Ontario government to mandate calorie labeling in restaurants

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

The word is that the Ontario government will soon announce that they will mandate large chain restaurants to include calorie information on their menus.  Similar labeling requirements already exist in some US states and cities, but this will be the first jurisdiction in Canada to do so.

Let me first say that I support this move.  Personally speaking, knowing the nutritional information of what I’m about to order absolutely impacts my purchasing decisions.  As a dietitian, I think that providing consumers with more information about the food they eat is a good thing.  I’d like to believe that when the public has a better appreciation for how bad some restaurant food can be, they will make better choices.  I also feel that legislation like this has the potential to create social pressure on corporations to make their recipes a little healthier.  Will this move alone solve the obesity epidemic?  Of course not.  But it’s one more tool that governments can use to tackle this problem.

Opponents will argue that this type of information is already available. And that’s true. Currently fast food outlets are already required to provide comprehensive nutrition information on site.  Many restaurants meet this requirement by making brochures or posters available near the ordering counter.  They also post nutritional information on their websites.  The problem is that this information is easily missed by patrons for various reasons (ie. hard to find, small print, don’t have time to access the web, etc…).  Putting this information directly on the menu makes it impossible to miss.  It’s now in your face.  It may not alter everyone’s menu decisions, but at least now people shouldn’t be able to say they didn’t know they weren’t making a great choice.

That said, I will admit that my enthusiasm for such a move is tempered somewhat.

Studies have shown that while public support for restaurants providing point-of-purchase nutrition information is strong (Mah et al 2013), the data is somewhat mixed on whether it’s actually effective in reducing caloric consumption.  Interestingly two separate studies from last year examined the impact of calorie labeling in Philadelphia fast food restaurants and showed opposite results – one showed that it lowered the total calories purchased (Auchincloss et al 2013) and  the other showed it had no impact (Elbel et al 2013).  I think it’s fair to say that more research is needed to determine how much of an impact (if any) calorie labeling on menus actually has.

There are questions as to why Ontario’s new legislation will not include additional information like sodium, trans fat and sugar as part of the labeling requirements.  Health Minister Deb Matthews was apparently considering these options, but ultimately decided to wait and “listen to what people had to say”.  Personally, I’m a little disappointed the government decided to go half way here.  At minimum I would have liked to have seen the sodium content listed in addition to calories.  According to a report prepared by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI):

“In a study of menu offerings in nearly 30 Canadian chains, CSPI found that sodium levels in the same menu category within the same restaurants typically varied five-fold and calories varied two-fold. Studies show that people, even dietitians, under-estimate sodium levels in foods to an even greater extent than calories. A teaspoon, even a tablespoon of salt could easily be mixed into a restaurant dish, transforming even healthy fare into a blood vessel pressure-cooker.”

Hyperbole aside, is it true that it can be very difficult to determine how much sodium is in a dish based on how “salty” it tastes.  Many seemingly healthy items can have astonishingly high sodium contents – some entrees easily topping the recommended daily maximum of 2300 mg.

I also have a bit of an issue with the fact that only large chain restaurants are expected to be affected by this legislation.  While I appreciate that the potential costs associated with updating menus and conducting nutrient analysis are not trivial, it just seems again that they’re only partially addressing the issue.  Maybe you give smaller operations a longer lead time to comply?  I know that when my wife and I go out to eat we rarely choose chain restaurants, so we’d personally see little benefit from this new legislation, which is somewhat disappointing.

To summarize, I think its a step in the right direction, but I hope they look at expanding the labeling requirements in the future.  It will be interesting to see if other provinces adopt similar regulations.  I’ll also be keeping an eye out for data evaluating the effectiveness of Ontario’s new legislation.

What do you think?  Would calorie information affect your menu choices?  Are there other nutrients you would like to see included on menus?

