There seem to be so many misconceptions about salt, hypertension and nutrition so I decided to ask an expert in the field about the conflicting information. I interviewed Dr. Norm Campbell to ask him about hypertension, barriers to healthy eating, nutrition misinformation and food policy.
What do you think the biggest barriers to healthy eating that we’re facing as a population today are?
That we’ve normalized unhealthy eating to the point that people who eat very unhealthy foods don’t perceive that they are eating unhealthy foods at all. Also, there is an abundance of misinformation and an unhealthy eating environment.
I would suggest that the misinformation is spread by intent from food industry putting out all sorts of contradictory information to confuse policymakers and the public to prevent anyone from interfering with their business.
What if you could get a single message out to the general public about food or health- What would it be?
I would say that Canadians should understand that currently to date the government has been responding to the needs of the food industry, not to the public’s interest in obtaining healthy foods and that needs to change.
Wow. That’s pretty hard hitting Dr. Campbell. What’s do you eat day to day for breakfast?
A few pieces of fruit and coffee.
If you could have any breakfast in the world what would it be?
Different types of fruit with my coffee and I’d have the best coffee.
So, if you could tell the government what to do, what would you tell them to focus on within public health?
This ties in with the work that I’ve been doing for the past five years with a Coalition of National Health and Scientific Organizations. We’re working on series of policies that would protect our children and allow Canadians to eat healthier in a healthy eating environment.
It’s estimated that children in this generation will live a shorter life due to obesity from excess caloric consumption. To protect our children we’d like to restrict marketing of food and beverages to youth and create mandatory healthy food procurement policies in schools (only allowing healthier foods to be provided to students in schools). There is a third piece that needs to go along with that by restricting the sale of unhealthy foods through municipal bylaws for a certain radius around schools and places children play and congregate.
What about Alberta Schools? We’ve got so many schools in the province and a provincial healthy eating policy but it isn’t always followed. Do you think healthy eating environment policies need be monitored and evaluated after they’re implemented?
Alberta has an excellent policy, it’s one of the most advanced ones I’ve seen in Canada but, it is voluntary and the responsibility is divested to the lowest common denominator. Making policies mandatory in all publicly funded schools and buildings would be important.
There are a series of important policies that could protect the whole Canadian population. One is having food procurement policies in all publicly funded buildings and strongly encouraging the private sector to take it up as well. Healthy food creates healthy employees who are more productive.
Regulating the addition of sodium, sugar, saturated and trans fats in processed foods and restaurant foods as well as required food labeling [simple and easy to understand] to allow Canadians to easily identify and choose healthy foods.
A complete reassessment of our tax and subsidy program for agriculture and foods so unhealthy foods would be taxed and costs recouped for premature death and disability costs to the healthcare system. Healthy food should be subsidized recognizing their health benefits in society.
Lastly, we need very strong standards and defined roles to reduce the influence of the commercial food and beverage industry on our health and public policies in Canada.
And our healthcare professionals!
Yes, we wouldn’t want to forget them.
As a side note, I’d like to add that Dr. Campbell has, on many occasions, worked with the government in various capacities advocating for the health of Canadians. He’s even told them what they should do which would, in turn, save billions of dollars per year in health care savings. The government, however, has not always listened. (See here, here and here for more information)
I’m sending you to an island for a few months but I’ll let you bring four different foods, What would you bring?
That’s tough, food is highly perishable.
Okay, only four foods and I’m there for months … I think that defines unhealthy eating due to a lack of diversity. If I could cook, I’d bring salmon and wild rice. If I had to eat one fruit constantly I’d choose ambrosia apples and then I’m allowed one more choice.
No. If I only have four foods I won’t take coffee, I’d take trail mix.
Do you have any pet peeves about misconceptions or myths about nutrition?
My pet peeve about sodium is the perception that this is a scientific debate.
The scientific and health organizations from around the world have consensus and they’re all very similar. I think this is more about low-quality research and conflicts of interest. I think it’s probably time that there be an extensive investigation around commercial and scientific misconduct. The government needs to start looking at companies to recoup costs that high salt foods are causing in our society same as what they did with tobacco.
Wow I think that ties into my last question, why are there so many misconceptions about sodium intake and hypertension?
When there is a study that comes out supporting salt reduction no one hears about it, but when there is a study suggests harm from reducing dietary sodium intake the industry makes sure everyone has heard about it. It’s a fear mongering controversy.
The current Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food has mention of developing a food policy to promote healthy living in his mandate letter, in hopes to promote overarching healthy food strategies across Canada spanning from production to delivery to the public. The Minister of Health is expected to work closely with the Minister of Agriculture in these strategies as well as working to reduce marketing of foods to children (like Quebec) and dealing with trans fats and sodium. These goals are very important and could be game changers for Canadians.