Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Who would you rather have as your nanny: Ronald McDonald or Justin Trudeau?

I just read an article about the proposed revisions to Canada’s Food Guide and an article about the predatory tactics of the food industry in Brazil back-to-back and was duly infuriated by both.

I was annoyed by the Food Guide article’s pitting of vegans against dairy farmers and the creation of drama where none is needed. The new Guide is going to be based on science, not industry, not special diet groups. There is nothing to indicate that dairy will be removed from the guide. Just relax. And so what if it takes the environment into account? The original food guide was intended to help prevent nutrient deficiencies during wartime rationing. Why not try to protect our planet while trying to promote healthy eating habits? After all, if we destroy the earth, nutrition won’t really be all that much of a concern. But I digress…

I read the comments on the divisive Food Guide article. I know, I know I should never read the comments. As a dietitian though, I like to know what I’m up against and what the public response is to a tool that I will likely have to promote and use in a professional capacity. Here are a few of them:

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There were people refuting this nonsense but the fact that so many people think that the government should play no role in promoting a healthy diet is baffling to me. Most people agree that diet-related chronic diseases are a significant concern in Canada but think that the government should do nothing to help people prevent them.

Then we have Nestle and other major food companies promoting unhealthy choices everywhere we go. The story of Brazil is particularly egregious but if you think that these companies care any more about residents of Canada, the US, or any other country, you’re sorely mistaken. Junk food marketing is ubiquitous, and it’s everywhere. From use of fast food as fundraisers for health charities to cartoon mascots on food products, to product placement in movies and tv shows, to sponsorship by food companies of athletic teams and events, to paid product placements in stores, and so on.

People complain bitterly about not wanting the government in their grocery carts or kitchens yet they gladly throw open their doors for the food industry. So many would rather have a company that only cares about profits telling them what to eat than a government that cares about improving the health of its citizens. The government isn’t forcing people to eat certain foods and never eat others. Even if milk was removed from the food guide entirely, it’s not like you’d have to start buying black market milk on the dark web. It’s just trying to provide guidance to people to help them make healthy choices.

You’re opposed to the nanny state are you? Well, we already have a nanny state and the food industry is running the show. It’s time for the government to take back some control and put industry in time-out.

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Why industry shouldn’t have special input into the food guide

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With the recent public consultation on the new Canadian “food guide” just coming to an end I’ve been noticing a lot of push-back from industry. There was a letter from a MP voicing concern about the new food guide as the new guiding principles seem to be steering people away from animal-based sources of protein and encouraging the consumption of more plant-based proteins. “I am concerned that the guiding principles released by Health Canada for Canada’s new food guide may have significant negative impacts on Canada’s meat and dairy sectors, and also the health of Canadians,” said Miller.

There was also a news clip featuring a spokesman from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association voicing “concern” that Canadians will be nutrient deficient if they replace meat with chickpeas.

There’s been an entire website set-up by Canadian Dairy Farmers entitled “Keep Canadians Healthy” with the message being that people need to drink more (cow’s) milk and that the new food guide is going to “discourage Canadians from consuming dairy and meat products”. They go on to say that, “Left unchecked, Health Canada’s recommendations will not only cripple an important Canadian industry, but have long-term health consequences for all Canadians.” 

These examples are exactly why so many of us dietitians, doctors, and others have been complaining about the direct involvement of industry in developing previous iterations of the food guide. I can understand why those whose livelihood depends on the sale of dairy and beef would be concerned that the new food guide will (likely) not continue to serve as free advertising of their products. Although nobody really pays the food guide much heed anyway when they’re deciding what to put in their mouths.

The purpose of the food guide is to help Canadians to eat healthy. The food guide should be based on the best possible evidence. If you think that the dairy and beef (or any other food industry for that matter) has your health at heart you are sorely mistaken. Their goal is to make more money by selling more product.

