This is a post about families and food, poverty and privilege, accessibility and convenience, taste and nutrition, consumerism and profit, affordability and sustainability. This is a post about our complex relationship with the way we fuel our bodies that cannot begin to do the topic justice.
Healthy eating? Whose responsibility is it?
You've heard it before. People are obese because they have no self-control. No one is forcing them to eat McDonald's or to scarf down a bag of chips while sitting on the couch. No one. So if they are fat, it is their fault. It doesn't matter that they also exercise and eat lots of healthy food or that there are thin people who eat a lot more fast food and never seem to gain any weight. That doesn't matter at all. If you are fat, it is your. own. fault. period.
Or so goes the holier-than-thou mantra.
But I don't buy it. People are, statistically, heavier now than they ever were before. Did we all go through some sort of metamorphosis that has led us to lose the self-control that previous generations had? No, not really. The problem is that societal influences have changed for the worse and we have simply accepted them. When they cause us harm, we yell about how it is our "personal responsibility" to just deal with it and do better. That isn't always easy when the cards are stacked against us.
- Families are busier. There are more two-income or single-parent families where there simply isn't one person home all day to clip coupons, leisurely visit multiple grocery stores to get the best deals, tend to a backyard garden, and prepare homemade meals from scratch. Instead of just running off to the local playground or into the woods with some friends, children are involved in after-school activities that their parents drive them to and from. Parents are trying to squeeze some me-time into the week too.
- Food is less nutritious. Yes, vegetables are still vegetables and everyone should strive to have a well balanced diet that includes lots of whole foods. However, there are many processed foods that have unnecessarily high amounts of fat, sugar and salt. Bread has added salt and tons of sugar. Pasta sauces are dripping with fat and have astronomical sodium levels. Things that could be baked are instead deep fried. Things that should be sweet are instead sickeningly sweet. I wrote recently about some better processed food brands that we have found and like, but they are few and far between. I lost weight when we moved to Europe and gained it all back when we returned to Canada and I am convinced that the main reason is the added sugar in bread and other processed foods that we rely on.
- Nutritious food is less accessible and less affordable. With the rise of fast food and convenience stores, a lot of small grocery stores, bakeries, markets, and health food stores have gone out of business. This has created a lot of food deserts in major cities in industrialized countries, i.e. areas that are lacking access to "affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk, and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet." Unfortunately, food deserts are more common in low income areas, where people are less likely to be able to afford healthier fast food options and aren't necessarily able to just hop in a car to go to a grocery store in another part of the city. When buying healthy food requires a four hour round trip on a public bus with three children in tow, parents are understandably less likely to make the effort. When nutritious food is available, the prices are often high, especially outside of the growing season in a country like Canada.
- Pervasive marketing. Fast food and other unhealthy, over-processed options are marketed to death (literally). We cannot escape them. Even if you don't watch television, you are subject to billboards, in-store displays, trucks that are no longer just trucks but instead a zoomed in giant picture of a Big Mac or chocolate chip cookies, vending machines, window displays, and more. Major brands sneak their way into sporting events, cultural events, museums, recreational facilities, and schools under the guise of sponsorship dollars. On top of all of this, we need to account for the health washing that happens, i.e. all the labels and commercials that tell us how healthy the not-so-healthy food is.
There are other things that play into obesity rates for sure, such as sedentary lifestyles and genes. But what we put into our bodies does continue to be one significant determinant of our weight and of overall obesity rates.
We can't simply blame people for putting the wrong things into their bodies when the cards are stacked against them like this. To do so is to speak with the blinders of privilege. Yes, I know that some people manage to eat great food all the time while clipping coupons and earning minimum wage. But that doesn't mean that it is easy for everyone or that it is the top priority for everyone. We can work hard to eat really well all of the time, but we shouldn't have to.
Yes, we eat fast food
On average, we probably eat out about twice per week. One of those meals is probably at a fast food chain and the other is usually at a less than ideal restaurant. We aren't perfect. I know what is in that food. I know it isn't optimal nutrition. I also know that it isn't making up the vast majority of the food that my family eats. We make choices among the bad choices. We'll opt for a chain with fresh ingredients and crayons over one with suspect ingredients and cheap toxic toys. I know that it doesn't make the food healthy. But yes, we do take advantage of convenience and even of cheap convenience sometimes.
Could we do better?
Yes, of course we could. But quite honestly, it just isn't worth the effort all the time.
If our kids have an activity on Saturday morning and we then have other plans in the city in the afternoon, it simply doesn't make sense to drive all the way home in between. I could pack a picnic lunch, which we could eat outdoors if the weather is nice or could eat in the car if it is awful outside. Of course, I could. But to be perfectly frank, after working all week and packing nutritious school lunches every single day during the week, sometimes I just want a break too. Not only do I want a break from slaving over food preparation, but I also want a break from the whining about the things that they don't want to eat. So yes, sometimes it is just easier and better for my mental health to stop at Harvey's for a burger and fries than it is to go the extra mile to ensure that everything that goes into our families mouths is perfectly nutritious.
Sometimes, preserving some extra family time (instead of spending it all in the grocery store, garden and kitchen) and preserving some extra family peace is more important than perfect nutrition. As long as we are generally healthy, I'm okay with that because I know that the food we put into our bodies is just one part of our overall health. Getting out and doing fun things as a family and getting enough rest are other parts of that equation too.
