Stressed about food? Relax.

Every day, millions of Canadian moms try to do the right thing.

Get the kids to school on time, make a quiche for a sick neighbour, go on vacation with the in-laws, keep the house reasonably clean, find a good math tutor for their son and the list goes on.

There are about 300 more items on the list, but moms should remove at least two, said a Toronto dietitian.

Stop obsessing about eating the “right” foods and feeding your kids the “right” foods.

“Moms want to do the best for their kids and there’s a lot of guilt associated with (doing the right thing),” said Dara Gurau, a registered dietitian who works at a hospital in Toronto.

“There’s a lot of pressure to feel you have to buy the best food. Whether it’s organic, or the healthiest food for their kids…. Imagine how much more enjoyable life would be if we could just relax about we eat.”

Gurau and her colleague, Erin MacGregor, shared that message to about 200 moms at the Manitoba Farm Women’s Conference, held last month in Winnipeg.

The two dietitians run a food and nutrition communication business, called HowtoEat.ca.

They have worked with a number of clients, including Walmart, the Canola Council of Canada and Campbell’s, on recipes, blog posts and social media campaigns related to nutrition.

They encouraged moms at the conference, and all women, to relax about what’s on their plate and what’s in their child’s bowl.

“We know that stress isn’t good for us. It makes sense that less stress surrounding food, is better for us as well,” said Gurau, who told the story of a friend, who obsessively checks the menu online before going to a restaurant.

“To make sure there is something on (the menu) that fits with her food rules. You can see her get visibly anxious, when the table is filled with carb-heavy or fried foods. What an awful and stressful way to go through life.”

Instead, Gurau and MacGregor support an easy-going approach to food. Some dietitians describe this philosophy as intuitive eating.

Part of intuitive eating is ignoring the diet culture and endless rules about food. Instead, people should eat when they’re hungry and stop eating when they are full.

Another critical component is ditching the nasty psychology around food, which tells women they are bad because they eat “bad” foods like potato chips or pie.

Eating an entire cheesecake is rarely a great idea, but women shouldn’t feel guilty because they have a piece of cake.

“We’re trying to help them to relax,” said Gurau, who has three girls, including a baby, Ruby, who she brought to the Winnipeg conference.

“I (want) to raise them with positive relationships with food, health and their body…. And I want to help other moms.”

A critical part of relaxing about food is accepting that food sold in Canada is safe. Unfortunately, companies and food marketers send consumers the opposite message.

Research from the International Food Information Council shows that fear is a major factor at the grocery store.

In its 2019 survey of more than 1,000 Americans, the council asked consumers if they buy foods with certain labels, such as non-genetically modified. The results showed that:

  • Thirty-eight percent of shoppers bought items with a “natural” label.
  • Thirty-five percent bought items reporting to have no added steroids or hormones.
  • Thirty-two percent bought items raised without antibiotics.
  • Thirty percent bought food labelled as non-GMO.

“These labels are at the root of … fear-based marketing in the food industry,” said MacGregor, a dietitian and home economist who also works at a Toronto hospital.

“What I find very striking is that four of the top five claims, those that affect consumer decisions the most, are absence claims.”

Companies are using these labels, like non-GMO, to stand out from competitors at the supermarket. With dozens of brands available in the yogurt aisle, for example, it’s harder to sway consumers with traditional selling points like price and taste.

So, food marketers turn to fear.

When asked if they pay attention to such labels, almost no one at the Farm Women’s Conference raised their hand, but millions of women do pay attention

“When Dara and I gave this presentation to a group of health-care providers … 95 percent of the hands went up,” MacGregor said.

Many women care about the labels because they want to make the right choice.

“I can tell you, and Dara can tell you, that mom guilt is an actual thing,” MacGregor added. “Shaming or scaring moms into buying something is a very powerful way to market to them.”

Convincing moms to ignore such claims, is not easy.

The market for such products is massive. Non-GMO Project verified, the dominant label in the space, represents $26 billion in annual sales.

Food companies will continue to use these labels because fear-based marketing is effective.

MacGregor admitted it’s nearly impossible to de-rail a $26 billion industry.

“Communicating with consumers is an exceptionally difficult thing to do. Especially when they have … a bias that they start with.”

But if farm groups and ag companies partner with dietitians, home economists and others, it’s possible to influence urbanites in Toronto, Vancouver and Chicago.

“I do have some hope. I see the ag industry is starting to realize that … you need more people on your side, rather than just speaking for yourselves.”

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