March is Nutrition Month! So you’re going to be seeing a lot of stuff from dietitians this month, in both the US and Canada. Here in Canada, Nutrition Month is coordinated by Dietitians of Canada, our national association. This year, the theme is “Ingredients for a Healthier Tomorrow.”
There are a lot of different directions we can go with this, and Dietitians of Canada has given us some great prompts and information that I will share with you. But first, I want to address an elephant in the room.
Can I be healthy when I have a chronic illness?
In some previous writing I have done, I wrote this:
Remember that moment, sitting in the doctor’s office and getting the results. It is scary and there are a lot of unknowns, but you also feel relieved. You have a name now. A name of the thing that has made your body and your mind feel like a stranger. Now what? This thing is never going to leave. How can you possibly be healthy with a chronic disease? If you have a disease, doesn’t that mean, by definition, that you can’t be healthy? How can you live a good life with a chronic disease? Life is a rollercoaster, filled with ups and downs. Having a chronic health condition doesn’t change that. There will be challenges and there will be triumphs. There will be blind corners where you don’t know what is coming next. Source: https://foundationsforthegoodlife.com/chronic-disease/
That still rings true today.
Health is so much more than a lack of disease.
When we are diagnosed with a chronic illness, we often feel like we are no longer healthy. That we can never be healthy again because we have this diagnosis. But that is simply not true.
Even the World Health Organization recognizes this when they say, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This is a good first step in broadening our perspective on health and wellness. But we can go one step further.
In searching for the wording of the WHO definition of health, I stumbled upon this lovely piece in the Croatian Medical Journal. It is titled “The Meanings of Health and its Promotion” and suggests three ways to define health. The definition this article recommends is, “health is a state of balance, an equilibrium that an individual has established within himself and between himself and his social and physical environment.”
I love this definition. The word that calls to me is BALANCE. While I was considering which values to claim on the about page of my website, ‘balance’ was a strong contender. (For the record, I settled upon Intuition, Energy, Connection, and Science. But I connected the idea of balance and intuition by saying: “Connecting to your intuition leads you to greater balance in your life. It can tell you when you are leaning too far to the side so you can come back to your center.”)
Focusing on “health as a state of balance”, suggests that there are processes at play pushing that balance point in different directions. This definition of health also puts a greater emphasis on the environment, which ties in nicely with this year’s nutrition month theme.
Factors that affect your health and wellness
There are so many factors that affect your health and wellbeing. There are some things that you can control to some extent, such as choosing what foods to buy or whether to be active. Even within those examples, some factors go beyond your control influencing your decisions.
Dietitians of Canada’s Ingredients for a Healthier Tomorrow campaign is looking at some of those environmental factors head-on – through the lens of food and nutrition, of course.
- Food Security
- Food Literacy
- Food Sovereignty
- Nutrition Care and Prevention – making small changes now for a healthier tomorrow
What is Food Security?
There are different levels of food security. The first level is simply having enough food to fill your belly without fear that you will run out before you can get more. But we should aim higher, as a society. It is one thing to fill your belly, it is another thing to have access to nutritious food.
True food security means that you have access to food that is safe and nutritious. It also means that you are able to choose foods that you prefer, rather than just eating what is available.
A research paper released in 20201The full report can be found at https://proof.utoronto.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Household-Food-Insecurity-in-Canada-2017-2018-Full-Reportpdf.pdf. You can also find more information at https://proof.utoronto.ca/food-insecurity/ ran the numbers from the 2017-18 Canadian Community Health Survey and found that 12.7% or about 1 in 8 households in Canada are food insecure.
- 4% of Canadians are marginally food insecure
- They worry that they might run out of food or they may have a limited selection of food because they lack money
- 5.7% are moderately food insecure
- They have lower quality food or less food because of a lack of money
- 3% are severely food insecure
- These families miss meals, eat less, or sometimes go a whole day without food.
For the 7 in 8 households who do have enough, it may come as a shock to find out that 1 in 8 families do not enjoy that state of being. It becomes even more alarming when you realize that in some communities, these numbers are even higher (that is how averages work).
And while food banks are a critical form of short-term support for these families, it doesn’t actually make them more food secure.
