Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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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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.


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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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The dirty game of fast food charity #MiracleTreatDay #BurgerstoBeatMS

Last week it was “Burgers to Beat MS Day”. A couple of weeks ago it was “Miracle Treat Day”. Each occasion got me a little riled up and I sent out a few snarky tweets about the “occasions”.

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In case you’re not aware of these clever marketing opportunities fundraising initiatives let me give you a quick run down. On Miracle Treat Day (I feel wrong capitalizing this, these days aren’t worthy of anything more than lowercase) $1 from every blizzard sold in the US and Canada was donated to participating Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. Burgers to Beat MS is pretty much the same except it’s $1 from A&W teen burger sales going to the MS Society of Canada. These are just two examples of fast food aligning themselves with healthcare to detract from the fact that regular consumption of fast food contributes to a number of diseases.

It’s a total win-win. The fast food corporation comes out looking like they’re doing amazing things to cure disease and improve the lives of sick children. They also make money while doing it ($1 is not the cost of a teen burger or a blizzard and most people will buy more than the one item). The hashtags are all over twitter for the day garnering free positive publicity for the company which surely boosts sales well after the one day promotion ends. You really can’t fault the fast food companies for creating such initiatives. I also don’t fault the people buying the blizzards and the burgers. Who doesn’t want to be made to feel like they’re doing a good deed by eating a delicious blizzard or burger? If you can help suffering children or cure MS by eating a treat, why not? The real fault lies with the hospitals and MS Society, and all the other organizations that willingly embrace this form of fundraising. Of course, to be fair, the real real fault lies with the lack of government funding for these vital organizations but the buck has to stop somewhere and I think that hospitals and organizations promoting health should not associate themselves with fundraisers that promote illness.

I’d also like to get people thinking a little bit more critically about charitable fundraising. Dairy Queen proudly proclaims that in 2015, over $5 million was donated to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals across the US and Canada as a result of Miracle Treat Day. In 2014, international DQ sales were $4.1 billion and Dairy Queen was one of the world’s top performing fast food chains. That $5 million that sounds like so much to us average people is less than pennies to DQ. It’s about 0.12% of total sales. $5 million is next to nothing for one hospital’s budget, let alone spread amongst the 170 hospitals in the network. That’s $29, 411 per hospital; about 10% of the cost of an MRI machine or nearly 7% of the salary for one pediatric surgeon. Whereas, assuming the average blizzard size purchased is a medium, DQ is pocketing about $15 million in sales from Miracle Treat Day. This is solely from the sale of blizzards alone, on one day. In comparison, A&W’s Burgers to Beat MS has resulted in a paltry $8 million in donations to the MS Society of Canada over the past seven years.

How sad is it that hospitals and organizations like the MS Society are so desperate for funding that they’re willing to provide marketing for fast food chains and to encourage the consumption of less than nutritious foods for a little more funding?

No, I am not opposed to burgers and blizzards. However, I don’t think that we need to be encouraged to consume these foods anymore than we already do. How does raising a little money for one chronic disease justify the development of other chronic diseases incurred by the regular consumption of fast food? At what expense are these “healthcare” organizations willing to get a few bucks? I know that many people think “it’s just one treat” but when it’s something you’re only buying because you’re being made to feel good about it by the charity aspect and these events are happening on the regular it’s never “just one”. It’s part of a broader problem in our food environment. There’s constant justification for the consumption of treats and foods that should be consumed infrequently. There is no excuse for promoting heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, and type two diabetes under the guise of supporting hospitals and health charities.

I implore the hospitals and charities not to participate in such fundraising endeavours. I beg the government to start allocating more of my tax dollars to healthcare funding; especially toward health promotion and disease prevention.

It’s not all on the government and organizations though. As long as we as consumers continue to support these promotions with our money, our mouths, and our hashtags, the companies and organizations involved will continue to conduct them. The next time one of these days comes around please consider donating the money you would have spent on fast food to a charity of your choice. If you do participate in the fundraiser please don’t share it on social media. Dairy Queen, A&W, and all of the other fast food chains don’t need your free advertising.

 

 


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Nutrition sponsorship scandal

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Excerpt from the Nova Scotia Dietetic Association’s Private Practice Guidelines

In the wake of the Olympics I thought that it would be timely to write about product endorsement. Every time the Olympics roll around there’s much hullabaloo about sponsorship and the promotion of crap food like McDonald’s. But the promotion of food is not just associated with the Olympics. It’s going on all the time and marketers are getting savvier about it. Enter the role of dietitians.

As dietitians we position ourselves as the experts on nutrition and healthy eating. We’re constantly battling misinformation and trendy diets, telling people to come to us for guidance in making better food choices. We are the unsexy voice of reason in a sea of cold-pressed juice and expensive shakes. Who better than dietitians then to promote food, beverages, and supplements?

I see so many Tweets, Instagram photos, and blog posts by dietitians promoting myriad brands of food, drink, and supplements. I took a little scroll through some prominent Canadian media RDs Twitter feeds when I was considering writing about this topic. I found a number of sponsored posts; some obviously so and others not. Because this isn’t about pointing fingers, making enemies, and in-fighting, I’ve decided not to share any of these posts with you. Many of them come from excellent dietitians. Perhaps they truly believe in the products they’re promoting. Is it wrong to make money from promoting a product that you like and believe others could benefit from? It’s also a hard truth that we all need to pay the bills and making a living as a private practice dietitian can be extremely difficult.

The problem with dietitians promoting brands and products is that it churns up the murky conflict of interest waters. There is no way for us to know if the dietitian tweeting about a supplement or posting a photo of their branded snack honestly believes in the value of the product. In promoting a product, ethically, a dietitian needs to believe that it would be beneficial to those they’re promoting it to. When you’re posting things to social media you’re posting them to anyone else using that platform. It’s pretty near impossible to know if the people looking at your posts are going to benefit from the products you’re promoting.

As dietitians, our first responsibility lies with the public. It’s our job to help people meet their nutritional needs and goals. When we promote products we may be undermining those goals. As much as I’m loathe to see athletes and pop stars promoting pop and fast food, they don’t have that same ethical obligation. While it’s true that dietitians aren’t generally promoting such nutritionally void products, we still need to be extra careful about the message that we’re sending to people. Seeing the promotion of a sports supplement or an energy bar by a dietitian sends the message to the public that these things are healthy and they should be consuming them.

I mentioned earlier that some of the sponsored posts were obviously sponsored while others were not so clear. Some dietitians have put a note in their profile that they are spokespersons for certain brands. Others use hashtags like #ad and #spons when posting about a product. Others don’t have any indication that a post is sponsored so maybe they’re just huge fans of a product or maybe they don’t make their affiliation readily apparent. If I, another registered dietitian, can’t tell if a post is sponsored, how can anyone from the public be expected to?

The sad truth is, I’ve gotten to the point where every time I see a post by an RD in which a specific brand is mentioned I automatically assume that it’s sponsored and discount the value of the product. And that’s not good. Not being upfront about our conflicts of interest and potential biases undermines our credibility. We have enough trouble gaining the confidence of the public without undermining ourselves. I’m not saying that all dietitians should stop promoting all products. There are some brands that I genuinely love and could theoretically be convinced to promote. We’ve all got to pay the bills and if you can do so by marketing a product that you believe in then power to you. However, people shouldn’t have to dig to find out if a dietitian is being compensated to promote products. We need to be upfront about our affiliations so that the public has all of the information they need to make an informed decision about whether or not the product they’re seeing posted by their fave dietitians is for them.