionary, the definition of alternative is, “one of two or more available possibilities.” By naming food groups “Meat and Alternatives” and “Milk and Alternatives” we’ve positioned animal products as the norm and plant-based sources of similar nutrients as differing from the norm or abnormal. This positioning makes it sound like meat and milk are the front-runners and the “alternatives” runners up. This does a disservice to the health and budgets of many Canadians, particularly those living on low incomes, as meat is positioned as something to aspire to and the “alternatives” (which are often more affordable options such as beans, lentils, and tofu) as inferior.

I think that the standard Canadian home-cooked meal is often some variation on meat and potatoes. Having taught cooking classes for people living on low incomes for the past few years I have found that even if participants are open to trying new foods and recipes they are often unable to sell their family members on beans and lentils and other more affordable sources of protein. One of the few negative pieces of feedback we receive is that participants would like more meat in the meals we prepare. For many reasons we emphasize vegetables and “alternative” sources of protein in our classes. Among those reasons are: nutrition, food safety, variety, and affordability. Meat is generally one of the more expensive foods at the grocery store. By creating the impression that meals centred around meat are something to aspire to we’ve really done a disservice to Canadians. The majority of us don’t consume even the minimum recommended servings of vegetables and fruit each day and don’t consume enough fibre.

Milk is widely encouraged as a beverage with meals, on cereal, with snacks, and for sports recovery. It’s been positioned as the beverage for growing children and for seniors for bone health. While not quite as costly as meat, serving for serving, it’s still a pricey beverage in comparison to water and many other drinks. Setting aside vitamin D, which milk is fortified with, there are many other sources of the nutrients we commonly consume milk to obtain. Calcium is found in many leafy green vegetables, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds. Protein is found in beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and tofu.

All this to say, that despite the push-back, I think that (if Canadians pay attention to the new Food Guide when it’s released) ditching the current configuration of food groups, or even just the current naming of food groups, will be beneficial to the health and pocketbooks of most of us. If we stop seeing plant-based sources of protein as “alternative” and start recognizing them for their delicious value then maybe we can get out of that meat and potatoes mentality and start enjoying a wider variety of nutritious meals.


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An open letter to police departments

To Whom it May Concern,

I see that the Ontario Provincial Police, and I’m sure many other police departments across North America, are offering “positive tickets” to youth this summer. These tickets are coupons for free “frosters” a slushie/slurpee beverage from a convenience store chain.

I applaud the police for endeavouring to create positive relationships with children and youth. Police provide an essential service to our communities that is often overshadowed by newsworthy acts of violence, aggression, and intimidation. By fostering positive connections to young people it is more likely that these youth will continue to maintain good relationships with police into adulthood. A good relationship between the police and the community better serves everyone.

A 12oz Mac’s froster contains approximately 222 calories all of which come from its 52 grams (13 teaspoons) of sugar. There are no other nutrients in this beverage. The World Health Organization recommends that consumption of “free sugars” (i.e. added sugars and those found in beverages like fruit juice) be limited to 5% of total calorie consumption per day. This equates to about 5-8 teaspoons of sugar per day for preteens and teenagers. As you can see, just that one froster alone contains about twice the daily recommended limit for free sugars. Excess free sugar can contribute to dental caries. Inadequate consumption of nutrients, due to displacement by nutrient lacking sugary foods and beverages, or excessive consumption of calories resulting from frequent consumption of sugary beverages may result in malnutrition, including obesity, and contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

In addition, using food as a reward can lead to a life-long unhealthy relationship with food. Tying behaviour and emotion to food can result in children using food as a maladaptive coping mechanism as they get older.

I urge you to consider offering a healthier (non-food) alternative to these “positive tickets”. Why not partner with a local community centre to offer free swimming passes? Or a local park to offer free entry? Other options include: movie tickets, tickets to see a local sports team. I’m sure that with a little promotion that many local businesses would be happy to offer rewards in the region(s) you serve. This initiative provides both positive publicity for the police and for the organization donating the “prizes”. Do the health of the youth a favour and support local businesses while you’re at it. This would truly be a positive direction for the police and the community.

Thank you for your consideration.

A concerned dietitian


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Follow Friday: Bay of Quinte Art & Wine @BoQ_Art_Wine

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If you’re in the Belleville area on June 10th you should probably check out the Bay of Quinte Art & Wine Festival happening downtown. There will be local artists showing and selling their works. While perusing the art, you can sample local wine (or beer) and have a snack from a local food vendor, and enjoy the sounds of the Quinte Symphony.

The festival is taking place from 10 am to 8 pm to suit morning and evening people alike. For the latest info about this event, follow them on twitter at @BoQ_Art_Wine. If you’re an artist, food vendor, or beverage producer and would like to get involved, I believe that they still have spaces available so get in touch with them via their website or social media.

The lovely image used on the banner of the BOQ Art& Wine website is of a painting by my talented neighbour (and cat sitter extraordinaire) Claudette Belanger.

 


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Bring on the nanny state

 

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By Marlith (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written before about my reluctance to jump on the soda (why are we calling it soda in Canada, anyway? It’s pop, people) tax bandwagon. I just don’t think that it’s addressing the true problem and it’s once again placing the onus on individuals. I’d much rather see high-fructose corn syrup become less artificially inexpensive to produce so that pop would cost more to manufacture and therefore be sold for more. Start paying the farmers more for the corn. Anyway… I found myself in a weird situation when I read the un-authored (what the heck MacLean’s? Where’s the byline?) editorial about the ill-conceived soda pop tax.

According to the author, the problem with the Senate’s new report on obesity is that it lumps all overweight and obese people into one category. Thus, implying that anyone who surpasses the magical BMI cut-off is unhealthy. I don’t disagree with the fact that it’s possible to be healthy at many different weights, shapes, and sizes. I do take some exception to the argument that overweight people are actually healthier than those of “normal” weight. The problem with studies that suggest this is that they’re not taking into consideration changes in weight and the fact that many people lose weight when they’re ill. This may give the false impression that weight is protecting people from illness rather than showing that unintended weight loss is a consequence of illness.”Healthy” weight people may die younger than overweight people because illness may be missed until it’s too late to treat in people who appear to be healthy.These studies also tend to only look at mortality, giving “healthspan” no consideration. Just because you’re living a longer life doesn’t mean that you have good health or a good quality of life during those extra years.

Anyway… I’m a little off-track from the topic I really wanted to address. Essentially, the author is saying that it’s not the government’s job to “tell us what to eat or how much we should weigh”. It’s suggested that the senate report should have focused more on health promotion, which they define as getting kids more physically active. Sigh.

Health promotion is actually providing people with the tools they need to control and improve their own health. It’s more of a population health approach than an individual approach. As such, a pop tax would be a method of health promotion. As essential as physical activity and exercise are to good health it’s fairly well established at this point that diet has a far greater bearing on weight than exercise does. This pop tax is certainly not the approach I would take toward decreasing obesity rates and improving the health of Canadians. However, it’s better than nothing and if it gets people to drink less pop then that’s a positive outcome. If the author truly believes that the government is not already affecting the food choices of Canadians through policies and systems then they’re sorely mistaken.

I’ve read some very good criticisms of the senate’s report. This editorial was not one of them. If you’re interested, check out Dr Sharma’s blog and this piece by Michael Orsini in the Globe and Mail.