Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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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Who would you rather have as your nanny: Ronald McDonald or Justin Trudeau?

I just read an article about the proposed revisions to Canada’s Food Guide and an article about the predatory tactics of the food industry in Brazil back-to-back and was duly infuriated by both.

I was annoyed by the Food Guide article’s pitting of vegans against dairy farmers and the creation of drama where none is needed. The new Guide is going to be based on science, not industry, not special diet groups. There is nothing to indicate that dairy will be removed from the guide. Just relax. And so what if it takes the environment into account? The original food guide was intended to help prevent nutrient deficiencies during wartime rationing. Why not try to protect our planet while trying to promote healthy eating habits? After all, if we destroy the earth, nutrition won’t really be all that much of a concern. But I digress…

I read the comments on the divisive Food Guide article. I know, I know I should never read the comments. As a dietitian though, I like to know what I’m up against and what the public response is to a tool that I will likely have to promote and use in a professional capacity. Here are a few of them:

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There were people refuting this nonsense but the fact that so many people think that the government should play no role in promoting a healthy diet is baffling to me. Most people agree that diet-related chronic diseases are a significant concern in Canada but think that the government should do nothing to help people prevent them.

Then we have Nestle and other major food companies promoting unhealthy choices everywhere we go. The story of Brazil is particularly egregious but if you think that these companies care any more about residents of Canada, the US, or any other country, you’re sorely mistaken. Junk food marketing is ubiquitous, and it’s everywhere. From use of fast food as fundraisers for health charities to cartoon mascots on food products, to product placement in movies and tv shows, to sponsorship by food companies of athletic teams and events, to paid product placements in stores, and so on.

People complain bitterly about not wanting the government in their grocery carts or kitchens yet they gladly throw open their doors for the food industry. So many would rather have a company that only cares about profits telling them what to eat than a government that cares about improving the health of its citizens. The government isn’t forcing people to eat certain foods and never eat others. Even if milk was removed from the food guide entirely, it’s not like you’d have to start buying black market milk on the dark web. It’s just trying to provide guidance to people to help them make healthy choices.

You’re opposed to the nanny state are you? Well, we already have a nanny state and the food industry is running the show. It’s time for the government to take back some control and put industry in time-out.


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You won’t need a meal plan in the nanny state

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You know what I find ironic? And not Alanis ironic, which is really just crap luck, but genuinely ironic. How vehemently opposed to government “interference” in their lives many people are and how many people ask me to give them meal plans. I’ve had people say to me “just tell me what to eat” (if you’d like to know why I don’t do that, check out this old post). Which is voluntarily completely relinquishing control of what they put in their mouths and people are willing to pay for this service. Yet, people rail on and on about the “nanny state” and how the government should stay out of our kitchens when all public health wants to do is help make it easier for you to make healthier choices.

No one in government wants to tell you exactly what to eat at every meal. Through legislation public health dietitians would like to make nutritionally void foods (like pop and candy) less accessible. We would like to ensure that fast food joints can’t open across the street from schools so that your children aren’t eating shakes and fries every day. We would like to make sure that local food systems are strengthened so that farmers are making living wages and produce is affordable and accessible.

Unlike what people want from a meal plan, we want to make it easy for people to make healthy choices. We don’t want to forbid you from buying pop or chips, we just want to make it easier for you to buy carrots or to fill-up your water bottle.

Why is it that people are so ready to relinquish all control over their diets to a dietitian or nutritionist but when it comes to creating an environment in which making healthy choices would be easier suddenly everyone’s all up in arms?


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Jamie Oliver and the hypocritical sugar tax

Jamie Oliver's Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

Jamie Oliver’s Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

This opinion piece about the proposed sugar tax in the UK left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree, Jamie Oliver is an hypocritical patronizing bully (remember that time he said “poor people” could well afford to cook better meals if they all have tellies?). On the other hand, the alternative solutions to the sugar tax offered in the article are quite likely to be even less effective. And I’m not being instilled with confidence by the author’s bio: “Alex Deane is an Executive Board Member of the People Against Sugar Tax campaign. He has a spare tyre, because he’s freely chosen to eat too much.” 

According to their website the PAST don’t receive any funding from food and beverage companies, only from private individuals. Of course, there’s no telling precisely who those individuals are and whether or not they have any ties to the food industry. PAST states that by not seeking money from food or drinks companies, “It means that people can be confident that our campaign has no conflicts of interests, and that we are the voice of the people”. Assuming it’s true, that all their money comes from people who just really don’t want to pay extra for pop, I’m still not sure that makes them the voice of the people. People who have money to burn on campaigns against campaigns against sugar certainly aren’t likely to be your average citizens. Interesting, considering that their central argument against the sugar tax is that it will be most damaging to people living in poverty. Since when do a bunch of conservatives and libertarians care about people who are struggling to make ends meet? I guess when it’s convenient to use them to make their argument sound noble.