As a dietitian, it’s my professional goal to help people to eat better. I don’t have any products to sell. I consume dairy products and meat (although I don’t consume much meat). I’m not trying to destroy the beef or dairy industries. I can honestly tell you that most Canadians would benefit from consuming less meat and that it’s not necessary to drink milk to meet specific nutrient needs. Most of us could stand to consume more plants and more plant sources of protein. It’s highly unlikely that anyone in Canada is going to suffer from nutrient deficiencies because Health Canada finally grew a backbone and stopped allowing industries to shape the food guide. Also, the food guide is not going to be telling people to become vegan or vegetarian, it’s hopefully (and rightfully) going to encourage people to consume less meat and more plants.

No food guide is ever going to be perfect. It’s never going to satisfy everyone and I’m sure that I’ll find something wrong with it when it’s released. However, as I’ve said before, it’s a guide, not a bible. It’s a tool to help people to make healthier choices. By using current evidence to inform the content, we’re already a step closer to a better tool.


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Should the government allow industry to market to kids in schools?

 

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Last week I found out about a new food literacy initiative. According to the introduction to their online survey (which unfortunately only wants input from teachers, principals, and board of education consultants) this initiative will involve visits to schools to provide hands-on healthy eating education opportunities. This initiative is an undertaking of the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

I am all for getting food literacy education back into schools. I think that by educating children from a young age about growing, harvesting, preparing, and enjoying food we could prevent a lot of the unhealthy eating habits and chronic diseases that are so prevalent in our society. However, I don’t think that this should be done by any means necessary, and I see the provision of food literacy education by industry as highly problematic.

This is nothing against milk, or the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Milk is a nutritious food and can (although it doesn’t have to) be part of a healthy diet. I love lots of dairy products. I still don’t think that it’s appropriate for Dairy Farmers of Canada to be providing nutrition education in public schools.

From the Dairy Farmers of Canada website:

Run for farmers by farmers, Dairy Farmers of Canada is the voice of Canadian dairy farmers.

Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) is the national policy, lobbying and promotional organization representing Canada’s farmers living on approximately 12,000 dairy farms. DFC strives to create stable conditions for the Canadian dairy industry, today and in the future. It works to maintain policies that foster the viability of Canadian dairy farmers and promote dairy products and their health benefits.

Dairy farmers fund its operations, including promotional activities.

I think that makes it pretty clear what their mandate is. It’s not to provide unbiased nutrition education to children. It’s to promote their products to consumers. Make no mistake about it, that’s what they would be doing by providing food literacy education to children in schools. They would be marketing to the next generation of consumers.

Would it be appropriate for Coca Cola, McDonald’s, or Frito-Lay to provide food literacy education to a captive group of school children? Just imagine if KFC announced that it would be providing food literacy education to children in schools. Parents and the public would be freaking out. It’s no more acceptable for the dairy industry to be given access to children in schools just because some dairy products are nutritious. It’s highly inappropriate, not to mention ironic, for any food industry lobby group to be marketing to children in schools whether it be under the guise of food literacy education or not.

 


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Hey food industry, get out of RD conferences! #FNCE

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I had a blog post all written for you lovelies, cued-up, ready to go. Then I started seeing the tweets coming out of FNCE (Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo) and I got all annoyed and tweeted what you see above because apparently I’m a masochist. That unleashed a fun afternoon of back-and-forth with fellow RDs on twitter who either don’t see conflict of interest as an issue in our profession or don’t really care.

I keep being about to say “I’m sorry but…” but I’m NOT SORRY DAMMITYou are not immune to marketing. No one is immune. Not me, not you, not anyone and if you think you are then you are the extremely rare exception or you are sorely mistaken. Many dietitians (myself included) regularly bemoan that we can’t get any respect as a profession. Do you really think that showing your influence can be bought with a free sample is helping us to become respected on the same level as other healthcare professionals?

Let me tell you a little tale. Once upon a time I worked in a grocery store (yes, I was an RD at this time). In my position I was responsible for a department, helping customers, teaching classes, providing demos, etc. Myself, and others in the same role at other stores regularly received training, lunch and learns, and samples from vendors. Product knowledge is important if you are talking to customers about food and supplements. The thing is, we didn’t receive training on or samples of all brands. So which products were we more likely to recommend? The ones we’d gotten to try, the ones we felt more connected to. Sure, I never recommended a product that I was morally against (I told people not to buy raspberry ketones if they asked for my opinion)or didn’t genuinely like, but I’m sure that there were equally good alternatives to many products that I didn’t steer people toward because I had no experience with them.

