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Fuel for Human Bodies: Our Complex Relationship with Food

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.

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Reader Comments (44)

Your description of Berlin sounds a lot like my life in downtown Vancouver before we moved to the UK in May. Is it a question of Europe vs. North America or suburbs vs. city? Don't know how to make a link in comments but this article refers to a study correlating weight with commute time. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2002760245_sprawlfat24m.html. The average weight of someone living in a walkable neighborhood is seven pounds less than someone living in a sprawling less walkable neighborhood.

Personal accountability may not be the only solution, but it is a big part. As I try to tell my husband when he flips channels on TV or visits McDonalds or buys Nestle, we are casting our votes whenever we spend money. Fast food businesses would not be so overwhelmingly successful without supply & demand.

Thought-provoking post, as always, and timely, as I have been thinking hard about my family's nutrition this week.

I've been reading (and loving) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and consequently have been obsessing about food. Even as an apartment-dwelling Brooklynite with no yard to speak of, I've been scheming about ways to cut all non-local produce out of our diet. Even with a great CSA and a great local farmers' market, it'll still be difficult, though, because, as you're pointing out in this post, our systems as they are just aren't built to support such choices.

A couple thoughts. First, small changes, in aggregate, can make a big difference. From Kingsolver's book: "If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country's oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week." (Of course, though, I call it a "small change," but where are the folks who live in food deserts going to get their once-a-week local and organic meal? So maybe not so small.) Second, though I absolutely agree that individuals cannot possibly carry the entire burden, we do have to lead our so-called leaders, showing them the direction we want them to be heading through our choices, insofar as we are able to live in accord with our values.

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

I think, ultimately, it does start with personal responsibility. We choose the foods we want to eat, we choose what to feed our families. And in turn, where we spend our money influences our community and society. We can spend a larger amount at fast food places or at farmers' markets. When I lived in Canada, I spent about $100 a week buying vegetables, fruit (when in season), and meats from local farmers and producers. This was about half of our weekly food budget. Now, I could have spent a lot less there and put more of our resources towards big grocery chains or convenience food, but it was my choice.

And yes, income obviously does affect buying power and food purchases. That's a given. Yet I know quite a few people on limited incomes who do not have to resort to cheap, non-nutritious food. They grow their own vegetables and have fruit trees. They freeze their own veggies, do canning and preserves. So, seeing their efforts, it's harder for me to believe it when I hear, "I can't afford to eat healthy food." Our finances were pretty tight when we first moved to Australia two years ago. But what that meant for us was no take away food, no fast food because it wasn't in our budget at all. We bought in bulk (hello chest freezer) and I stretched our budget to pack as much nutritious food as I could into our diets. I read blogs and books from people who talk about how to make healthy meals on limited budgets with staple items. I know of families with small backyards that have veggie planters and we're going to do this in spring as well. I want to start teaching my kids the basics of growing their own food, starting with a small planter for them to tend. Luckily, our finances have improved since then, but the principles of eating wisely stay the same.

I also believe that we need some kind of education program for kids in schools to teach them some basics about nutrition...something along the lines of a Jamie Oliver showing them exactly what chicken nuggets are made of and how healthier choices can benefit them. I'm continually dismayed by the choices in our school canteen (and have spoken to the school about it) and I refuse to let my child eat canteen food more than once a month. We have to educate the new generation to look critically at nutrition...to move past the "it has 10% fruit juice, so it must be healthy" and "look, now in multigrain!" kind of thinking. We have a lot of breakfast cereals on the market here that are nothing but frosting and sugar and flavors, but are labelled "now with 50% whole grain," so I guess that's supposed to make them a wise breakfast choice. My daughter's old primary school sent home a government-produced flyer about what to put into kids' lunches, complete with the red line and circle through the soda pop and candy bars. I thought, "Do people really need to read this?" But maybe some do. I hear a lot of whining at the grocery store from my kid who says, "But Mom, everyone takes or in their lunches." I reply, "Well, if you say that everyone is doing it, then I know I'm on the right track by giving you veggies and hummus."

