Better health needs a food change

Health care is a top political issues these days, but when we say “health care,” what we really mean is our “sick-care” system — how we help sick people live with their conditions and get better. We spend very little time talking about what we need to do to help prevent people from getting sick in the first place.

One of the leading causes of sickness is the food we eat because far too often it is high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, as well as a host of additives and emulsifiers, all ingredients that are common in ultra-processed foods.

As a result, Canadians are getting sicker at unprecedented and crisis level rates.

This has happened because we have created a food environment that encourages companies to profit greatly from having Canadians drink and eat foods with too many things that are not good for us. The companies have done a great job at this, thanks to social media and advertising campaigns directly targeted at children, and a complicated system of nutritional information labels that does little to educate Canadians about their best food choices.

The situation continues to get worse every year, and without action it will devour our ability to cope through our health-care system.

We need to act now.

The federal government has been working to change this paradigm with its Healthy Eating Strategy, a multi-pronged Health Canada initiative of rules and programs to help Canadians to eat better.

Two elements have been completed, an excellent revised Canada’s Food Guide and a ban on heart-clogging artificial trans fats.

On other fronts, progress has been too slow because industry has been fighting it at every turn. Their most recent and successful effort was to convince the Senate to block legislation approved by the House of Commons to prohibit the advertising of food and beverages to children. Industry also managed to stop the completion of proposed front-of-package nutrition labelling initiative, which aimed to make it easier for Canadians to make healthy choices.

Another key healthy-eating tactic that has yet to be tried here is a levy on sugary drinks. Implemented successfully in numerous jurisdictions around the world, soda levies can generate money to support a wide range of healthy-eating initiatives aimed at improved public health. Taxation has proven to be an effective tool to reduce consumption, as we have seen with tobacco.

We can and must do more to support healthy eating, particularly with low-income Canadians who are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases because they simply can’t afford a healthy diet.

The medical profession could encourage doctors to write prescriptions for patients, not for drugs but for fruits and vegetables — to drive home the message that that’s where health begins. We could also change Canada’s unenviable position of being one of the few industrialized countries without a national school nutrition program.

While citizens need to continue to put pressure on food manufacturers and retailers to prioritize health in their products, it’s imperative that we also ask our politicians to stand up to industry and take the actions needed, including implementing in full Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy to create healthier food environments.

The bad food Canadians eat costs us billions in health care every year. Unless we act decisively, the cost will continue to rise, both in terms of health-care dollars and lives made sicker and shorter.

Yves Savoie is chief executive officer of Heart and Stroke and Nick Saul is chief executive officer of Community Food Centres Canada.

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