When “healthy nutrition” becomes an imperative

This text was co-written with Wendy Allen.

RECAA members, who come from different cultures, love eating together at potluck meals. Along with their favourite dishes come memories and stories of people, places and events. The Foodblog was created to share these recipes – recipes which reflect the current preoccupation on healthy eating for young and old.

At the same time that RECAA members were creating the blog, a debate began in the public sphere related to the quality of elders’ care in CHSLDs. It was sparked by the revelation that residents were being served instant potatoes instead of the real thing. The debate, initially framed as the need for “healthy nutrition” was broadened to include considerations about elders’ health, costs associated with the production of “healthy” food and, from a broader perspective, policies related to the protection and care of elders.

Picture: Jacques Boissinot La Presse canadienne

RECAA’s food blog and this public debate are two examples of the imperative for “healthy nutrition” that hangs over elders’ heads. I certainly agree with the idea of serving nutritious, healthy and tasty meals to elders in CHSLDs. My concerns relate more to the way healthy eating is being linked to “successful aging”, getting elders to accept responsibility for their health by, among other things, adopting good eating habits. The corollary is that if someone is unhealthy, it is the result of having neglected to take care of him/herself.

Currently, public discourse around aging implies that it needs to be slowed down or, at least, controlled. Changes that come with age are portrayed as something to avoid, to postpone or even to stop. Underlying this is the assumption that a “bad” aging process would result in increased health care costs and the cost of taking care of the elderly when they cannot take care of themselves.

“Healthy nutrition” appears to be being promoted as the magical key for every health problem that could occur with aging. This simplistic and reductionist understanding of the relation between food and the body needs to be questioned. It doesn’t take into considerations other factors that might influence the aging process. It also promotes the concept of a universal body that would react in a similar way to food intake which is not the case, each body reacts differently. This understanding also ignores the fact that what is defined as healthy nutrition varies depending on the cultural context.

This association between food and a healthy body raises questions that need to be addressed. Are we moving towards the classification of individuals based on their biology? Will we use medical tests to make a link between link aging bodies and living habits? What would be implied by a bad blood test, for example, one that indicated a high concentration of sugar or fat? Are we on the way to creating a “biological underclass”, one in which individuals might be defined as unemployable, uninsurable or for whom supplement health care costs may be expected?

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