And yes, part of the reason things are different in Europe is for the reasons you mentioned...their view of convenience foods usually means more bakery-cafe type items and not greasy fast food joints. They also generally move in their daily lives a lot more than North Americans do. When I lived in Europe almost 20 years ago as a student, I cycled everywhere: the city had bike paths throughout and it was something a large percentage of the population did. I recall meeting my friend's parents for the first time and discovering that his mother rode her bike to work everyday (gasp), along with thousands of other commuting professionals. Coming from Canada, I thought, "Can't they afford a second car? They have two incomes." I have read media interviews with planners about how they acknowledge that we need to incorporate new models into community designs that encourage walking or cycling, but I haven't seen much improvement, personally, beyond a few bike paths put in almost randomly here and there.

So, yes, although government needs to shape up, industry needs to shape up, it does have to start with us. I refuse to sit back, give up my power, resign myself and my family to less nutritious food and obesity and say, "Well, nothing I can do about it...government and industry have to change." The change starts at the individual and family level: through our choices (even as basic as what do we want for our next meal), our actions (walk to school or drive, plant a garden or go to McDonalds), where we spent our money (grocery chain or farmers' market and CSA), our words (talk to friends and neighbors about promoting healthier choices, write to our government reps and food companies). Personally, I'm also more than a little skeptical of government and big food multinationals doing the "right thing." They also have a vested interest in keeping each other happy and in supporting the status quo.

Oh and for the record, we do eat fast food...we're not perfect either. But the fast food is nowhere near a staple in our house, usually means pizza or Subway rather than MacDonalds, and still comes with a hefty portion of veggies that our kids have to eat as well. That's just how we do things here...

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

Part of my text was omitted in one sentence. It should read:

"But maybe some do. I hear a lot of whining at the grocery store from my kid who says, “But Mom, everyone takes [prepackaged chocolate cupcakes] or [meal replacement shakes] in their lunches.”

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

These are all great ideas.

The point of my post was not to say that there should be no individual responsibility at all. In fact, I said that we should all make changes in our own lives and also work towards broader societal changes. Putting all the responsibility on the individual isn't fair and isn't a good long-term solution. That makes everything into an uphill battle.

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


I agree that small changes can make a big difference. I also think that what is a small change for one person could be a big change for someone else. So we all need to find the right change for us that will move us in a positive direction. For us, that was joining a CSA a few years ago and planting a garden this year. With time, we'll keep implementing more changes as the old changes become a regular part of our lives.

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


I agree that we are casting our votes whenever we spend our money. That is the reason that we boycott some companies and avoid other companies. I just hate that in some areas the choice is between bad or worse. I agree that fast food businesses wouldn't be so successful without the demand, but that demand also comes from the fact that there aren't any good alternatives in some parts of the city.

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


The suburbs are definitely worse than the city. However, the city in Ottawa is much worse than the city in Berlin.

July 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

The cultural truism that "healthy" equals "low fat" has much to do with current rates of obesity as well as heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases of chronic inflammation.

Look at the back of a box of something from a middle aisle of the grocery store which advertises itself as "low in fat!" What you'll see is a huge portion of carbohydrate in the form of starch or sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and very little else.

There's no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. There are essential fatty acids (EFAs) and essential amino acids, as well as essential micronutrients (e.g. magnesium). When we choose high-carb, "healthy low-fat" foods, we are choosing foods that don't satisfy basic requirements. Very few high-carb foods contain enough micronutrients to be worthwhile, and grains contain anti-nutrients that actually *increase* your requirements for various vitamins and minerals. (Hint: seeds don't "want" to be eaten...)

A word on skim milk. Did you realize that Vitamin D and A can only be delivered in fat? How exactly are all those added vitamins in skim milk going to be of any use? (They're not.)

Sugar and starch jack up insulin. If you keep your insulin jacked up all day -- which is very easy to do even without realizing it, because eating high carbohydrate foods makes you crave more of them until you don't feel "right" after a meal if they are absent -- you are telling your fat cells to keep packing themselves with fat. I'm oversimplifying it for this comment, but it really does boil down to this equation:

increase in serum insulin = increase in fat storage.

Couple all of this with the Standard American Craving for Convenience, where people shop in the middle aisles of the grocery store more than anywhere else, and even people who think they are health conscious are dooming their metabolisms by filling their cart with stuff labeled "Heart Healthy!"

