Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Call in the food police, we’ve got another unruly body

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I feel the need to expand on something I touched on in my post last week. It’s related to people judging dietitians on the basis of our weight. My previous post mainly discussed why it’s inappropriate to judge anyone’s professional abilities, including dietitians, on the basis of their perceived size. However, I think this all too common judgement also speaks to the lack of understanding of what we do.

There’s a common (mis)perception that dietitians are all weight loss counsellors. As a result, if we don’t have that elusive “perfect body” people think that we suck at our jobs. After all, what else do we do other than police the food people put into their mouths. If we can’t control the food going into our own mouths, how on earth can we possibly control the food going into the mouths of all the other owners of “unruly” bodies. While some dietitians certainly do work in weight management, even those dietitians are not actually food police. The majority of dietitians don’t work in weight management. Curious what a dietitian actually does, check out this old post.

It is not part of my job to control my body so that it fits your perceived notion of healthy and fit. Whether or not I am large has no bearing on my knowledge of nutrition. It does not impede my ability to calculate a tube feed, modify a recipe, expound on celiac disease, or help someone with diabetes manage their blood sugar. Just as being small and having no knowledge of nutrition does not automatically imbue me with the capacity to do these things. As with any profession, the size of a dietitian is not a reflection of their knowledge, experience, or capability.

Dietitians do So Much More than help people lose weight. Despite the impression that our name gives, we are not all about putting people on diets. For many of us, aside from medically necessary diets (for example in the case of allergy sufferers or those with celiac disease) “diet” is a four letter word. We’re not all on a mission to rein in unruly bodies and create a world populated solely by thin bodies. When we do work in positions of counsel we usually aim to help people to gain greater compassion for, and appreciation of their own bodies. To help people view food as a source of pleasure rather than an enemy out to destroy our hard-fought-for chiselled physiques.


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What good can come out of teachers acting as food police?

 

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School lunch in Korea photo by Cali4Beach on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Last week I read an article in the Toronto Star about Toronto-area parents outrage at teachers allegedly policing children’s lunches. Of course, this sort of thing is contrary to school nutrition policies which apply only to food served in schools (and from what I’ve heard are rarely adhered to anyway which is a whole other kettle of fish). Teachers should never be policing students lunches. That sort of behaviour is completely inappropriate and could easily lead to disordered eating in children. Fellow RD Abby Langer covers more of the concerns in her column in the Huffington Post.

I’m sure that teachers weren’t allowed to speak to the press about the issue and that’s why the article only quoted parents and school board administration. I do think that’s a shame because I can’t help but wonder if at least some of these situations were simply a lack of communication. We are talking about young children telling their parents what their teachers allegedly said to them. There could be some distortion like you see in the telephone game that we played as children. The message starts as one thing at the beginning and by the time it reaches the end of the “line” it doesn’t even remotely resemble the original message. I’d like to see the teachers be given at least a little bit of the benefit of the doubt and I think it’s a real shame that we didn’t get to hear their side of the story.

Regardless of what’s been happening here I think this provides a great opportunity to talk about how this situation could be improved. We know that many kids are going to school with nutritionally lacking lunches and snacks. We know that school nutrition policies aren’t working. Why not start talking about implementing a national school lunch program? As one parent in the Star article said, “Unless the school wants to provide lunches, I don’t really think it’s their business.” Why not have the schools provide lunches for all the children? A national publicly funded school lunch program could provide children with nutritious, balanced lunches as well as an opportunity for education.

My boyfriend showed me a portion of Michael Moore’s latest documentary on Netflix, Who to Invade Next. In it we saw children in France being served lunch as if they were in a restaurant. Each school had a chef who planned the menus (I think with the input of a dietitian) and prepared the food. The children had a full hour for lunch and it was treated in the same manner as any other subject at school. Learning to appreciate food and interacting with fellow students and cafeteria staff was seen as just as valuable as math and science.

If every school treated lunch as an educational opportunity and provided students with nutritious lunches then this issue of teachers acting as food police would be moot. It would also help to provide a degree of equity to students so that no matter the circumstances at home every student would have the same balanced lunch.


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Who polices the food police?

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You know how everyone thinks that dietitians are the food police (spoiler: we’re not)? I find it a bit ironic (no, not like rain on your wedding day, that’s just crap luck) that everyone seems to believe that we’re secretly judging every morsel they eat. Honestly, I generally pay very little notice to the lunches of others; unless they consume a Monster energy drink and a chocolate bar on the daily in which case I dare you not to pass judgement. At any rate, I find that others are far more likely to pass judgement on what I’m eating when they know I’m a dietitian than I am to pass judgement on them.

I’ve had people say things to me like “but you’d never eat that” when discussing a chocolate cake recipe and then show genuine shock when I reply “of course I would, I love chocolate”. When I ate lunch at work I would have co-workers examining the contents of my lunchbox, often either expressing their distaste at my “fear factor” food or amazement that I was eating something “normal” like spaghetti. My lunch was a constant source of scrutiny and discussion. And yes, some days I lived up to their expectations with a kale salad in a jar or a glory bowl but dietitians can’t live on superfoods alone. Sometimes we enjoy a cookie, chips, or chocolate bar.

