Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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So you don’t want the government in your kitchen

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According to Wikipedia, “A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, often a state.[1] A government is like a clan with the purpose to govern the whole family or whole nation with powers of financial, military and civil laws. The main purpose of government is to seek the welfare of the civilians and to fulfill their need for the betterment of the nation.”

Canadians have a poor understanding of government. This comes as no surprise to me as I frequently see people complaining that the government should merely educate people about making healthy choices rather than introducing legislation that would make it easier for us to make healthy choices and/or harder to make unhealthy choices.  People want the government to stay out of their kitchens, shopping carts, restaurants, etc. This attitude shows a great deal of privilege, and ignorance.

To be able to afford to choose what we want to eat when we want to eat it is a measure of privilege. There are many people in Canada (and other countries) who don’t have that luxury. People who have no choice in what they eat, who can only afford or access limited options, people who go hungry.

Policies, subsidies, taxes (and tax breaks), legislation, and tariffs are all factors influenced by government that impact how much we pay for various products. Unlike something like a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, the consumer doesn’t directly see the effect of these factors on the price they pay at the cash register so they often don’t even realise just how much the government is influencing the cost of food. Also, there is a certain judgement value that comes with a tax like a SSB tax; taxes such as this are often referred to as “sin taxes”.

Yes, elected officials serve us and we essentially hire them to represent us in government. However, it’s also their job to “seek the welfare of the civilians”. So, what should the government do when our desires “I want to eat chips and drink pop for breakfast, lunch, and supper” are diametrically opposed to our welfare? It’s a tricky question. I certainly don’t want the government telling me what I can and can’t eat; and I’m a dietitian! I also know that education is not the (sole) answer.

Most people have a decent understanding of which foods they should be eating more of, and which they should be eating less of. Simply telling people to eat more vegetables and drink less pop is unlikely to result in any change in eating habits. I do think the government has a role to play in helping us to adopt healthier eating behaviours.

In terms of education, rather than simply promoting messages and plastering billboards telling us what foods to eat (or to limit) or putting calories on menus (ahem), the government should be making food literacy a mandatory component of the curriculum in schools. Children should be learning where food comes from, how to prepare it, how to read nutrition facts panels and ingredient lists, and how to find credible nutrition information in a sea of goop.

Beyond education, the government should be looking at the factors that influence our food choices. The most commonly cited of these factors are: access, affordability, time, and personal preference. A little brainstorming about these:

  • Access: there could be legislation about where fast food outlets can be located and ensuring there are grocery stores, markets, or convenience stores stocking nutritious foods to serve all communities. Many grocery stores are now offering delivery options; perhaps the government could support these initiatives.
  • Affordability: while it’s a bit of a myth that healthy eating has to be expensive, there can be more of an up-front cost to purchasing food for a healthy meal than there is to buy a burger and fries. In addition to creating policies and subsidies that would make healthier foods such as fresh produce more affordable, the government could also look to the creation of affordable housing, better transit systems, and basic income guarantees (BIG) so that people have more money in their pockets for nutritious food.
  • Time: part of the food literacy education in schools would serve to show people that it is possible to make a quick, healthy, and tasty meal. In addition to this, the government could pass legislation around work hours so that more people could have flexibility in their days and more time to prepare food. BIG would also support this as it would provide value for labour in the home. If our society put more value on food preparation and family meal times then as individuals we would be more likely to put in the time to cook and eat together.
  • Personal preference: this is a little trickier for the government to address. However, given the other measures, I think that an increase in appreciation for nutritious food would follow. If parents have more time and money and access to nutritious food, then they’d be more likely to choose these foods. Particularly if they’ve had exposure to these foods from a younger age through things such as food literacy education in schools.

The government is already in your kitchen, in your shopping cart, in restaurants, on the farm, in the grocery store. No one is saying that the government should ban the consumption of pop, or any other food. Rather than removing personal choice, legislation can serve to give more choice to those who are currently limited by their circumstances, and make it easier for all of us to make healthier choices.


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The true cost of healthy eating

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I’ve ranted about the problem with the over-simplification of food insecurity before but I’d like to expand on that rant. Someone recently shared a link to a recipe for Spicy Tuna Guacamole Bowls on Budget Bites. I thought that they looked yummy so I bookmarked the recipe. The recipe does look great, and I do plan to make it, but I have an issue with the costing.

 

The cost for each ingredient is based on the quantity used in the recipe. Obviously, most ingredients cannot be purchased in such exacting amounts. Thus, the cost presented for the recipe is not an accurate reflection of what the meal actually costs to make. Yes, you may already have some of the ingredients in your pantry, but let’s assume that you don’t.

