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Canada Doesn't Need To Label 'Bad' Foods – It Needs An Attitude Shift

Health Canada should use a more global approach looking at consumers' habits and relationships with food rather than singling out nutrients.

Co-written by NaureenHunani, RD and Julia Lévy-Ndejuru, B.A. Psychology, B.Sc. Dietetics (in progress)

I am a dietitian and I admit that I was very dismayed to read that Canada's health minister is considering warning labels to be slapped on the front of food packages. Simply put, these sorts of initiatives do not improve healthy eating, nor do the nutrients labelled as "bad" actually harm our health to the degree that they've been promoted.

I reached out to fellow gentle nutrition advocates to discuss the possible front-of-packaging warning signs on perfectly safe and healthy foods.

Do warnings lead to changes in our food choices?

The number of factors that influence our food choices is enormous: taste, budget, convenience, cultural background, food availability, one's ability to cook/prepare, etc. Health is only ONE of these influencers, and due to lack of research, we are not even sure where it ranks. Some studies have found that the taste of food is the most influential determinant of food choice.

There is, however, plenty of research on food choice influencers that do have a great impact. Being more mindful is associated with increased physical activity, increased fruit and vegetable intake, improved self-efficacy, less impulsive eating, reduced calorie consumption and healthier snack choices. Put this together with the results from multiple studies showing that mindfulness training results in improved nutrient intake, and the case for promoting mindful or intuition-based eating (rather than rule-based eating or specific nutrient guidelines for eating) has been made. Perhaps a front-of-package warning sign reminding clients to slow down and enjoy the food would be more efficient at actually improving health?

NaureenHunani, RD who specializes in family nutrition, does not believe this initiative will change how families shop. She states that "Putting warning labels on food is not the solution Canadians need to achieve optimal health. It is time we look at the bigger picture and dig deeper into barriers that prevent us from reaching optimal health. Children and adults who are food insecure are at higher risk for developing chronic illnesses. 'Do all Canadians have equal access to wholesome food?' is the question we should be asking ourselves. I can say with confidence that many Canadians just cannot afford to pay current prices as 4.9 million of us live in poverty and one in eight Canadians struggle to put food on their tables."

Health is not determined by one ingredient or one meal, but by our choices over many weeks and months.

Food is to be enjoyed and not used just as fuel

Julia Lévy-Ndejuru, B.A., dietetics student and blogger, believes that the people don't usually choose to eat foods containing saturated fat, sodium or sugar (the nutrients these potential warning labels are based upon) solely for physical health reasons -- but for the enjoyment and satisfaction they deliver and therefore the goals of this initiative may be lost.

Julia is referring to the fact that food serves many purposes -- not just to fuel our cells. It is an important source of pleasure, a way to connect with others and honour our food traditions. When we focus only on eating for health, we are ignoring basic human instincts and other normal reasons for eating.

The author of Body Kindness, Rebecca Scritchfield, RD put it well in her book: "The art of eating well encompasses much more than the nutritional value of the food that ends up on our plate." On that same note, it turns out that enjoying your food is likely better for you than feeling guilty for eating it. And these warning labels will inevitably evoke guilt.

The presence or absence of one nutrient does not determine the healthiness of a food

The "healthiness" of a food is not only based on the amount of saturated fat, sugar or salt it contains. Assuming that the amount of one particular nutrient will have a great impact on our health is erroneous. Our health is not determined by one ingredient or one meal, but by our choices over many weeks and months.

In fact, according to the CDC, food choices count for only a fraction (less than 25 per cent) of what determines our health and the idea that front-of-packaging warning labels will improve our population's health is ridiculous.

I believe consumers ALREADY have a good sense of what foods provide a lot of necessary nutrients and which are meant more for pure enjoyment. The bigger question is WHY are consumers choosing one food over another? We've had decades of nutrition promotion campaigns and yet Health Canada believes we are still struggling due to lack of nutrition knowledge. Many studies suggest that without addressing the "why" regarding food choices, and focusing on the "what" to eat, very little is understood about individual food habits.

The possibility that warning labels may appear on dairy products is based on outdated science. This is because dairy products have numerous beneficial nutritional properties and research is now suggesting that not all saturated fats are made equal. In fact, it has been shown that saturated fats, especially those occurring naturally in dairy products are not to blame for heart disease.

Rethink warning labels for real health change

My co-writers and I believe that in order to help people improve their health and well-being, Health Canada should use a more global approach looking at consumers' habits and relationships with food rather than singling out nutrients.

An even wider look at the problem was suggested by Naureen -- "We need to implement and promote policies which will help decrease the health disparities that exist amongst us. We need to provide better access to food/health-care services and focus on both physical and mental health which is often overlooked. We should empower Canadians to make better health/lifestyle choices by implementing a positive marketing plan and not by fear mongering and negative marketing of foods."

To learn more about mindful and intuitive eating and how it can help you improve your health, visit Lisa Rutledge, RD blog


NaureenHunani, RD

Julia Lévy-Ndejuru, B.A. Psychology, Dietetics Student and blogger

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