I also experience a weird pressure when faced with food at work events or when offered food by a co-worker. Maybe I’m just paranoid, like everyone who thinks that I’m judging their lunches, but I always feel like my decision faces extra scrutiny simply because of my profession. When offered a chocolate my thought process is: “should I take this to show that I’m cool too, I’m not some health freak dietitian that subsists solely on green smoothies and quinoa? Or should I politely decline to set a good example, show them that I’m a good healthy dietitian and quietly eat my chocolates behind closed doors at home?” I feel like no matter what my decision it’s going to be “wrong” so I decide based on whether or not I actually want that treat at that time and whether or not I’ve already had a treat that day or will be having one later and just hope that people aren’t thinking “look at her, she thinks she’s so much better than us not having a candy”.

In truth, it really doesn’t matter what others are thinking of me and my food choices. In fact, I’m (hopefully) just being as paranoid as you are when you think that a dietitian is judging your food choices.


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Don’t let them eat KD; only the best for the poor

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I had a mixed reaction reading this article about a food bank rejecting “unhealthy” food items last week. Of course, I think that they should reject opened packages and half-eaten items. It’s extremely insulting that anyone would “donate” things like a package of opened pepperoni sticks to the food bank. A donation box is not synonymous with a garbage can. However, removing items such as Kraft dinner or candy is not right.

 

It’s understandable that the food bank staffer(s) doing this think that people relying on food banks deserve to have healthy food. I’m sure that this culling of donations is done with the best of intentions. However, it’s not the place of the food bank staff to decide what food items are suitable for patrons. They should certainly remove any potentially hazardous expired, damaged, or opened items. They should not remove items based on perceived nutritional shortcomings.

 

Everyone, including those in need, are deserving of a treat now and then. The food bank patrons can decide whether or not they wish to take a package of Swedish Berries. That’s not a decision to be made by anyone else. Removing these items in advance (and what’s being done with them? Are they just being pitched?) reeks of elitism. Also, considering that most donation boxes are only able to accept non-perishable food items, this leaves limited donation options. People who are donating may not be wealthy either, but they may be able to afford an extra box of Kraft Dinner to donate when it goes on special.

 

Another problem with the proclamation that food bank patrons deserve healthy food is that many people to not have the facilities or abilities to cook even basic meals at home. Do you know what to do with a turnip? A can of chickpeas? (Okay, I know that you’re not the masses). Many people don’t. Donating many of these items to food banks simply leads to more waste. I don’t want to discourage you from donating these things. Unfortunately, the reality is that these are often the last items to go.

 

If you really want to make a donation that will help, donate money or time to your local food bank or community kitchen.


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The argument against school box lunch police

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A school in Ontario has decided to ban students from eating “junk” food on school property. This means that any student sent to school with a chocolate bar or other banned food will be asked to take it home with them to consume. Unfortunately, there’s no list of criteria, or banned foods, available online. The principal does say that there will be some exceptions around holidays and while chocolate bars are a no-no, granola bars are fine. Sigh. There are a few issues I have with this policy. No, I am not concerned about the Nanny State. Honestly, considering our inability to care for ourselves properly as a society I think that we would all benefit from a little nannying.

My primary concern is the seeming lack of understanding of food insecurity. No matter how many celebrity chefs will publicly state that healthy eating is cheaper than eating “junk” there are still going to be a disproportionate number of food insecure families relying on packaged, processed foods. This is partially because of the perception that healthy food is expensive, and in some cases this is true. It’s also because food insecurity is a complex issue. Many people lack food skills to prepare healthy meals and snacks for their families. There may also be a lack of access to kitchen tools and appliances necessary for the preparation of many healthy options. There may also be a lack of time available to prepare healthy snacks, or a means to transport fresh vegetables home from the grocery store. To ban children from bringing “junk” food to school is an act of privilege which will only serve to ostracize children from less privileged families.

My second concern is with how this ban might affect eating habits later in life. Teaching children that some foods are forbidden, but then sending them home to eat them could potentially contribute to disordered eating later in life. While I don’t support the sale of nutritionally void foods at schools – schools should be providing children with the best possible nutrition for learning and growth and should not be turning a profit from selling them “junk” – I don’t think that policing lunch boxes is healthy. Imagine being a 6 year-old child sent to school with a cookie and being told you weren’t allowed to eat it at school. What lesson is this instilling? Is it teaching the child to make healthy choices. I don’t think so. I think it’s instilling a sense of shame and promoting “secret” eating. Children are extremely impressionable and this is when we should be ensuring that they develop lifelong healthy relationships with food.

My final concern is more with the practicality of implementing this policy. Who is going to be responsible for searching students’ lunches, backpacks, coat pockets for contraband? How much time will this take away from the ever deteriorating curriculum? How will it be decided which foods fit and which foods are banished? As many granola bars are essentially chocolate bars in disguise as health food is there really much point in implementing a ban on chocolate bars but allowing granola bars? What about home-made treats? How will the teacher (or other food policer) know if a muffin is healthy or essentially an un-iced cupcake?

I really do think that we need to be feeding children better diets and teaching them to enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods. However, I don’t think that policing children’s lunches is going to do anything to achieve these objectives. In fact, I think it’s liable to do more harm than good.