 

I priced out the ingredients needed for the recipe at my local grocery store. It may not be the least expensive place to shop but we also need to bear in mind that if you are food insecure you may not have a car, or the time, to afford the luxury of shopping around. In cases where there was more than one option available I selected the least expensive item. Here is my costing:

 

Brown rice: $3.99

Cucumber: $.99 (this is not the lovely English cuke, but the kind with the skin you need to peel and the tough seeds because the English cuke was $2.99!)

Frozen shelled edamame: $3.69

Carrots: $2.89 (there were no loose carrots so I had to buy a whole bag even though the recipe only called for one)

2 cans of chunk light tuna: $3.58

Container of guacamole: $4.69 (In this case, an avocado would have been cheaper at $.99, on special, so we’ll go with that option.)

Cilantro: $2.49

Sriracha: $4.99

GRAND TOTAL: $23.61, or $5.90 per serving.

 

That’s not a bad price for a meal but it’s a far cry from the “$7.45 recipe / $1.86 serving” stated on the website.

 

Out of curiousity, I decided to go back an price out the Bittman infographic that prompted the original rant.

 

Romaine lettuce: $3.99

Potatoes: $1.89 (these were available singly so I weighed four of them)

Lemon: $.79

Whole wheat bread: $2.69 (I cringed to choose the cheap “whole wheat” not “whole grain wheat” variety. I also question the inclusion of this in the meal. Potatoes should suffice as a starch.)

Chicken: $14.30 (ouch!)

Milk: $2.28 (for one litre)

Olive Oil: $5.99 (This was the smallest, most affordable option. Fortunately, it was available in extra virgin.)

Salt: $1.99

Pepper: $5.19

GRAND TOTAL: $39.11, or $9.78 per serving.

 

Bittman had this meal priced at $13.78 total.

 

While many people will have some staples in their pantries, others will not, and these items will need to be replaced at some point. It’s also important to note that there is the hidden cost of labour incurred when preparing meals at home. The time spent grocery shopping and cooking and washing dishes is all time for which you are not being paid. It is time that would be saved by picking up a fast food meal.

 

This is not intended to discourage you from eating healthy and cooking meals at home. For those of us who are not food insecure, cooking for yourself (and your family) is probably the single most important thing that you can do for your health. It can also be a great way to bond with family members or housemates and involving children in food prep encourages them to enjoy new foods. With planning and budgeting, healthy home cooked meals are attainable by most of us. However, for those of us who are struggling to make ends meet, and for whom time and calories may outweigh cooking and nutrition, these calculations of meal costs are erroneous.


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Are these 27 foods you should never buy again?

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Reader’s Digest published the article 27 foods you should never purchase again. Reasons given include: being a rip-off, being gross, being fake, and being “drastically” unhealthy. Here’s my take on the list:

1. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is apparently over-priced in comparison to other flavourful hard cheeses. Depending on the prices at your grocery store this may be true. As they state, Pecorino Romano makes a nice substitute.

2. Smoked and cured meats are too fatty and are linked to a number of health problems. I certainly don’t think that bacon and sausages should be every day foods. However, I think that there is no problem with consuming them once in a while. Bacon is delicious.

3. “Blueberry” items often don’t contain any actual blueberries. Read the ingredients. Make an informed decision.

4. Multi-grain bread “is junk food masquerading in a healthy disguise.” They suggest checking the label for “whole wheat” as the first ingredient. Sure, the bread section of your grocery store can be difficult to navigate. However, it’s not necessarily a junk food and you should be looking for whole grain on the label, not whole wheat.

5. Reduced fat peanut butter fat is replaced with sugar. I’m on board with this one. Go with natural nut butters that contain nothing other than nuts.

6. Bottled tea is expensive and contains lots of sugar and calories. Good advice; brew your own at home and sweeten minimally.

7. Tomato-based pasta sauces are over priced. Sure, this may be the case but for those who are time-pressed taking an hour to make their own tomato sauce may not be viable. If you have the time, go for it. If you don’t, and you have the money, check the ingredients and don’t feel bad about buying a jar or can of tomato sauce. Add extra veggies for more nutrients.

8. Swordfish are high in mercury. True. Go for smaller fish, lower down the food chain.

9. Energy drinks are “sugar bombs” and have been linked to adverse health effects. No argument from me on this one!

10. Gluten-free baked goods unnecessary if you don’t have a condition that means you can’t have gluten, may be high in calories, and expensive. I agree that this items may be less nutritious than their glutenous counterparts. However, for those on gluten-free diets they can be nice to have. And some of them can be nutritious. As always, read the label.

