I wasn't sure I would get a blog post up this week since as some of you may know from last week's blog, I am writing my Canadian Dietetic Registration Exam this Friday. Hopefully it will be my last exam for a loooong time! I should get my results in 7 or 8 weeks and then I go from having a Graduate Dietitian to a Registered Dietitian title and license (hopefully). Woot woot! If you are curious about the difference, check out the FAQ's under the About section of this blog or on my business page at www.whittynutrition.com
I am a BIG believer that our food environment has a LOT to do with with the increasing prevalence of chronic disease and the general 'un-wellness' of the Western world.
What is the food environment you might ask?
This is perhaps a very good descriptor for many communities across North America because as they put it "... even though the food itself is usually safe to consume, the world in which most consumers live makes choosing healthy food very hard and choosing unhealthy food very easy. It's truly a toxic environment that eats away at healthy lifestyles and promotes obesity."
From Harvard School of Public Health: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-prevention/food-environment/
The food environment is affected by numerous factors including agricultural policies, government food and zoning regulations, as well as advertising and marketing guidelines among many others. It is also affected by what we, as consumers, allow. This is perhaps the most important factor because it is the one that we have the most control over and the one that can often influence changes in policy the fastest. The food environment is affected by our purchase habits, which create demand, whether it be frequently choosing fast food, fresh food or like in the videos, convenient snack foods. Many restaurants and supermarkets are great examples of how consumers can influence the food environment. For instance, fast food restaurants did not serve salads when they initially became popular, but due to public demand for healthier choices when eating out, these leafy green entrees are now a staple on many big fast food chain menus (whether they are actually 'healthier' can be debated at another time). Another example is the ever-growing variety of organic and gluten-free options. As consumers gather more information (although often skewed by the media), it can create demand for certain types of products such as organic foods, fair trade items, or gluten-free options. Companies respond to this demand by changing their products or introducing new ones onto the market, such as chips or margarines that no longer have trans fats (win!). There are many ways that we as consumers can have a positive impact on our food environment and it is becoming clearer and clearer that this inevitably needs to happen if we want to reduce the onset of nutrition-related diseases in our community and have LASTING impact that promotes healthy behavior change. That's the good news.
The bad news is that we are still living in a world obsessed with convenience. We are busy, we are stressed, and we don't know how to cook. Of course that is a massive generalization but I think you get the point. If we compare our current diets to what our grandparents ate 50 years ago, there are obvious differences. The availability and variety of convenience foods perhaps being one of the most noticeable. Although the video's I mentioned earlier give the impression that perhaps other countries aren't also swimming in 'junk' food, the phenomenon is spreading. We are seeing increased rates of obesity and nutrition-related chronic disease across the globe, however we always seem to do it 'bigger and better' in North America.
Now I'm not claiming to be an economic expert, or to have all of the solutions on how we can change our food environment, but being a mindful, informed, and proactive consumer is a small part that all of us can play in ensuring fresh fruits and vegetables remain readily available on our grocer's shelves and that perhaps, with some effort, we can reduce the availability of the non-nutritious snack foods, the prevalence of fast food restaurants on every corner, and maybe even offset the cost of more nutritious foods with a 'junk food tax' in communities where accessibility and affordability are common barriers to healthy eating.
This post really took a turn on me, I originally started out planning to talk about healthy snacking and how the videos were great examples of some snacks that although popular, may not be the best choices. Instead, we've been talking about the food environment and consumerism. Funny how that happens isn't it? I think we'll have to revisit the whole healthy snacking thing in a later post because this is a huge topic and I could go on forever.
I'll leave you with this - one of the most profound statements I've ever heard regarding nutrition that I feel is applicable here, was that "North American's are overfed and undernourished." We are not dying from a lack of calories as some people are in other parts of the world, but instead from a lack of nutrition. Calories are abundant in our pop tarts, chocolate bars, french fries, and pizza but where are the nutrients we need to live healthy, active lives?
Apparently, according to Buzzfeed some people in other countries think our portion sizes and vast array of snack foods is absurd. Maybe it's time we as consumers start demanding a change and start working towards making the healthy choice the easy choice. Now wouldn't that be convenient?