Yeah. Food is a Big Deal. Too big for a blog comment. Read Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories"... a big book.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Most

Hi, I live in The Netherlands and I'm not very satisfied with the bread here... most of the bread in the supermarket has sugar and glucose/fructose, and I think that it's the kind of bread that they give to kids for lunch in the daycare. My son is almost 2 and goes to daycare. I am concerned about what he eats, but to try to convince them to change the type of bread, I think it's madness. I prefer to focus on avoiding the margarine and spread cheese and sausages they offer, by providing our own bio spread cheese and coconut butter.
Anyway, I was thinking to buy a bread machine to solve the problem of always having fresh healthy bread at home. My parents have one and it's really easy to use.
My question for you is: did you think about buying a bread machine?

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOzana

Yes, that's true. I see it as a continuum of sorts. The type of changes we're hoping for have to start with individuals who in turn create the wider societal effects...through consumer patterns, activism, CSA and more. The responsibility lies with us to take the steps to create the broader changes we seek. As a previous poster said, I'm voting with my pocketbook: supporting local farmers and CSA, even raw milk producers. Industry and government tend to take notice when we're talking bottom lines. Imagine if all of us in Canada, Australia, the US, sourced 25% of our produce, meats, and dairy products from local, small scale farms. What changes would large food corporations and government make in response to get our business back? We've seen supermarket chains alter their wares over the past few years in response to consumer patterns...stocking organic foods, specialty items, hormone-free meats and the like. I'd hope that once enough individuals, families, and then communities sign on, then the larger changes will come about.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.

I really like your point about convenience not needing to suck. I wish more places in the U.S. could look like Berlin in that regard.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia


My concern is that if the demand for those types of things is only demanded within the more affluent communities that it will also only be offered in those communities, creating greater choice at a high price for those who can afford it and creating more food deserts for those who cannot.

Here in Canada, there are major food retail companies that have high end and low end chains within their portfolio. We just recently saw a high end one replaced with a low end in the area where I usually do my shopping (on the way home from work, close to the kids school). While I used to be able to get high quality organic produce and other organic products there, the organic section is now a tiny little section and the store is stocked with a lot more foods that are stuffed full of high fructose corn syrup and other unhealthy ingredients. It is maddening that I now have to go out of my way and/or spend more to get high quality foods for my family. But my guess is that the demographics of the area surrounding that particular store led them to decide that cheap junk food would sell better than high quality food.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I had a bread machine for over a decade and it just collected dust. I tried numerous times to make a bread in there that I really enjoyed and never found one. I like my breads to be soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside, and to have lots of nice texture (e.g. seeds). Nothing I made in the bread machine ever appealed to me enough. Instead I buy a no-sugar-added bread that I posted about in the link to healthier processed foods in this post and use that for sandwiches. Otherwise we buy bakery breads that have high quality ingredients and taste good, but that probably have too much sugar in them too.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Absolutely. This is why I always read labels really carefully.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I love this post because I think this is an important discussion and I agree that we need to make sweeping changes to food industry. Corporate personhood needs to be eliminated, marketing needs to change, accessibility to fresh and healthy foods needs to increase, education needs to become readily available, communities need to be set up to promote physical activity, etc etc etc.

The only thing I take issue with is the bit about personal accountability. I recognize that you are not advocating for the elimination of personal responsibility, but I think that's a huge part of it. I can't tell you how many times I've talked to someone who believes that their health and weight problems are their fault - but they have no intention of changing anything. Why not?! I'm sure there are societal influences that are affecting that. I think that's the bigger problem. Not that weight and health aren't our responsibility because they are and I think if someone is unhealthy then they need to own that 100%. It is their fault. They have made decisions that have lead there or have refused to change decisions other people made for them as children, etc. But I think that a huge part of that is that our society is telling people that they can't change, that they don't have the willpower, etc. I don't think this is the first generation without self-control. I think it's the first generation made to believe they can't make a difference in their own lives or in the path their country is taking. That's the part I don't think is fair.

It's time for a health revolution, methinks.

Okay, so it's been a few minutes and the more I think about it, the more I realize that I don't actually believe that people need to own it 100%. I do believe that society has failed people, that we've been taught to value convenience and economics over health, etc. So I would like to correct that statement. But I stand by one of the worst parts being that our culture as a whole does not believe they can make a difference or help themselves, that it's not worth the effort, that it's too hard to understand proper nutrition, etc.

