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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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.