Malnutrition Through Over-Nutrition

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

In Part One of this series, we defined malnourishment and reflected on how it can be both widespread and hidden in our city. In Part Two, we discussed how people can be fed yet under-nourished, not getting enough of the kinds of food we need to thrive.

Malnourishment, however, can also be linked to “over-nutrition”: people consuming too many things our bodies are not really designed to digest. In this light, someone who appears to be a healthy weight, or even overweight, can still be malnourished.

Too much caffeine can leave us jittery and unable to sleep. Too much sugar can lead to diabetes and its many related complications. Too much salt can lead to high blood pressure. Too much fat can lead to heart disease. Too much food in general erodes our ability to appreciate it. One cannot experience the physical joy of being satisfied when one is perpetually over-satisfied.

These conditions are far too common and can be fatal. Together, they are sometimes referred to as the metabolic syndrome, or Syndrome X, and further limit the body’s ability to maintain ideal blood pressure or glucose levels. If allowed to progress too far, they cause irreversible damage to eyesight, nerves, and blood vessels, as well as increased risk for a stroke.

Food-related ailments, however, don’t need to be permanent. Simple shifts in our eating and physical activity habits can have significant impact in returning blood sugar, blood pressure and waistlines to healthier levels.

For those who rely on charitable food sources, changes in diet may not be possible without a commitment from service providers to source nourishing food.

Should charitable organizations refuse foods that staff members would not eat themselves?

Here’s what Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, authors of The Stop, write about the food policy at their community food centre in Toronto. “We’ve been turning down damaged cans and opened packages since we got here – partly because of safety concerns, but also because being given such throwaways makes food bank recipients feel like second class citizens… The food bank experience is often a slow painful death of the spirit – forcing yourself to visit a crowded, ill-equipped, makeshift place, answer personal questions, swallow your pride as you wait in line-up. Reaching the front of the line only to be offered bizarre processed food products” (p. 41).

When I asked a participant at a community consultation what he would say to the person who planned the meals, he said, “As a senior, I need a lower sodium diet. Most places serve mostly canned food and bread, things you would get from a food bank. Please also consider serving lower sugar, lower sodium meals. People can add salt themselves.”

Along with an excess of food items our bodies aren’t designed to digest, too much of a certain kind of charity can lead to dehumanization.

During a recent visit to a community food program, I was seated at a table, introduced to my tablemates, and given a bowl of soup before I could protest that I was there to observe, not because I needed to be fed. The volunteers who served me were kind and generous, nevertheless I was made to feel inadequate as I was served rather than welcomed onto the team of volunteers.

As Janet Poppendieck says in Sweet Charity, “Charity ‘wounds’ because it excuses the recipient from obligation to repay that are deeply embedded in both culture and psyche and fundamental to human social life” (p. 251).

What can we do?

Poppendieck has an answer: “The simplest and most obvious strategy for promoting dignity is also probably the least employed: the common meal that blurs or erases the distinction between givers and receivers, providers and clients” (p. 248).

When planning to feed the poor, let’s plan like we’re eating with neighbours – because we are! Let’s plan a meal that everyone would want to eat. Let’s serve it in such a way that everyone will feel included and honoured, not set apart by this or that “need.”

Planted exists to promote this kind of community building and to share the stories that will inspire others to dine with us.

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