Fed but Under-Nourished

Part Two of a four-part series examining what malnourishment looks like in Metro Vancouver and exploring how we can address this unnecessary phenomenon.

While talking recently with women at a low-income housing project in Vancouver, I discovered that they do not like to drink the water in their building, because it is cloudy and has a strong mineral taste. They cannot afford bottled water, and they sometimes choose to limit how much they drink since it can be a real challenge to find an accessible, safe (and clean) bathroom.

Their chronic dehydration is one of the most widespread forms of under-nourishment, which means not getting enough of the things that our bodies need to thrive.

Healthy fluids – water or non-caffeinated, non-sugary beverages – are key for transporting nutrients and oxygen to our cells. We also need fluids to flush out wastes, to cool us when we are too hot, and to cushion delicate organs. When we get dehydrated, we can feel mentally foggy and physically fatigued.

The enormous quantities of sugared coffee consumed at charitable food programs is just one reason Planted is part of a grassroots effort to promote nutrition and food quality standards among charity food providers. It would be wonderful to see ice water and a variety of natural juices and herbal teas offered universally.

Sadly, charitable food programs tend to be under-resourced and thus unable to offer an appropriate variety of nutrient-rich and sustainably produced food. Much to their frustration, they are able to feed people, but they know their guests still leave under-nourished.

Calcium and iron are two other essential nutrients that are far too scarce in charitable food programs.

Calcium is essential to bones and teeth, and is also necessary for muscle use, blood clotting, and transmitting nerve signals. Our bodies constantly adjust the amount of calcium in our bloodstreams, drawing from what we recently ate or else from stores in our bones. This process is affected by how much Vitamin D, protein, a few other macro- and micronutrients, and physical activity we get. (And high caffeine levels reduce our ability to absorb calcium.)

Given the cost and logistical challenge of serving highly perishable foods, meal programs tend to offer fewer dairy products, tofu, and calcium-rich vegetables such as broccoli or kale. As a result, people who rely on such programs often do not get enough calcium, putting them at increased risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures over the long term.

Or consider iron. Our bodies need this mineral in order to make enough blood cells to carry oxygen around to feed muscles and provide energy for movement. Iron is also an integral building block of muscles, certain neurotransmitters (they allow signals to move back and forth between your brain and the rest of your body), and enzymes (they kickstart the countless chemical processes that sustain life).

Someone who frequently goes without enough proteins, leafy green vegetables and whole grains will likely develop iron deficiency.

These are just a few of the nutritional deficiencies that our vulnerable neighbours are likely to experience. As we explore how to overcome these deficiencies, we need to avoid the trap of nutritionism: thinking that food is merely the sum of all its individual nutrients, or that the presence or lack of a specific nutrient has a specific affect on our health.

Food is complex. So too are the ways our bodies digest and use food. A person’s whole diet, long-term consumption patterns, culture, activity level, genetic heritage and stress levels all work together to impact well-being.

One meal may not significantly alter an individual’s health, but each meal we plan and serve to those living in poverty can be a step toward better life. And when thousands of people depend on charity meals for their daily nutrition, the cumulative impact of our charity food choices has an enormous effect on the life outcomes of the poor.

Hunger And Malnourishment Has Many Faces

In this four-part series, we examine what malnourishment looks like in Metro Vancouver and explore how we can address this unnecessary phenomenon.

Despite plentiful outlets for food in our city – grocery stores, farmers markets, produce shops, urban farms, restaurants, cafes, food banks, soup kitchens, community kitchens, urban organic produce delivery – many residents are nevertheless malnourished.

Some are immediately recognizable by their emaciated bodies shuffling along the sidewalk, most commonly in the Downtown Eastside yet also in every neighbourhood (picture the frail elderly). Many others who are malnourished are not so easily recognized.

Malnourishment is more than hunger, but it can start with hunger pangs. We all have appetite, the desire to eat. Most of us experience occasional cravings, or the desire to eat something specific. We also know hunger, the need to eat.

Several hours after we eat, our bodies start to feel hunger pangs (stomach contractions), increasingly strong distress hormones, and altered emotions, irritability being one of the most common. This is a complex physiological process that should make us stop and consider that humans really are fascinating beings.

In her book Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement well-known American sociologist of food Janet Poppendieck explores the idea of hunger gradations. Some people are hungry when they have to eat the same, simple food all week. And their portions are often inadequate because they do not know how long they will need to make their rations stretch. Then there are the hungry, hungry those who do not have enough food to ease the growling in their stomachs.

At a recent community meal, I sat down next to Al, a man I’ve met a number of times. Al is usually an engaging conversationalist, but on this day he wasn’t himself. I tried a few times to get him talking, but when he seemed more annoyed than interested I focused on the others seated around us.

Halfway through the meal, Al began to participate in the table discussion, becoming his usual animated self. After the main course, while we were waiting for dessert, he said to no one in particular, “Man, I really needed that. I’d hardly eaten for two days.”

At Planted, we aim to change the conversation about how and what we eat, considering especially the more vulnerable among us. We champion innovative food programs that draw on the strengths of the community to foster dignity, food skills and health. We work toward the day when everyone in Metro Vancouver goes to bed with a full stomach and a nourished sense of self.