Convenience shouldn't suck
I think the subtitle says it all, but let me explain.
When we were moving to Berlin last year, some of you may remember that I was concerned when I learned there would be a McDonald's about one block from our apartment. In the end, it wasn't an issue at all. The kids asked a few times if we could go there, I said "no" and explained why and they accepted it. Why did they accept it? They accepted it because there were delicious real food treats that were equally accessible. They accepted it because there were numerous playgrounds in the area that were much nicer than the trashy one at the McDonald's. They accepted it because there were fun things to do that were much more appealing than a stupid plastic toy. Ultimately, when held up against what else was on offer, McDonald's simply didn't make the cut.
Almost every subway and train station in Berlin has at least one bakery in it that sells fresh baked goods, but also sandwiches full of fresh ingredients and also fresh fruit. This photo, provided by my friend Danielle from 50% of my DNA, shows an example of one of those. But the ones that we passed multiple times every single day had a much bigger choice than what you see here. There was a Subway (the sandwich chain, not the underground train) a couple of blocks from our house, but we never once step foot into it (although we did eat at another Subway once in another part of the city). Here in Canada, I see Subway as one of the better fast food options. In Berlin, it wasn't even on my radar most of the time because there were so many other convenient options to choose from.
Let me draw you a picture of the area that we lived in. When we were coming home and got off the U-Bahn (subway), we immediately passed by a wood oven pizza place that made fresh pizzas starting at around $2. Right next to that was a small grocery store and fruit market that was open 24 hours per day. During the day, the fresh fruit spilled out onto the sidewalks and made it so easy to grab whatever we needed for a quick afternoon snack. We got fresh bread at the bakery every morning for breakfast (there were at least three bakeries within a 5 minute walk of our apartment). There were numerous grocery stores, ranging from cheap bulk stores to the upscale organic ones within a few blocks of our apartment. Some of them, like the Bio Company that we liked to shop at, also sold affordable snacks and meals that you could eat right there.
The kids and I often packed some cheese, apple slices, and our stainless steel water bottles and headed out for the day. I would buy some bread at the bakery whichever subway station we got off at and we'd have a picnic lunch somewhere in the park. We ate ice cream almost every single day, but it was Italian-style gelato that did not have excessive amounts of sugar in it. We ate out several times per week and had our choice of dozens and dozens of restaurants within a few blocks of our house, ranging from amazing little vegetarian cafes to traditional German style food to Moroccan, Thai, Italian and all sorts of other ethnic foods.
Berlin offered accessible, affordable, and nutritious convenience, not just in our part of town (which was one of the poorest parts of the city and would likely be a food desert in North America) but across the city. Ottawa and Gatineau don't even come close, not even downtown and certainly not in the suburbs. Convenience shouldn't have to suck, but in North America it seems like it frequently does.
I don't expect people to be perfect
We are all humans. The food that we put into our bodies is only one of many things that we need to worry about on a daily basis. Some days, making the best choices from an ethical and health perspective is not always possible. Or at least it isn't possible without giving something else up. Some people have been able to make changes to their lives that allow them to make the best choices most of the time. Not all of us can and not all of us have the motivation to do so.
As Ottawa obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff often says, "It's about the healthiest life you can enjoy, not the healthiest life you can tolerate."
If people want to make a healthy choices, they should be at least as accessible and affordable as unhealthy choices. In that type of world, I think that people would be more likely to make healthy choices more often. They wouldn't feel like they had to turn to an unhealthy choice because it was the only convenient, affordable, or appetizing option that was available to them. Like our experience in Berlin, they would be able to pass by McDonald's without giving it a second thought because there were dozens of options that were better in every single way.
We can all make a difference
But how do we get there? The world will not magically change overnight. The crappy foods, the food desserts, the pervasive marketing, the accessibility and affordability issues are not going to go away on their own. If we continue down the path that we are on now, we are going to continue to endanger our health and the environment. Our current approach to feeding the population of the world is not sustainable. It is destructive and is making irreparable damage. None of us can change this on our own, none of us should have to change this on our own, but all of us can help.
If we each choose one change that we want to make in our own lives and follow through, that will make a difference. If we all choose one issue to educate other people about, that will make a difference. None of us has to take it all on. All of us can, incrementally, take on more.If more of us make changes in our own lives and our own choices, it will put more pressure on the food system to make changes too. As consumers and as human beings concerned about the sustainability of our planet and the health of its inhabitants, we can make a difference.
However, we shouldn't have to carry the entire burden. We still need governments to put regulations in place that will protect us, protect the environment, and protect animals. We need industry to partner with us in seeking out healthier solutions. Even organizations that are making foods on the unhealthy end of the scale should be looking for solutions to reduce sodium, sugar and fat content, to buy more local ingredients, to buy more organic ingredients, and to insist on ethical treatment of the animals that we eat and the human beings who process that food.
We need to shape up. We need the governments to shape up. We need industry to shape up. Boiling it all down to "personal responsibility" will not resolve the systemic problems in our food system. If we want food fuel for our human bodies, we need to work together to make changes.