I also think that if education about these things were readily available, if books like Marion Nestle's What To Eat were easily distributed and understood and accessed, etc, that things would change. And I think we're on the brink of a food revolution anyway. Never before have so many people started saying 'wait, this isn't right, is it?' and started gardening and started intentionally focusing on things like farm shares. There was a time when more people were engaged in those things, but it was a passive engagement, a lifestyle engagement, and it easily slipped away. What's going on now is what came after a fight. So I do think we're on the brink of, in many ways, saying that we as a culture would like to revert to healthier times. Which is good.

I also stand by that personal responsibility is a large part of the equation even if it isn't all of it. You always have a choice, even if it isn't a simple one. I think what matters is just ensuring that the influences upon that choice are reduced to healthy ones. I don't know how to do that.

Sometimes it's mind boggling that there are people out there who actually believe a type of processed food has nutritional value only because they either 1) see it as advertised on the package/commercial/store poster etc or 2) because they heard someone say so. (example: "I heard twizzlers has no calories so that is a good choice of snack for my kid". Same reason why someone reaches for a diet cola and not water.)

One of my most viewed article on my blog is about my analysis of some of the ingredients in Twizzlers. It occurred to me when my firstborn, at the time just old enough to understand Halloween/Valentine's day, received quite a bit of candy I deemed as 'questionable' in terms of it's food value, even as a candy (we eat Swiss made chocolate more often than Reeses Pieces, for instance). To date, people still question Google about Twizzler's nutritional value, and to me that indicates a real misunderstanding of what food really is. (Or what it isn't or why it shouldn't be labeled as food).

The article is about the Twizzler ingredients is here: http://javaline.wordpress.com/2008/02/16/candy-crap/

Is it really that much more effort to chop extra veggies and store in the fridge so you won't have to do it tomorrow?

The answer is yes. Sometimes. Some days I want to sit with my wine and pick up the phone and order sushi or Thai or pizza from a local mom and pop shop up the street (some neighbourhoods in Toronto have fantastic non-chain/fast food options amongst the KFs and what not). But this is not a regular thing. Single income and what not (plus I like to cook, and grow my own arugula).

It's unfortunate sometimes that those who need to read these types of posts or articles don't...

Thank you.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJavamom

i have just recently done a massive overhaul on what my family eats. i read a book called maximized living and the big thing about maximized living is how you eat, obviously! white starches - out. no white flour, white rice, white pasta - all are nutritionally void and convert to sugar in your body (whole wheat and grains convert to sugar too, but not as badly). sugar is the evil thing, even natural sugars from fruit (there are low sugar fruits, like berries and granny smith apples). sugar creates energy in our body and then we exercise and we burn the calories from that sugar - which is why i was not burning any fat. all those carbs and anything labeled "low fat" (which really just means "high sugar") was not allowing me to burn fat! the other thing that was sabotaging me was oils. anything that has soybean, canola, corn, sunflower, vegetable, safflower, peanut oil, hydrogenated, etc have been damaged in processing and our bodies cannot handle them - they go rancid and cause that lovely plaque in our arteries. the only ones that don't - olive, grapeseed and coconut (avocado is fine if not heated). the other thing i switched was to grassfed, organic beef and free range organic chicken and eggs and organic milk. corn fed beef is not only unnatural but it causes them to be sick, hence the antibiotics, etc. grassfed beef is naturally less fatty - and even cost effective - you don't need to eat as much because it is nutrient dense foods that fill you, not calorie dense.

i lost 2% of body fat in 20 days by doing these small things - only exercised for 30 minutes twice a week - i can't wait to see how much i will have lost in 6 months! it's not a fad diet though, it's a lifestyle change. i definitely recommend that people who are looking to change their lifestyle pick up the book.

so, yes, people can have an impact on what they choose to eat, but wouldn't it be nice if businesses cared about the crap they are selling and instead focused on the healthy? it would change our WORLD.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercricket

Great post, Annie. I love the way you laid this out. I haven't purposely done it, but over the past 9+ years of marriage, my husband & I have slowly changed things about our diet for both health & financial reasons. Everything from transitioning to only purchasing organic/free range meats, which cut our meat consumption & made it more responsible to recently finding & joining a CSA has been a slow evolution. Each decision was small by itself, but it has made a large cumulative difference in our health & well-being.

No, I'm by no means perfect - I have quite a few extra post-partum pounds I should work off and I do like a good cupcake or 6 every once in a while. It's just, overall, I am more conscious of what I put into my body instead of just running through Taco Hell because it's cheap & I'm broke (which was how I lived for a while after college!).

