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 🙂


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