11. Flavoured non-dairy milks are expensive and unhealthy. Well, yes, you should avoid the sweetened non-dairy milk, but you can buy unsweetened vanilla and chocolate non-dairy milks. For the many people who are lactose intolerant, allergic to cow’s milk, or vegan, nut, grain, and seed milks provide a viable alternative. They can also be a nice change for anyone. As always, read the label to make sure that it’s fortified (so that you’re getting the calcium and vitamin D and other micronutrients that you would get from cow’s milk) and also, be aware that these milks are not a good source of protein.

12. Foods made of WOOD – Cellulose is actually wood shavings. While cellulose is found in plants, it does appear that the cellulose used as a food additive is wood pulp used to add fibre and impart a creamy mouth-feel. I’m not sure if this is anything to get too worked-up about. Cellulose from a tree should be the same as cellulose from a plant. Still, it’s best to minimize your highly processed packaged food consumption so it’s something to bear in mind.

13. White rice is associated with higher diabetes risk. Yes, it’s always best to go with whole grains but having white rice every now and again isn’t going to kill you.

14. ‘Gourmet’ frozen vegetables are easily made on your own. Agreed. Unadulterated frozen veg are a great thing to have on-hand. They’re affordable, nutritious, and keep for months in the freezer. However, when you get into the “gourmet” ones you’re getting added fat and salt and probably other things. Far better (for your health and your bank account) to add your own herbs and spices when you’re cooking.

15. Microwave sandwiches you’re paying for packaging and additives. These things are so far off my radar! Definitely a waste of money. If you don’t have time and ingredients to make your own sandwich for lunch most grocery stores have delis at which you can purchase freshly made sandwiches which they can even grill for you.

16. Premium frozen fruit bars are overpriced; you should make your own. Yes, you can make far better flavours at home if you have time and freezer space and if they’re your sort of thing.

17. Boxed rice ‘entree’ or side-dish mixes may have added flavours but they also have considerable added cost. Yep, best to add your own herbs and spices. Try cooking in broth or coconut milk for extra flavour as well.

18. Energy or protein bars are expensive and full of sugar, fat, and calories. Yes, many of them (and granola bars) are candy bars masquerading as health foods. However, some of the better ones (again, read the label) can be handy snacks or meal replacements to have on-hand in a pinch.

19. Spice mixes may seem like a good way to reduce the number of spices you have to buy but usually contain a lot of salt. Again, check the label. But, I generally agree with this. Best to keep staple spices on-hand and make your own blends and rubs.

20. Powdered iced tea mixes or prepared flavoured iced tea are expensive and full of unhealthy ingredients. Umm… See #6.

21. Bottled water is expensive and environmentally unfriendly. Not to mention, provided your tap water is potable, it’s usually less safe than tap water. As they mention, there are occasions when bottled water may be a necessary purchase. In general, stick with tap.

22. Salad kits are expensive. Those added croutons and chips and whatever else they come with these days aren’t great for you either. Yes, if you can use up all of the ingredients you’d need to make your own salad before they go bad, this is the best option. If you can’t, check out the ready-made salads in the deli dept.

23. Individual servings of anything are expensive; buy a big package and portion out your own. While most of the foods that come in this format tend to be nutritionally void, if you’re going to buy them anyway and you struggle with portion control I do think that they can serve a purpose.

24. Trail mix pre-bagged is expensive, make your own. Any way you slice it, nuts and dried fruit are going to be expensive. Sure, make your own if you want, but also go for mixes in the bulk food section or hit-up a bulk food store. Don’t forget that trail mixes are very calorie dense. Watch your serving sizes!

25. Snack or lunch packs are overpriced and full of salt. Agreed. These are not good choices. Make your own healthy bento-box lunches for your kids instead. Use fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain crackers or flat breads, “real” cheese or meat.

26. Gourmet ice cream is expensive and there’s usually a cheaper brand that’s just as good. True, many store-labels are manufacturer by brand-name labels. Ice cream should be a “sometimes” food anyway though so price might not matter and you might be better off getting a small tub to avoid eating too much in one sitting.

27. Pre-formed meat patties are more expensive than making your own and may have an increased risk of bacterial contamination. Added bonus: when you make your own you can add special spices and chopped onion and jalapeno.

While it does seem that I agree with much of this list. There were a few additional comments I added that I feel are worth consideration.