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDana K

I think people do know that processed foods are not good for them. But I think a lot of people feel very trapped because they 1--don't know how to cook and 2--think their families won't be open to change. A good (very overweight) friend of mine said she doesn't bother serving veggies at all because her husband won't eat them.

Last fall, my daughter and I went on a field trip to a farm, where we rode in a wagon to various fields and picked fresh produce. A lot of the other moms hesitated to pick things like radishes and turnips because they had no idea what to do with them. And then quizzed me on what I planned to do with my bags and bags of stuff. I used to work with a woman who had NO IDEA how to make real mashed potatoes. It boggled my mind, but she'd never had anything at home but the instant stuff. All the access in the world to healthy produce and lean/fresh meats and fish doesn't help if people don't know how to cook it.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKayris


When we first joined a CSA a few years ago, I was faced with many veggies I had never used before. Even though I have the literacy and cooking skills to be able to go and find a recipe and make it, it is still overwhelming when you are suddenly faced with hundreds of recipes and don't know where to start.

That is why I loved the fact that our CSA e-mailed recommended recipes each week along with the list of things that were going to be in our baskets. That way I could go to the grocery store in advance of receiving my basket to buy the other ingredients that I would need and I had recipes ready to make meals that would use up several of the things that were in the basket.

That little extra service made the CSA experience that much easier and more accessible to us and was highly appreciated.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

That's a good way of putting it. We as individuals have an impact and it's significant, but wouldn't it be nice if corporations weren't actively selling and marketing foods that are nutritionally pathetic?

Love that.

Well, apparently many people find it hard to determine "healthiness" by reading food labels. I don't, but I've learned an insane amount of detail about food and fitness over the past 10 years.

There's a movement to redesign the food label. The trouble I see with that is that the food label necessarily represents a nutritional philosophy.

If you showed every known component of food on the label, you'd have people swamped with information -- obviously that's not the solution to food label confusion.

So you have to leave things out. The decision of what to leave out will be based on what people "should know" vis-a-vis what we think people "can use". These are highly contentious courts of opinion.

Hell, I don't know what I would put on a label.

One thing I do know, though: I would start setting "standard serving sizes" so that label-writers can't claim that half a cookie is a serving, thereby being able to list 0g of trans fats when a whole cookie contains 1g.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNaomi Most

I solved that problem years ago by buying an industrial mixer rather than a bread machine. Made good bread, a few loaves a week for several years. But that was before I had children and high responsibility job. I still miss that bread. But for now we do just like you.

I remember the shock, at one of those low-end stores in Moncton, New Brunswick, a few years ago, when I heard the store manager tell me, with contempt: we don't do zucchinis here. Farmers market had way better options but it was only open once a week and what I could carry from there never lasted me the whole week.

This is a great post - very balanced and fair. I don't really understand a lot of the commenters protesting for more weight on personal responsibility, when I think you addressed that - personal responsibility is all fine and good, but when corporate concerns make the right choices less convenient and more expensive at every turn, and you add in human nature, what the heck do you THINK is going to be the result? We live in Canada - we can't get fresh local produce year round. I'm at home, so I do have more time to cook from scratch, which I generally enjoy but the grinding routine of everyone expecting to be fed three times a day does sometimes make me feel like jumping off the roof - when you add in two parents working full-time, or single parenting, etc., I can absolutely understand how more convenient, less nutritious choices might be made more often.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterallison

I'd like to see labels have two options on them. The first would be a standard size that helps with comparability, e.g. 250g, 125ml or whatever. The second would be a typical serving of that particular food, i.e. 2 cookies, 1 bottle, etc. If each label listed both of those things, I think that would make it easier to understand what we are putting into our bodies, but it would also make the label busier, which could create confusion for some people.

July 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I'm wondering if this is a US/Canada labeling difference? In the US, on a soft drink bottle for example, both the serving size (which is usually 1/2 a bottle, though I've seen it as low as 1/3) and the bottle size nutrition facts are listed. So, while one "serving" of iced tea might be 60 calories (oooh! that's looks great! I'll have THAT!), if you drank the whole bottle (which is small enough that most people would), you'd have consumed 180 (empty) calories - and the bottle label tells you so. This isn't the case on larger items, like an entire box of breakfast cereal (that would list only the serving size w/and w/out milk nut facts), but it is for anything which could be construed normally as a "serving" - like candy bars, packs of pastries, small-medium sized bags of chips, etc.

