Guest Commentary

Senator Nancy Greene Raine

Food Of Choice

The Government of Canada should ban all advertising of unhealthy food and drink products to children. We are paying a high price in poor eating habits, with the resulting obesity, diabetes and disease. You can buy all the advertising you want saying “eat veggies” but the government can never out-advertise the junk food industry.

I was born in Rossland, B.C., one of six children. Every kid in town walked to school. We skied in winter and biked and swam in summer; you had to play outdoors or Mom would say, “If you stay inside I’ll give you some chores to do!”

Breakfast was porridge. We walked home for soup and a sandwich at lunchtime. Mom prepared healthy food: meat, potatoes, vegetables from the garden and fruit she’d canned herself. Dinner was on the table at 6:15 sharp every evening after Dad arrived home from work and relaxed with a cup of tea. It was a nice routine.

Modern parents have more stress, particularly mothers. The McDonald’s ad that promised “you deserve a break today” was compelling on the drive home from work and knowing the children were hungry. We see the results in weight-related illness. It’s an alarming trend, and not sustainable. Governments realize they have to do something but appear to be searching for solutions.

Food manufacturing is a business. Many companies are driven to sustain the bottom line for shareholders. Use low-cost ingredients, create addictive snacks, and the result for shareholders is a healthy bottom line.

This marketing and consumption of processed foods is also skewed by the socio-economic spectrum in our country. The top 30 percent of Canadians are doing just fine: they’re educated, have good jobs and are aware of the importance of nutrition and fitness. Most of their children are active.

The bottom 30 percent are in a very different situation. They have no money for discretionary spending on sports, and often wind up buying inexpensive processed foods – even if they know it’s not the best choice. Fresh produce is not always available, and can be expensive.

My big concern is that the middle 40 percent are slipping downward. Parents are overworked, and children are sedentary. Social media threatens physical health; I call it anti-social media, a kind of gadget mania that keeps many young people indoors. Following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver I had expected an upswing in physical fitness and children’s sports; no one could have predicted that less than five years later half of young Canadians would own Smartphones.

When your body grows a fat cell it’s always there. Go on a diet, lose weight, but there’ll always be those cells inside you saying, “feed me!” That’s why dieters yo-yo when they’re trying to lose weight. And that’s why preventing obesity is a parental responsibility: mothers and fathers are responsible for what their children eat. Yet governments must also do a better job of promoting physical literacy and healthy nutrition in our schools, and we must stop the targeting of young Canadians by food processors.

I’m 5’4” and weigh 130 pounds. I draw a red line on my bathroom scale: if I pass the line, it’s time to cut back on wine and cheese and get busy: ski more, cycle more, hike the nearest trail. Occasionally I use a pedometer to track my steps from my Ottawa hotel to the Senate and can easily clock 10,000 steps a day if I walk everywhere and use the stairs. It’s a commitment, and it’s not always easy.

Canada really has no choice. We can build a health care system, but that is not health. Only individuals, parents and children, can build up their health through good eating and physical activity. We need to do this where we live and play, where we work and socialize, where we can look each other eye to eye and say, “We need to change.”

(Editor’s note: the author is a Conservative Senator from British Columbia and 1968 Olympic gold medalist, and author of Bill S-228 An Act To Amend The Food & Drugs Act that would ban food marketing to children under 13)

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