So, when dietitians argue that industry at conferences is fine, I disagree. Sure, walnuts and almonds are great but if they’re the only nuts there what are the chances that dietitians are going to be subconsciously influenced to promote those to their clients over nuts that don’t have representation at the expo? Yoghurt’s great and there are myriad options at grocery stores. If Siggi’s and Chobani are the only yoghurt brands represented at FNCE, which brands do you think that RDs are going to be more likely to choose and recommend?

Some argued that the FNCE is, in part, an expo. True enough, but as a conference organized by the national dietetic organization in the US it’s expected that most attendees will be dietitians. The focus should be on providing them with current evidence-based nutrition information.Having a captive RD audience for marketing at a conference organized by a body that’s meant to represent RDs is reprehensible. It’s time for the FNCE to drop the E.

Lest you still believe that RDs are a higher breed of human and somehow immune to conflicts of interest and marketing tactics, check out the selection of tweets below. Names and handles have been removed because this is not about singling out dietitians, it’s about drawing attention to the larger issue. Kudos to the companies present at FNCE for generating all of these free advertisements. Shame on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for allowing this to occur.

 

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Jamie Oliver and the hypocritical sugar tax

Jamie Oliver's Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

Jamie Oliver’s Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

This opinion piece about the proposed sugar tax in the UK left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree, Jamie Oliver is an hypocritical patronizing bully (remember that time he said “poor people” could well afford to cook better meals if they all have tellies?). On the other hand, the alternative solutions to the sugar tax offered in the article are quite likely to be even less effective. And I’m not being instilled with confidence by the author’s bio: “Alex Deane is an Executive Board Member of the People Against Sugar Tax campaign. He has a spare tyre, because he’s freely chosen to eat too much.” 

According to their website the PAST don’t receive any funding from food and beverage companies, only from private individuals. Of course, there’s no telling precisely who those individuals are and whether or not they have any ties to the food industry. PAST states that by not seeking money from food or drinks companies, “It means that people can be confident that our campaign has no conflicts of interests, and that we are the voice of the people”. Assuming it’s true, that all their money comes from people who just really don’t want to pay extra for pop, I’m still not sure that makes them the voice of the people. People who have money to burn on campaigns against campaigns against sugar certainly aren’t likely to be your average citizens. Interesting, considering that their central argument against the sugar tax is that it will be most damaging to people living in poverty. Since when do a bunch of conservatives and libertarians care about people who are struggling to make ends meet? I guess when it’s convenient to use them to make their argument sound noble.

I too have said that a sugar tax will unfairly hurt people living on limited incomes. I too don’t believe that a tax on sugar is the answer. However, I don’t think that the so-called solutions proposed by the PAST are any better, in fact, I think they detract from the real problems. Suggesting that improved nutrition labelling and “encouraging children to do more exercise” are far more patronising “solutions to obesity” in my mind than a sugar tax would be. Come on. These solutions once again place the onus on the individual and as a result imply that we all just need to make better choices. If only we could understand nutrition labels and get off our fat lazy asses a little more we would all be slim and fit and healthy. No matter that neither of these solutions addresses their central argument. You think that people living in poverty are going to benefit from improved nutrition labels and being told to exercise more as long as they don’t have to pay extra tax on pop and candy? This makes no sense at all.

The onus needs to stop being placed on the individuals. Sugary treats should be more expensive. Not because a higher tax is placed on them though, but because the food industry is no longer subsidized and offered tax breaks to create these products. Grocery stores could also stop selling these items as “loss leaders”, stop accepting money from the companies making these products to place them in prominent displays, stop giving them the prime eye-level shelves, and selling them at checkouts. Other stores that by all rights should not be selling food (I’m looking at you office supply stores, house-ware shops…) could stop selling candy and other food. Until we start realising that profit is not the be all and end all, and that the abundance of food, particularly “sometimes” foods that should not be consumed on a daily basis, is actually costing us more as a society in healthcare significant change in obesity rates and lifestyle related diseases is unlikely. We need to change our environment and shift our priorities. The presence or absence of a sugar tax is not the answer and arguing about it is taking us farther away from the real problems at hand.