Taking on the Food Environment (Part 2): Personal Responsibility

you-are-what-you-eat

The traditional views on weight loss tend to place a lot of blame on the individual. “Just change already”, “stop being lazy”, “put the cheeseburger down”. If losing weight were simple, why are one-third of U.S. adults obese? Why do one in four Canadians have Type 2 Diabetes/Prediabetes, the majority related to excess weight?

The reason being is that weight loss is not as simple as “calories-in, calories-out” or “eat less, move more”. The hundreds of choices we make every day related to our lifestyle are influenced by much more than our own personal willpower. Last week I wrote about a client I work with, who like many of us have a desire to lose weight (and keep it off). But as you saw in my example, despite the intentions to make changes, implementing these changes can be difficult when the food environment is factored in.

One of my biggest girl-crushes has to be Marion Nestle. Seriously, this woman is my hero. I follow her blog Food Politics and she speaks about the intricate relationships between government policy, farm subsidies, historical events (e.g. women joining the workforce), industry influence etc. and how these relate to the food we eventually consume. It’s complicated, it’s messy but I LOVE learning about it.

I wanted to showcase a food environment topic that Marion Nestle posted back in August 2011. It was her response to McDonalds offering “healthier” Happy Meals to children. You can read the full post here. Her views pinpointed that making healthier Happy Meals is basically a health-washed marketing tactic put on by McDonalds, secondary to recent declining sales. Are the new re-designed Happy Meals actually better for children? Hell no! Here is why:

  •  There were no changes to the default Happy Meal menu. Basically if you want a “healthier” meal, you would have to specify so, otherwise the default was given. And as Ms. Nestle points out, the majority of consumers will choose the default (because it’s the easiest).
  • The names “McDonalds” and “health food” rarely appear in the same sentence. Wouldn’t children be better off eating something healthy (e.g. a homemade meal) versus something that is “slightly healthier than before?” Overall, McDonalds should still be considered an occasional treat, not as an equal substitute to a healthy meal.
  • Consumers need to remember that McDonalds is a BUSINESS. “This means selling more food to more people more often, viewing food choice exclusively as a matter of personal responsibility and pretending that the company’s $1.3 billion annual marketing expenditure has no effect on consumer choice”.

So you can now see how easy it is for our food environment to place a perceived “concern” about our health, and how industry spews a desire to “help us” make healthier choices. But in reality, it always falls back onto our personal willpower and responsibility. We will offer you items that are “less bad”, but YOU need to make the choice. YOU need to pick items that are not the default. If you see our advertising promoting a $1.99 burger, it is YOUR fault you went and purchased it.

In summary, my take-home message is simple: be less judgemental. This is especially true for those who work in healthcare. If a person is overweight/obese and trying to lose weight, do not assume that they took the wrong turn because they lack the willpower to “say no to cake” or they are “too lazy to exercise”. Our food environment clearly shows that personal responsibility is one miniscule factor playing a role in our choices, DESPITE what the food industry says 🙂 Stay tuned for Part 3! xo

Feature Friday: Should celebrities dole out nutrition advice?

If only I had her following...
If only I had her following…

 

I read this interesting article yesterday on CBC news discussing the trend of celebrities (in this case Gwyneth Paltrow and her GOOP gang) making nutrition recommendations, writing books, blogs etc. The article also points out that regulatory bodies such as Health Canada can only dream about having the same readership as some of these celebs.

But my question is, when it comes to nutrition, are celebrities the best source of advice? My first knee-jerk reaction is “hellz nooo!!”, however let’s try and look at both sides:

Pros

Celebrities are beautiful. They can be inspiring, they are very good at selling s*!t. There is nothing wrong with having a positive role model or someone with a success story to look up to. One example I can think of would be Katie Couric (I know, not a huge celeb but it was the first thing that popped in my head). I recently watched the documentary “Fed Up” and I was pleasantly surprised on how informative and interesting it was. Having a big name like Katie Couric promoting the documentary I’m sure got more people’s attention than if it was delivered by some no-name filmmaker.

In an ideal world, celebrities could be very useful in promoting higher vegetable consumption, eating less fast food and encouraging more people to cook at home. Unfortunately though, the big money isn’t in promoting those things. The big money is still being made from selling soda pop, burgers and Vitamin Water. Le Sigh.