Of course, none of that makes a difference if you a) Don't read the labels. b) Don't understand the labels. c) Don't care.

Personal responsibility is one thing...but there is a lot of misinformation out there in the form of marketing and "health-washing". You know that a McDonalds hamburger isn't good for you, but it you choose to have one once in a while - so be it. The issue really is that we don't alway have the information to make the healthy choice or choose the healthier version. A 'healthy' breakfast cereal may have a lot of extra sugar and not be a good choice, but the label has a nature scene maybe it contains flax and there is a claim on the label about lowering your cholesterol. Juices, which contain a TON of sugar and generally are banned in our house are now making claims that they contain antioxidents and might improve your immune system. They might - but eating an orange or an apple instead will too, and fill you up without the calories - but there aren't any health claims on fresh fruit.

I think we need to be personally responsible for our food choices, but I think food companies need to also be responsible for how they market food to the public - especially to children. It's not fair for a large multinational company to spend millions of dollars to convince me that their juice will boost my children's immune system when studies actually show that an increase of 1 serving of juice per day can greatly increase your chances of becoming diabetic.

July 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjaime

I use a fantastic vegetarian cookbook called Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. The reason I mention it here is that there is a huge section that deals with vegetables, and divides them alphabetically! Therefore, when my neighbors came over with a big hunk of chard from their garden as a gift, I could immediately go to the cookbook, look up "chard", see a complete description with a series of recipes and suggestions on how to cook it. (Yes, I was 30 years old before I ever cooked chard or knew what it was.) It's made me a lot braver about buying new, untried, or unfamiliar veggies.

July 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Tough to know the solution to this. I've long believed that the average, or even above-average citizen cannot resist marketing. Therefore I avoid marketing at all costs to the point that I am ignorant about most brands of anything, food, cars, tvs, etc. However, I don't think it is possible to limit marketing except to make it honest. Even if you force marketers to discuss the negatives it will be like the US pharma commercials that list a bunch of side-effects nobody listens to, or cigarettes that show a dirty lung as if nobody knew.

It has to be good personal choices, which has to be backed up by education which is at least partly the government's mandate. Berlin probably didn't achieve their better nutrition by legislation, it's more of a societal evolution. North America doesn't have communities where you walk a block one way to a small meat shop, a block the other way to the bakery, and down the street to the veggie stand every day. It's all about driving to the cheap supermarket, which means big and efficient, which means processed in a factory.

People just generally don't know. Fruit juice, which someone already mentioned, are practically as good as pop except way more expensive. Bread and other simple carbs are also terrible given that our sedentary lifestyles don't need much carbs nowadays. People have no idea what real flavour because it's all salty or sweet and the tastebuds are deadened to anything else, or find it repulsive. Many think we should have desert with every meal and dinner isn't dinner unless you feel stuffed.

July 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex | Perfecting Dad

[...] are a move in the right direction, there will always be people who look towards convenient food. Convenient food shouldn’t have to be bad for you, and initiatives like Great Performances’ Katchie Truck are an excellent way to promote [...]

Your comment about "food deserts" is very real. As you know, we're traveling the USA this country in an RV...and have been shocked to find that there are very noticeable differences in the quality of foods available depending on the region.

In bigger cities and/or high-income areas, there is a bounty of fresh produce, baked goods, and organic items.

In small towns and poor communities, most of the grocery stores are stocked with a huge quantity of processed foods (and a tiny produce area).

July 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

One word... Thermomix! :) solves everything.

July 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBecca

Subway isn't really a nutritious option for fast food: the cheese and sauces make it about as unhealthy as McDonald's food (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1365424/Subway-vs-McDonalds-The-artery-clogging-truth-favourite-fast-food-chains.html)

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie


It depends what you order. That meatball sub in the article is absolutely revolting. If I go, I usually get a 6 inch turkey sub with mustard, swiss cheese (yes, we have real cheese at Subway in Canada), and lots of veggies.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

If we are ever travelling, we'll actually look for Subway, as they can be a healthy fast-food option. We get all the veggies (in NJ they have avocado, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, olives, cucumbers, several types of peppers, and spinach - in other states it varies, but not by too much), no cheese, no meat, no sauces - mustard, salt, pepper, vinegar, and the bread itself provide tons of flavor! In some Subways there are even veggie burgers available, though I still prefer the fresh veggies!

