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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Why we need to stop with the meat and alternatives

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Ever since the new Food Guide consultations began the dairy and beef industries have been pushing back hard. They’re afraid that if the traditional food groups are dismantled, and if the food guide encourages people to consume more plant-based sources of protein, as has been put forward in the consultation, that there will be decreased consumption of dairy and beef. It’s understandable that they would want to protect their interests. After all, going from being featured prominently in the current (and previous versions) of the Food Guide with food groups named: Milk and alternatives and Meat and alternatives, to receiving little-to-no mention is a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, it’s a hugely positive step for the health and wellness of Canadians.

You see, words matter. “Alternative” is generally different than the norm. According to the dictionary, the definition of alternative is, “one of two or more available possibilities.” By naming food groups “Meat and Alternatives” and “Milk and Alternatives” we’ve positioned animal products as the norm and plant-based sources of similar nutrients as differing from the norm or abnormal. This positioning makes it sound like meat and milk are the front-runners and the “alternatives” runners up. This does a disservice to the health and budgets of many Canadians, particularly those living on low incomes, as meat is positioned as something to aspire to and the “alternatives” (which are often more affordable options such as beans, lentils, and tofu) as inferior.

I think that the standard Canadian home-cooked meal is often some variation on meat and potatoes. Having taught cooking classes for people living on low incomes for the past few years I have found that even if participants are open to trying new foods and recipes they are often unable to sell their family members on beans and lentils and other more affordable sources of protein. One of the few negative pieces of feedback we receive is that participants would like more meat in the meals we prepare. For many reasons we emphasize vegetables and “alternative” sources of protein in our classes. Among those reasons are: nutrition, food safety, variety, and affordability. Meat is generally one of the more expensive foods at the grocery store. By creating the impression that meals centred around meat are something to aspire to we’ve really done a disservice to Canadians. The majority of us don’t consume even the minimum recommended servings of vegetables and fruit each day and don’t consume enough fibre.

Milk is widely encouraged as a beverage with meals, on cereal, with snacks, and for sports recovery. It’s been positioned as the beverage for growing children and for seniors for bone health. While not quite as costly as meat, serving for serving, it’s still a pricey beverage in comparison to water and many other drinks. Setting aside vitamin D, which milk is fortified with, there are many other sources of the nutrients we commonly consume milk to obtain. Calcium is found in many leafy green vegetables, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds. Protein is found in beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and tofu.

All this to say, that despite the push-back, I think that (if Canadians pay attention to the new Food Guide when it’s released) ditching the current configuration of food groups, or even just the current naming of food groups, will be beneficial to the health and pocketbooks of most of us. If we stop seeing plant-based sources of protein as “alternative” and start recognizing them for their delicious value then maybe we can get out of that meat and potatoes mentality and start enjoying a wider variety of nutritious meals.


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Weight Watchers, SNAP, Ultra-processed food, and Front-of package labels: a few short rants

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I have a few things I want to rant about that aren’t really sufficient for full blog posts on their own so I thought I’d do a few mini-posts today.

Weight Watchers

As you’ve probably heard, Weight Watchers announced that they’ll offer free services for teens a few weeks ago. The backlash in the RD community was pretty powerful (check out #wakeupweightwatchers on Twitter). Despite that, I did see a few RDs defending the organization with the argument that overweight and obesity is a health concern for teens and that Weight Watchers has been proven to be effective. While obesity can certainly be a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases, I still don’t think that Weight Watchers is appropriate for teens. While it has been shown to be effective for some adults, there is no evidence to support its efficacy or safety for teens and weight is not the only measure of health (and is not in any manner a measure of worth). I don’t think that it teaches a healthy relationship with food to be considering it in terms of points and weight and I worry that the impact of enrolling a teen in Weight Watchers may be more harmful psychologically and physiologically than beneficial.

SNAP

Apparently the GOP wants to replace some food stamps with a “Harvest Box” that will force “nutritious” foods on recipients. There are soooo many things wrong with this idea. 1. it does not increase food security as providing pre-selected foods to those in need is not allowing them to access food with dignity; 2. dietary needs and preferences vary widely. Will the foods in these boxes be appropriate for men and women and children of all ages and walks of life? Will there be sufficient calories for all ages and lifestyles? What about people who need to consume special diets due to certain conditions (e.g. celiac disease), allergies or intolerances? What about various cultural preferences, religious preferences, or personal preferences? People always complain about “liberals” creating a nanny state but this, this is a true nanny state telling people they are not capable of making their own food choices; 3. This is supposed to save the government money. But when you will now have to source food, package it, and distribute it, as opposed to reloading a debit card I’m really not sure how that will result in any cost savings; 4. What kind of quality will the food be if the point is to save money? I suspect it will not end-up being an improvement over choices people make on their own and there will likely be more food waste due to delivery of unsuitable foods; 5. While assuming the government knows best regarding what people living on limited incomes need the government is perhaps forgetting that people relying on assistance may not have access to all of the kitchen equipment and tools necessary to cook foods provided in these boxes. Not everyone has a full kitchen, power, gas, pots pans, knives, can openers, etc. Time is also often a barrier for people on limited incomes making foods that require lengthy preparation impractical; 6. Has the government consulted with those using SNAP if they would like to receive boxes of preselected food or how they think the system could be improved? A significant issue with many government programs (and many things in general) is that the end user is not consulted making for ineffective and poorly designed services.