Cons

In my humble opinion, my “cons” list could stretch on for days. But let me give you the Cliffnotes summary:

– Most celebrities have no formal education or evidence-based knowledge of nutrition.

– MONEY!! I think we could all be a little healthier if we could afford nothing but groceries from Whole Foods, a personal chef, a personal trainer, a personal life coach etc etc. Comparing ourselves to celebrities is not realistic. Remember, it is their JOB to look good.

– MONEY (again). Celebrities who promote diets or a certain way of eating are not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Do you really think Jennifer Hudson promotes Weight Watchers because she truly wants to help you succeed in weight loss? Maybe a bit. But mostly because they are paying her.

– Disordered eating. Celebrities are under enormous pressure to look and act a certain way. When it is your job to look good and never age, you are going to do whatever it takes to stay in the game. Even if that means restrictive eating, over exercising and an unhealthy fixation on eating perfectly. You know those celebs who say “I eat what I want, I have a fast metabolism”? Lying.

 

All in all, let’s take celebrities for what they are: entertainment. In terms of getting reliable, evidence-based nutrition advice, I think you all know who to go to 🙂 HINT: I guess I’m technically a celebrity, I have at least 5 people who read this! HAPPY FRIDAY!! xo

New Series: Taking on the Food Environment

Weight management. Eating healthy. Preventing disease. Choosing local. Saving money. Etc etc etc.

We all have goals when it comes to nutrition. Some of us want to lose a little bit of weight, some want to prevent diabetes (especially if we have a family history of it), some of us want to eat healthy yet do it on a budget. Whatever your goal may be, one of the most important things to consider before you embark in a big lifestyle change is our food environment. This is a huge topic, so big I thought I would cover it over a couple of posts.

First off, what does the food environment even mean? The Harvard School of Public Health defines it as “the physical and social surroundings that influence what we eat”. Seems simple right? Not so much. The fact is, our food environment plays a HUGE role in whether or not we can make lifestyle changes AND stick with them.

Let me provide you with an example. A client of mine indicated he would like to lose weight. He identifed with me his ideal body weight, and some of the goals he wanted to set to reach this. One of his goals was reducing snacking in between meals. Seems pretty simple right? However come 10am, a snack cart visits the unit he is staying on. On the snack cart there are king-size chocolate bars, bags of chips and gigantic cans of Arizona Iced Tea, all for $1 each. These snacks are hard to resist because this gentleman is bored, and everyone around him is purchasing a snack too.

Around 2 PM, this gentleman decides to go outside for a coffee with a friend. Outside the hospital grounds, the only (affordable) places for him to visit are Tim Hortons, Pizza Pizza and a greasy-spoon diner. Him and his friend go to Tim Hortons. When he approaches the cashier to order a coffee, the Tim’s employee states “would you like to try our new frosted cinnamon bun, only $1.49”? It’s hard for the gentleman to say no, as his friend says “of course” and it’s only $1.49!

Around 8pm, this gentleman and some co-clients decide to watch the big hockey game on TV in the lounge. Someone on the unit orders a large pepperoni pizza, and offers to share with everyone. The gentleman tells himself, “well everyone else is having pizza, and I haven’t had pizza in a while! What’s the harm in a few slices”? He digs in, and goes for the soda too.

Not really what my recommendations looked like...
Not really what my recommendations looked like…

Can you identify where the food environment played a role in this client’s choices? Here is a quick list:

– Lack of activities while in hospital/boredom

-Cheap snack foods readily available and no healthy options offered as alternatives (snack cart)

– Cheap restaurants in the neighbourhood and no healthy options offered as alternatives (well, healthy options ARE available in the area but not in the price range most of my clients can afford)

– Foodservice workers asked to upsell cheap, nutrient-poor foods 

– Social situations where it is acceptable to indulge in treats (e.g. visiting with friends, watching a sports game)

This example is not uncommon for me to see in the area I work in. Dietitians (and other health care providers) often have the deck stacked against us with the food environment. You can work with clients on setting goals and helping to motivate change, however after you leave we are unfortunately at the mercy of our environment. And as you can see (from the example above), it can be HARD to resist the temptations and the offerings our food environment provides.

So what can we do about it? Well, I will talk more about that in my future posts 🙂