McDonalds couldn't whip up anything close to what we can order from subway.

July 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

I started writing a long comment when you first posted this but then it was time to make supper and I never posted it. Days later, I think I've summoned the energy to repeat myself!

While I agree with much of what you write above, I do think there's a bit of "nostalgie de boue" colouring your base assumptions (can't think of the English translation right now). Our ancestors would take issue with the idea that our society is "busier". My grandmother kept a diary and I am frequently exhausted just reading her list of activities. We have so much more leisure time! Sure, there's a tendency to fill it with activities hither and yon, but that IS a choice. Personally, I think that many of our societal ills trace back to the myth we've bought into that we have to be busy all the time. So busy that we rarely have time (as a society) to build community or eat properly. And we wonder why we've getting fatter and more isolated from one another.

The other thing is the idea of meal prep as a chore to be avoided instead of an activity with value in and of itself. Too often we treat preparing and eating food as a necessary evil that gets in the way of living. It seems to me that has as much to do with the current state of affairs as the food options at restaurants. I don't have a problem eating out, but we don't eat out because Mom needs a break (where are your kids and spouse at meal prep time???). Mealtimes for us are an integral part of our family fun times together. It's great to be able to eat in restaurants sometimes too, but if meals seem like they interfere with your schedule, and that's causing you to make decisions you wouldn't in an ideal world, rather than calling for the world to change it would be more effective to change your schedule! Right? Not that I disagree with the call for change, but I'm uncomfortable with this idea of meals as inconvenience and I think that can be 100% controlled within the family.

July 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary @ Parenthood

Really great point.

July 23, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterallison


I don't think that we are necessarily busier, but we are differently busy. Your grandmother's schedule may have been exhausting because it included a long list of activities that contributed towards putting a nutritious, home-cooked, whole foods meal on the table each night. My point in the post was that there are now a lot of two-income families, so there is no one at home to focus on preparing home cooked meals. I don't know for sure what your grandmother did (perhaps she did work full time out of home AND prepare home cooked meals every day), but I know that my grandmother and my mother were stay-at-home moms.

I don't always think of meal prep as a chore to be avoided, but if I feel like I haven't had any time to do the other things that I enjoy doing because I'm spending all of my time sourcing and preparing nutritious meals, then it does start to feel like a chore. So if I opt to eat out for a couple of meals per week, but still prepare close to 20 meals per week, I don't think that is the end of the world.

You asked where my kids and spouse are at meal prep time. In our house, I prepare the meals and my partner cleans up. I love cooking, but hate cleaning, so that works out well for us. My kids are around and sometimes help with meal prep, but are sometimes playing, sometimes doing homework, and sometimes sleeping.

Ultimately, I don't think that desiring or appreciating convenience is somehow wrong. While food and meal preparation is an important part of our lives, so are other forms of work, leisure, family time, and self-actualization. I don't think we should have to sacrifice morals and good nutrition for convenience.

July 24, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

So happy to have found your blog. This is a great conversation with many interesting and powerful points made by all.
I believe that moderation is the key in all things, including what we eat. I agree that to put 100% responsibility on consumers is unrealistic with all the marketing we are subjected to and the fast food available not only in restaurants, but now in your local supermarket's freezer section.

For many years my diet consisted of 3 food groups: fast food, processed food and junk food - and every once in a while a fruit or vegetable. Over the course of a year and a half I actually reversed it: now I eat mostly organic fruits and veggies, proteins (chicken, beef, fish, eggs), and every once in a while (about once a month or so) fast, processed, or junk food. I lost 55 pounds in the process and have kept the weight off now for 3 and a half years.
I would say the biggest factor in my success came from the fact that I was able to find healthy alternatives that taste good to replace the unhealthy ones. It's a big problem that there aren't more healthy options available in all areas.
I also see a change happening in our society with several TV shows devoted to helping people lose weight by eating healthy and exercising e.g. Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution, The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition. I hope this is the beginning of a trend and that more people will start to make the changes needed to live happier and healthier lives.

July 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandra Zerner

[...] My long answer is written out in my post outlining the reasons why boiling everything down to “personal responsibility” will not fix the systemic problems .... [...]

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