Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Can we take chocolate milk out of politics already?

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You would think that I wouldn’t have anything left to say about chocolate milk by now. I wish that you were right. I would have thought that I wouldn’t either until I read this article the other day about the school nutrition policy in New Brunswick and the current provincial election there. This uninformed inane quote from the leader of the PC party got me all riled up again:

“Brian Gallant is focused on taking chocolate milk away from our kids,” Higgs said in a press release. “I’d rather accomplish the same thing by giving our kids better access to organized sports activities and the character-building experience that come from participating in activities with peers.”

Higgs said in a press release that his government would scrap the nutrition policy entirely because, despite the importance of educating children about good nutrition, “we think helping them participate in activities with their peers is the goal – not legislating what’s on the menu.”

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to tear out my hair. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand and sends the entirely wrong message to the public.

The first quote implies that 1. the issue at hand is obesity and 2. that we can compensate for whatever we eat through exercise. These are both patent falsehoods.

To address the first issue: the purpose of school nutrition policies is not to address childhood obesity. The purpose of school nutrition policies is to ensure that children are being provided with nutritious food when they’re at school. Schools should not be making money at the direct cost of the health of their students. In some cases, the only nutritious food that children receive may be when they’re at school. This has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with health, growth, and development.

To address the second issue: as much as we may all wish that it’s true, no amount of exercise can compensate for an unhealthy diet. Playing soccer is not somehow going to miraculously provide a child with vitamins and minerals and essential nutrients that are lacking from their diet. That’s just not how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, healthy eating and physical activity are not two sides of one coin, they are both essential components of a healthy lifestyle.

The message that the would-be premier is sending here is the widespread misconception that health is measured by the scale and that we can make-up for an unhealthy diet by exercising more. This is just not true.

Finally, to address the second quote: we know that education (insofar as that means telling people what to eat, giving them a copy of Canada’s Food Guide, and lecturing them about calories) doesn’t work. However, creating a supportive nutrition environment in which healthy eating is the norm, along with teaching food literacy, can teach children life-long healthy eating habits.


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What good can come out of teachers acting as food police?

 

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School lunch in Korea photo by Cali4Beach on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Last week I read an article in the Toronto Star about Toronto-area parents outrage at teachers allegedly policing children’s lunches. Of course, this sort of thing is contrary to school nutrition policies which apply only to food served in schools (and from what I’ve heard are rarely adhered to anyway which is a whole other kettle of fish). Teachers should never be policing students lunches. That sort of behaviour is completely inappropriate and could easily lead to disordered eating in children. Fellow RD Abby Langer covers more of the concerns in her column in the Huffington Post.

I’m sure that teachers weren’t allowed to speak to the press about the issue and that’s why the article only quoted parents and school board administration. I do think that’s a shame because I can’t help but wonder if at least some of these situations were simply a lack of communication. We are talking about young children telling their parents what their teachers allegedly said to them. There could be some distortion like you see in the telephone game that we played as children. The message starts as one thing at the beginning and by the time it reaches the end of the “line” it doesn’t even remotely resemble the original message. I’d like to see the teachers be given at least a little bit of the benefit of the doubt and I think it’s a real shame that we didn’t get to hear their side of the story.

Regardless of what’s been happening here I think this provides a great opportunity to talk about how this situation could be improved. We know that many kids are going to school with nutritionally lacking lunches and snacks. We know that school nutrition policies aren’t working. Why not start talking about implementing a national school lunch program? As one parent in the Star article said, “Unless the school wants to provide lunches, I don’t really think it’s their business.” Why not have the schools provide lunches for all the children? A national publicly funded school lunch program could provide children with nutritious, balanced lunches as well as an opportunity for education.

My boyfriend showed me a portion of Michael Moore’s latest documentary on Netflix, Who to Invade Next. In it we saw children in France being served lunch as if they were in a restaurant. Each school had a chef who planned the menus (I think with the input of a dietitian) and prepared the food. The children had a full hour for lunch and it was treated in the same manner as any other subject at school. Learning to appreciate food and interacting with fellow students and cafeteria staff was seen as just as valuable as math and science.

If every school treated lunch as an educational opportunity and provided students with nutritious lunches then this issue of teachers acting as food police would be moot. It would also help to provide a degree of equity to students so that no matter the circumstances at home every student would have the same balanced lunch.


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Burger King rules in New Brunswick schools

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A few weeks ago it hit the news that Burger King has the contract to provide hot lunches for the Anglophone East School District in New Brunswick. Some people were upset that a fast food restaurant is being paid to provide children with lunches. Others defended the program by stating that the foods provided meet the provincial school nutrition policy.

Without knowing exactly what foods are being provided through this program, I would be remiss in dismissing the program as unhealthy. The article simply states that burgers can’t be served more than twice a week, fries aren’t served at all, and they also offer salads and apple sauce. I admit that these claims don’t instil me with much confidence that the offerings are truly healthy, balanced, varied choices. After all, a healthy diet isn’t the absence of the least healthy foods. Offering burgers “only” twice a week isn’t exactly a paradigm of health. Nor is apple sauce and what I’m speculating would be an iceberg lettuce-heavy salad. But that’s just speculation. Perhaps BK is offering a variety of nutritious salad options.

I do think that it’s unfortunate that the decision as to which company receives the RFP to provide schools with lunches is made based on what company can meet the guidelines for the lowest price. Instead of looking at what other hot lunch providers can offer by way of variety and nutrition above and beyond foods permitted, it’s all about the money. Far be it for schools to consider the import of good nutrition on health, behaviour, and the ability of students to learn.

The issue goes beyond the nutritional value of the food being served. Having Burger King provide the hot lunches also allows them to advertise within the schools and build life-long customers out of young children. BK may be providing the food at a lower cost than other providers could but that’s because they’re a huge corporation that sells relatively inexpensive mass-produced food products. They’re also getting more than their money’s worth by being allowed to advertise in schools in this manner, and don’t think for a second that this isn’t exactly why they’re doing it.

In an ideal world, schools would have their own cafeterias with staff and nutritious food prepared for all students at lunch. Unfortunately, our world isn’t ideal. At the very least, school boards could be ensuring that RFPs give preference to local companies rather than large multinational fast food conglomerates.