I too have said that a sugar tax will unfairly hurt people living on limited incomes. I too don’t believe that a tax on sugar is the answer. However, I don’t think that the so-called solutions proposed by the PAST are any better, in fact, I think they detract from the real problems. Suggesting that improved nutrition labelling and “encouraging children to do more exercise” are far more patronising “solutions to obesity” in my mind than a sugar tax would be. Come on. These solutions once again place the onus on the individual and as a result imply that we all just need to make better choices. If only we could understand nutrition labels and get off our fat lazy asses a little more we would all be slim and fit and healthy. No matter that neither of these solutions addresses their central argument. You think that people living in poverty are going to benefit from improved nutrition labels and being told to exercise more as long as they don’t have to pay extra tax on pop and candy? This makes no sense at all.

The onus needs to stop being placed on the individuals. Sugary treats should be more expensive. Not because a higher tax is placed on them though, but because the food industry is no longer subsidized and offered tax breaks to create these products. Grocery stores could also stop selling these items as “loss leaders”, stop accepting money from the companies making these products to place them in prominent displays, stop giving them the prime eye-level shelves, and selling them at checkouts. Other stores that by all rights should not be selling food (I’m looking at you office supply stores, house-ware shops…) could stop selling candy and other food. Until we start realising that profit is not the be all and end all, and that the abundance of food, particularly “sometimes” foods that should not be consumed on a daily basis, is actually costing us more as a society in healthcare significant change in obesity rates and lifestyle related diseases is unlikely. We need to change our environment and shift our priorities. The presence or absence of a sugar tax is not the answer and arguing about it is taking us farther away from the real problems at hand.


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When it comes to lunches do parents always know best?

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A few months ago a study claimed to show that school lunches (in the US) were healthier than lunches brought from home. At the time, I considered blogging about it but I really wasn’t sure what to say. It’s such a problematic subject. However, when I came across this article I knew that I had to comment.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the article, or can’t be bothered to read it just now, it’s the story of a dad who fights back against the nanny state at his daughter’s school. She was sent home with a note that read:

Dr. and Mrs. Puckett, The cafeteria reported to me that Alia’s lunch today included four chocolate bars, a bag of marshmallows, Ritz crackers and a pickle. Please see that she packs a proper lunch tomorrow

Upon the line requesting a parental signature, the father wrote “request declined”. The father also states that his daughter did not have four chocolate bars, rather, she had three squares of dark chocolate (two of which were for others). He also denied that she had any Ritz crackers, stating that she had some lunch meat. Because that makes this packed lunch oh so much better.

I understand parents desires not to allow schools and dietitians into their children’s home made lunches. I know that if I had children I would feel much better sending them to school with packed lunches than allowing them to eat the school lunches at which pizza has magically become a vegetable.

My concern with the first study is that it’s very difficult to quantify lunch quality. I’ve worked with school boards and teachers to implement provincial school nutrition policy and I’ve had concerns with such policies. There is something wrong with a chocolate chip granola bar meets school standards, but the same brand of bar with added almonds fails to meet the policy due to excessive fat content. When policies present with issues such as this, I wonder how much healthier the school lunches truly were. If children are bringing lunches which are mostly nutritious but contain one treat would this automatically doom them to failure in comparison to the school lunches? Are the packed lunches consisting of chips and candy skewing the results in the favour of the school lunches? If students dislike the school lunches and don’t eat them, should they still be concluded to be more nutritious than home made lunches?

The issue of the father refusing to sign off on the request that his daughter bring “a proper lunch” is another matter. The teacher who sent the note certainly overstepped his or her bounds. However, a lunch consisting of chocolate, marshmallows, lunch meat, and pickles is certainly not a nutritious balanced meal. I’ve heard stories from teachers in which parents are sending young children to school with large bags of chips and king-sized chocolate bars for recess, with more of the same for lunch. Part of the problem with the angry dad story is that he’s allowing his young daughter to pack her own lunches. As independent as she may be, she is clearly not equipped to be preparing her own lunches. Ideally, she would be working with her parents to determine the contents of her lunch bag. No young child should have free reign over their lunch bag contents. But what should be done about parents who pack their children off to school with chips, candy bars, and pop? Anything? I wish I had a good answer. Some parents don’t have the money, time, education, etc to prepare nutritious lunches for their children. Should we have a mandatory school lunch program for all children who stay at school for lunch?