- The food banks are a supplement – you don’t get enough to just rely on the food bank.
- You don’t get to choose what you get; it just depends on what the food bank has.
- Most of the food you get from a food bank is shelf-stable. That means you’re missing out on a lot of nutritious food that needs to be refrigerated, frozen, or that is simply perishable.
What is Food Literacy?
Food literacy refers to the knowledge and skills needed to select nutritious food and prepare it. You need to be able to shop or grow the food and prepare it before you can eat it – that requires planning. Even if you don’t “meal plan,” there is some level of planning required. You have to plan to go to the grocery store, think about what you need to prepare a meal, and plan for when you are going to make the meal.
You have to know what is foods are nutritious and fuel your body in order to eat healthfully. If you have high food literacy, you are also able to see through the marketing claims on food packages (which can be misleading).
And let’s not forget those skills that I mentioned off the top of this section. Everything from using a knife to grilling, sautéing, or baking requires some level of skill. And once people become adults, they can often feel ashamed of their lack of skill. We do have the internet now, which allows people to watch tutorials and learn in the comfort and privacy of their own home – but that doesn’t help the emotional discomfort that comes from learning a new skill; or the fear that what you prepare will be inedible and a waste of time and money.
Food literacy is a huge focus for public health dietitians and those who promote bringing back home economics. It’s also an under-appreciated knowledge area.
What is Food Sovereignty?
Food sovereignty refers to the ability to be involved in the decision-making around food. It refers to having access to culturally important foods and culturally appropriate information.
Food Sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. Source: https://foodsecurecanada.org/who-we-are/what-food-sovereignty
Where food security is about whether people have access to food, food sovereignty is about how people access that food. It emphasizes ethical food systems, where the food providers are respected and have sustainable livelihoods. Where people have access to local foods as much as possible. Where we recognize that food is not just nutrition, that it is considered sacred in every human tradition.
Food sovereignty encourages local food production and for people to participate in growing their food if they are able. It seeks to shift the balance of power back away from mega-corporations.
The term “food sovereignty” is brand-new to me. I am still learning about this movement. But from what I know so far, there is a lot of alignment with what I already know and believe. This is going to be an ongoing area of learning for me. Once I have a stronger sense of this idea and how it ties in with everything else I talk about, I will share my thoughts with you.
What does it mean to eat sustainably?
Sustainability is important. In both our personal lives and our broader systems. We all want to take care of ourselves and our environment for the future. Sometimes we may disagree on how to do it, but it is an important conversation to continue to have as a community.
Sustainability also ties in with all the other topics. It is an integral part of food sovereignty. A key point of food sovereignty is to have a more sustainable food system.
Food literacy also plays a large role. If you don’t know how to prepare the types of food that are grown locally, you can’t participate in that. And what does “sustainably grown” even mean? Is it just a marketing ploy? Or is it actually sustainable?
“Sustainability” is a huge corporate buzzword lately. But when companies market their products as ‘sustainable’ how do we know what they really mean? Are they using “sustainability” to convince you to buy more than you otherwise would?
And “sustainably grown” isn’t available to everyone. Companies will often charge more for “sustainable” products – and sometimes it does cost more because they are paying people better. But that might mean that these products are not financially available to those experiencing food insecurity.
It might also be unavailable geographically. You might want to support local farmers but there might not be a farmers market or you might have to work while it’s open or you might not have access to the transportation needed to get there.
Sustainability is important. But we need to have food literacy to understand what is sustainable. We need the resources (food security) to access sustainable food sources. And we want to connect “sustainability” to broader issues surrounding food sovereignty.
How can I make changes now to be healthier tomorrow?
We can share all the knowledge in the world, but that won’t help you if you don’t know how to put that knowledge into action. And all the knowledge in the world would be overwhelming! This is where dietitians shine (or at least all the ones I’ve ever met).
We need to break it down into little changes that you can make today so that in the days, weeks, and years to come you feel better and are healthier.
The same thing goes with the systemic changes we want to see in the world. We have come so far as a society in the last 100 years. We still have a long way to go – no matter what your ideological endpoint is. But that doesn’t take away from what we have been able to accomplish as a society, one step at a time.
If we continue making small changes, it will add up to a healthier tomorrow.
Until next time,
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