Ultra-processed Food

Everyone’s all mad that the classification system for what makes a food ultra-processed isn’t perfect. Yet, we can’t call food “junk food” anymore because that’s offensive even though I don’t think anyone really takes offence to the term and everyone knows what it means. We need some sort of way to categorize food to be able to have meaningful research and discussion. We also need to realise that nothing is perfect and maybe just settle the fuck down and say, “yes, this method has flaws but it’s better than nothing and we will acknowledge that it’s not perfect and deal with it until we have a better way to do things”. Or should we just say eff-it, let the people eat snack cakes?

New Front-of-Package Labels in Canada

Health Canada is currently in the second phase of FOP consultation and you should go have your say. It will only take a few minutes. While they caved to industry and lost the stop sign option, there’s still an opportunity to add your thoughts at the end so, if you want, you can tell them they should make the image more powerful.


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Follow Friday: @HealthCanada consultations

TGIF fellow Canucks and happy early Canada Day!

Want to contribute to helping to make our country healthier? Now’s your chance to have your say. Health Canada has a couple of consultations open until July 25th.

Not a fan of Canada’s Food Guide? Make it better. Give your feedback on the new healthy eating recommendations at foodguideconsultation.ca. I know that I had lots to say but lucky for you, I can’t remember it anymore so you’re on your own.

Think we should stop marketing to kids? I sure do. Give your feedback at healthyeatingconsultations.ca. Pretty much every response I gave was that they should not allow any marketing to kids. I approve of the age range they give (17 and under) but I don’t think that the ban goes far enough. Marketing of “healthy” foods is problematic as it can promote overeating. It also raises the issue of how to appropriately define healthy. I definitely don’t agree with the proposal to allow marketing of things like goldfish crackers and potato chips and french fries – WTF Health Canada!? For more about my thoughts on marketing healthy foods to kids check out this older blog post. For more about marketing to kids in general, check out stopmarketingtokids.ca. Also, I love the campaign by Irish Heart. The video at the start of this post is just one of their great ads.


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Of logical fallacies and opinion pieces

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I wrote the following in response to this Postmedia opinion piece that was published a couple of weeks ago. I did send it to them in the hopes that they would publish it. Unfortunately, I never received a response so onto the blog it goes!

In reading the Point of View Focus on food costs, not advertising bans from Postmedia Network I couldn’t help but wonder if it was written solely to elicit reaction. After all, who could genuinely be opposed to revamping Canada’s Food Guide so that it’s more user-friendly and based on the most current scientific evidence? Who could be opposed to banning advertising of unhealthy foods to children?

The writer sets-up the issue as a false dichotomy. The reader is left feeling that in order to be supportive of efforts to improve food access in the North that they must be opposed to efforts to improve nutrition labelling across Canada, revise the Food Guide, and ban food advertising to children. This is not the case. These are all important issues facing our country and to support some of them does not mean that you are opposed to others. Bringing up the lack of access to affordable food in Northern Canada is a logical fallacy. It’s irrelevant to the matter at hand and only serves to derail the conversation. 

Despite what the author says, the government would not be “pre-empting the work parents have traditionally done, which is watching their children’s diets all by themselves” by implementing a ban on advertising of unhealthy food to children. In fact, the government would simply be supporting parental efforts to foster healthy eating habits in their children through such a ban. With the majority of Canadian children not meeting current minimum recommendations for consumption of vegetables and fruit, clearly the current method of allowing food companies to market to children while parents attempt to fend off the never-ending flow of food marketing is not working. The effectiveness of the advertising ban in Quebec shows that such bans can encourage healthier eating habits in children. Such a ban does not remove the role of parents; it simply supports their efforts to raise healthy eaters.

As for Canada’s Food Guide, many criticisms have been launched against it over the years. However, it’s an important tool for dietitians and teachers to promote healthy eating patterns in children and adults. Unfortunately, the criticisms of The Guide have served to cause many to disregard all of the guidance contained within. Revising The Guide to reflect the most current scientific evidence and responding to public and educator concerns will help to make it a more effective tool, and thus, improve the eating habits of Canadians.

As a registered dietitian, I applaud the efforts of our government to provide a healthier food environment for Canadian children and to promote healthy eating habits among Canadians of all ages. I also encourage the government to address issues of food access and affordability across the country through measures such as increased access to affordable fresh vegetables and fruit, basic income guarantee, and living wages.