Virtually every Canadian has heard the common wisdom that, “we are what we eat.” This reflects the basic notion that food and nutrition are primary factors in our health and well-being.
Today, eating habits in Canada are contributing to an alarming increase in the prevalence of obesity and other dietary-related health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.
Currently, two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are considered obese or overweight in Canada. This represents a two and three-fold increase in the proportion of obesity among adults and children, respectively, since 1980.
The OECD now ranks Canada fifth among 40 countries for prevalence of obesity among adults, costing upwards of $7.1-billion annually in additional health care costs and lost productivity.
At the nutritional level, most researchers agree that refined sugars, salts and trans fats are the main factors driving these trends in dietary-related health problems. Excessive amounts of these ingredients continue to be found in processed foods and beverages.
Not surprisingly, then, in her initial mandate letter, Health Minister Jane Philpott was directed to introduce new regulations to reduce salt and trans fats content in processed foods.
This was a welcome call to action by the new government.
Recent evidence suggests that Canada isn’t doing nearly enough to help Canadians appropriately balance their diets. A report released in April singled out the National Volunteer Sodium Reduction Strategy, launched in 2010, for its lacklustre performance in reducing sodium consumption among Canadians.
Authored by researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the study found that sodium levels in the vast majority of prepackaged foods have either slightly increased or remained unchanged since the introduction of the voluntary strategy. Despite the aim of reducing average sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams (approximately one teaspoon) per day per adult, Canadians continue to consume well over 3,000 milligrams per day.
Another report released in early 2016 by Canada’s Senate committee responsible for health provided more bad news.
Entitled Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada, it called Canada’s food guide “dated” and stated that it failed to effectively provide guidance to Canadians on nutritional content. The report recommended the overhaul of the food guide.
The findings of these two reports confirm the need for renewal in Canada’s policy leadership on food health. As diet-related health conditions continue to worsen in Canada, New Democrats believe the government has an ethical and fiscal duty to prioritize prevention and the promotion of healthy eating.
In recent years, New Democrats have proposed multiple strategies to improve the eating habits of Canadians. These can be grouped into three categories: new food content regulations, better labelling for consumers, and protection for our children.
For over a decade, New Democrats have called on Canada to phase out trans fats in processed foods. Supported by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, this call gained momentum last year when the Food and Drug Administration ordered food manufacturers in the US to remove trans fats from their products within three years.
Similarly, the NDP’s Sodium Reduction Strategy legislation proposed Health Canada-endorsed reductions in sodium content for processed foods. Products that failed to reduce sodium content would be slapped with new prominent labelling to warn consumers. Unfortunately the former Conservative government defeated this sodium reduction bill.
With respect to labelling, as NDP health critic, I have introduced Bill C-257, legislation that would require prominent labelling of sugar content on all pre-packaged food products. Clear labels not only better inform consumers but make healthy decisions easier.
Children are exposed to more than 20,000 TV ads per year and are particularly vulnerable to the direct advertising by food and beverage companies for their high sugar products. In 2014, New Democrats announced a proposal to address this by banning food and beverage advertising to children. This proposal has since appeared as a recommendation in the, previously mentioned, Senate study on obesity.
Unfortunately, neither Conservative nor Liberal governments have demonstrated the political willingness to adopt these practical and necessary health measures. As the NDP health critic, I will continue to bring these practical solutions, and others, to Parliament.
Finally, as lawmakers we cannot lose sight of the bigger, systemic picture. According to the Canadian Medical Association, 50 per cent of our health status is determined by our social and economic environment. This has particular relevance to the availability of healthy food and nutrition.
Low-income Canadians often have little choice but to survive on unhealthy processed foods because they are cheaper and more readily available. Similarly, many rural and remote communities are isolated from affordable, healthy, fresh and diverse food supplies.
Accordingly, New Democrats will continue to advocate for the elimination of poverty, income security and better local food production systems to build healthier communities with healthier people.
Our health depends on it.
NDP MP Don Davies, who represents Vancouver Kingsway, B.C., is his party’s health critic.
The Hill Times
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