My 10- and 12-year-old daughters love treats—sweet treats, salty treats, any kind of treats. Bring them on an errand or outing and I must fend off pleas for chips, chocolates and cookies. I'm sure I'm not alone here. Need to pick up a prescription at the drugstore? Avoid the aisle packed with junk. How about a visit to the doctor or the ride to soccer practice? Well, get the kids to look the other way when you pass Tim Hortons or Menchie's. You can't go anywhere. Shop for discounted clothes at Winners or new towels at HomeSense and hold your hands over their eyes as you wait in line. Go to the swimming pool or the skating arena and there's a vending machine. And better hope you can pay at the gas pump so you don't have to go into that junk food palace.
Wherever you live in Canada—be it a rural, urban or suburban area, in a high-priced neighbourhood or subsidized housing—you are more likely to be surrounded by ultra-processed food for sale rather than the basic ingredients you need to cook yourself a meal. This landscape of chips and donuts, flavoured coffee drinks, gluten-free cookies and everything else for sale that is edible is called our retail food environment. In Toronto, for example, only one out of every five food retailers offers healthy options. Researchers in the field of public health are paying attention to all the different kinds of businesses that sell us this food because of what it means for our health—and our kids' health too.
"Our environment shapes our health," says Rachel Engler-Stringer, associate professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan. "There is greater consumption of the foods we shouldn't be eating all the time when there is closer proximity and greater density [of]." In other words, the more you're surrounded by unhealthy food, the more you're likely to eat it.
A report from the Canadian government showed that most studies into the food environment in this country identify an association between what's for sale and the health issues that people may develop. And research out the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health found that just living near places that sell unhealthy food meant that younger adults in particular had a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This doesn't mean that kids will necessarily get type-2 diabetes if they live and go to school near where all this unhealthy food is sold. But it does mean that over their lifetimes they have a higher chance of developing this chronic disease.
And while these unhealthy food environments affect everyone, the research shows the health impact is worse for low-income families and their kids. One reason for this is because lower income neighbourhoods are more likely to have a higher concentration of these unhealthy food choices.
Some of today’s parents might remember being allowed to eat, in large quantities, all sorts of the foods we now call unhealthy. It's different now, not only because more people are aware of the negative health effects of eating too much sugar and salt in particular, but because the bad foods are inescapable. Researchers looking into how cities have changed have found that people's access to places like bakeries, fast-food restaurants and convenience stores has increased since the 1970s. “Even compared to 20 years ago, you have unhealthy food environments wherever you go," says Engler-Stringer.
So what's a parent to do? Andrea Curtis, author of a new book for kids, Eat This! How Fast-Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk (And How to Fight Back) suggests teaching kids to be savvy consumers and alerting them to marketing that targets them. "No one wants to think they are being manipulated," she says. But that's exactly what ads do. So Curtis suggests teaching kids how advertising works to get them to want to buy food that is bad for their bodies.
Still, the real change must come from the people who control what the food environment looks like—and that's the government. Los Angeles, for one, limited the number of fast food restaurants that were allowed to open in one low-income neighbourhood. City planners and people in public health are finding that getting small businesses, like corner stores, to sell healthier food is one way to get more people to make better choices. Vote for politicians who are making these changes, and voice your support between elections by writing your city councilor or the mayor—or joining an organization working to improve the food system where you live. City leaders need to know the community supports them when they take a stand on the food environment.
"You can't just tell people to eat a certain way and expect them to do that," says Engler-Stringer. "Our environment does shape our health."