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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Finally weighing in on the NYC soda ban

I’ve been finding the response to NYC’s recent ban on the sale of pop (soda to you Americans) in containers larger than 16 oz interesting, and telling. A recent poll in the States found that many citizens are opposed to government involvement in deciding what we eat. These respondents don’t want the government to restrict pop size, post calories, or limit fast food outlets. The notion that the government isn’t already deeply involved in determining our diets is a little naive. Why do you think that pop is so inexpensive anyway? Government subsidies to sugar producers, that’s why.

The main reasons people cite for not eating healthily are lack of time and affordability. Why do we lack time? Because our society has been constructed around the notion that putting in long hours at sedentary jobs is ideal. Why are healthy foods (at least perceived to be) less affordable than their unhealthy counterparts? Because ingredients that go into “junk” foods are often subsidized by the government, allowing the food industry to produce them cheaply and advertise them relentlessly.

The government decides how our cities are built, what developers are given permits to build. The government is already deeply involved in the lengthy process of determining what and when foods pass through your lips. These decisions may not be as obvious as bans on big gulp sodas, but in a way that makes them even more important because we’re not consciously aware of their impact on our lives. We live in an obesogenic environment. It’s currently far harder to be a healthy weight than is it be overweight or obese. This is not a matter of personal choice.

Banning large soda sales is a great step in the right direction. No one ever needs to have a pop as big as 16 oz, let along larger. Clearly we are unable to avoid the lure of “value” for our money. We need to government to step in and help us to help ourselves. As I said before, as long as we’re going to act like children we are in need of a so-called nanny state.