New Brunswick

Lifting of chocolate-milk ban will drive up alarming obesity rate, groups say

A decision to relax nutrition guidelines and allow chocolate milk sales in schools will put New Brunswickers' health at risk and drive up an already-high obesity rate, health advocates predict.

Obesity rates are approaching 30% among New Brunswick children, and 70% among adults

Chocolate milk and fruit juice will once again be available in schools after the provincial government relaxed its nutrition policy this week. (mapaq.gouv.qc.ca)

A decision to relax nutrition guidelines and allow chocolate milk sales in schools will put New Brunswickers' health at risk and drive up an already-high obesity rate, health advocates predict. 

"It's our health that's at stake and we need to start earlier in preventing diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease," said Jake Reid, national director of government relations at Diabetes Canada.

"We need to educate parents on what's good nutrition and what's low nutrition."

Earlier this week, the province announced it was lifting a ban on chocolate milk and fruit juice sales in schools and school fundraisers. 

The previous Liberal government adopted the stricter guidelines in June that prohibited food and beverages with "lower nutritional value that contain few nutrients and are higher in saturated fats, sugar or salt."

Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development Dominic Cardy said policy 711 has been changed to allow the sale of chocolate milk and more flexibility for breakfast and after-school programs. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

The requirements extended beyond the school cafeteria and applied to breakfast programs and fundraisers.

Reid said Diabetes Canada applauded the earlier policy, calling it progressive and saying the province had sought feedback from groups such as the Heart and Stroke Foundation and Dietitians of Canada.

"It was something we could put our finger on and say, 'Look, maybe you know New Brunswick was first on something instead of last,'" he said.

Similar to smoking ban

He compared the policy change under the Liberals to banning smoking in schools or restaurants, which some considered outrageous when the change was introduced.

"We're not saying parents shouldn't serve these items, we're not saying that parents couldn't give them in lunches, that you can't have them in moderate quantities," Reid said.

"What we're saying is in public institutions, schools, hospitals, rinks in your community, shouldn't be offering those empty calories …  that are added sugars from pops, sugar-sweetened beverages and sweetened milks."

Reid said the World Health Organization suggests less than five per cent of a person's daily calorie intake should be from sugars.

In the end we are going to see a generation of people, of citizens in this community, that will become older overtime and will not be outliving their previous generation.-Serge  Melanson , president of the New Brunswick Medical Society

That's about 25 grams, or six teaspoons, of added sugar, he said.

"Just a couple of chocolate milks and you're already over that daily intake," he said.

"What's at stake is the rise in obesity levels."

When Diabetes Canada first got wind of the latest policy change, they reached out to government to have a meeting, and were hoping to keep the ban on chocolate milk and juice sales in place.   

"It's a little bit upsetting that this came down so swiftly," he said.

Developing diseases early 

In New Brunswick, Dr. Serge Melanson, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said there's a direct correlation between foods being served to the population and poor health, describing the new policy as "a bit of a setback." 

"In the end we are going to see a generation of people, of citizens in this community, that will become older overtime and will not be outliving their previous generation, and who will develop diseases much earlier than intended."

He said child obesity rates are approaching 30 per cent in New Brunswick, which he said is a "really alarming trend that is seemingly increasing."

Dr. Serge Melanson, said child obesity rates are hovering around 30 per cent in New Brunswick. (CBC)

In adults they're approaching 70 per cent in New Brunswick and leading the country with obesity rates — which he said, is not by coincidence.

"To ask a child to make a decision on, 'Do you want a glass of chocolate milk versus a glass of whole white milk?' — it's almost a non-decision for those children," Melanson said.

"They don't have the insight or the capacity in most cases to understand the impact that those decisions will have on their health in five years or 10 years from now."

The province's medical community says it's less than impressed with New Brunswick's sudden reversal on healthy food rules for students. Dr. Serge Melanson, president of the NB Medical Society, says we need to 'refocus our efforts' on recognizing the consequences of making poor food choices. 13:36

And as an emergency room doctor, Melanson said he's now encountering patients with Type 2 diabetes in their 20s.

"This is something that was unheard of even a decade or two ago, or maybe a 30-year-old with their first heart attack," he said.

An unpleasant future 

In a previous interview with Information Morning Fredericton, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said he spoke with a parent who wanted their child to have "some calories, even if they're not the best calories."

That didn't settle too well with Melanson.

"I think we're setting the bar pretty low by saying that the only thing we can offer children are foods that are devoid of any nutritional value and actually have just empty calories," he said.

"I think we can do better and we need to do better for our young people."

Education Minister Dominic Cardy explains why the government is loosening the restrictions in the school nutrition policy... but Jake Reid of Diabetes Canada says that policy was a model for other jurisdictions and these changes send the wrong message. 10:06

Melanson said government and communities and other jurisdictions across the province need to work together on making the population healthier and teaching the public about healthy food options.

He said the medical society is also willing to join a task force to tackle the issue of obesity rates in New Brunswick.  

"In the end I don't think we can afford to continue on this current trajectory that we're on," he said.

"It's going to lead us to a place that we find might be extremely negative and unpleasant for our future generation."

With files from Shift, Information Morning Fredericton

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