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References

Auchincloss AH, Mallya GG, Leonberg BL, Ricchezza A, Glanz K, Schwarz DF. Customer responses to mandatory menu labeling at full-service restaurants. Am J Prev Med. 2013 Dec;45(6):710-9

Elbel B, Mijanovich T, Dixon LB, Abrams C, Weitzman B, Kersh R, Auchincloss AH, Ogedegbe G. Calorie labeling, Fast food purchasing and restaurant visits. Obesity. 2013. Nov; 21(11):2172–2179

Mah CL, Vanderlinden L, Mamatis D, Ansara DL, Levy J, Swimmer L.  Ready for policy? Stakeholder attitudes toward menu labelling in Toronto, Canada. Can J Public Health. 2013 Apr 18;104(3):e229-34.

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Shedding light on weight bias

Here is an article that will be published in the CSA’s April issue of Oasis magazine.  Enjoy!

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Rudd Center

Quick.  What comes to mind when you think of a person who is overweight or obese?  What characteristics or qualities do they possess?

Researchers have found that when people are asked these questions they generally respond with a laundry list of undesirable traits.  “Fat people are lazy.”  “They’re messy/disorganized.”  “People who are overweight lack willpower.”  “They must be uneducated when it comes to their health.”

Unfortunately these perceptions are only stereotypes and often have little basis in reality.  The truth is that obesity is a complex disease that is influenced by many genetic and environmental factors.  There is no “one size fit’s all” obesity model.  Most people would agree that it’s naïve to believe that everyone who is carrying around extra weight fits nicely into the above categories.  Yet for some reason people who are overweight and obese are still subjected to these types of judgements on a routine basis.  At best this can be insulting, but at worst it is discriminatory.

What is weight bias?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States defines weight bias as an “inclination to form unreasonable judgments based on a person’s weight.”  Basically, weight bias occurs when you attribute certain qualities to someone, like those mentioned in the examples above, for no reason other than how big they are.  Many obesity researchers claim that weight bias is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination.

Weight bias occurs in every facet of life.  It is found in the classroom where children affected by obesity are often subjected to daily bullying from their peers.  It’s in the workplace, where people who are overweight are less likely to be hired by employers than their thin counterparts.  It happens in the media every time you hear an inappropriate “fat joke”.  And it even occurs in health care settings where doctors report that they perceive their obese patients as more likely to be noncompliant, hostile, dishonest and have poor hygiene.

Regrettably, weight bias has become more prevalent in recent years.  This is likely due to a combination of factors including rising rates of obesity, recurring messages from industry and government that focus on personal responsibility as a sole means to combat the obesity epidemic, and the media’s continued negative portrayal of people who are obese.

Why is weight bias harmful?

Weight bias is harmful because it creates barriers for individuals who wish to improve their health and wellness.  People who are targets of weight bias are more likely to suffer from depression, low self-esteem, anxiety or have poor body image and suicidal thoughts.  They are also more likely to engage in unhealthy dieting practices, develop eating disorders and avoid physical activity.  These aren’t exactly the types of conditions you want to be creating amongst a group of people who may benefit from weight loss.

Weight bias can have negative effects on other aspects of a person’s life too.  On the social side, people who are obese are more likely to be rejected by their peers.  They are also more likely to do poorly in school.  From an economic perspective overweight adults earn less money than thin people in comparable positions.

Common myths about overweight/obesity

Myth # 1 – People who are obese are lazy, disorganized, unintelligent or lack self-discipline.

These stereotypes have little basis in reality.  People who are obese are no more likely to possess these traits than thin people.

Myth # 2 – Criticism helps motivate people to lose weight.

The opposite is actually true.  Studies have shown that the majority of adults who are obese cope with weight bias by eating more and losing their motivation to improve their diets.

Myth # 3 – Losing weight is easy.  All you need to do is eat less and exercise more.

If only it were that simple.  Unfortunately obesity is a complex disease that is influenced by numerous genetic and environmental factors.  Many people who are overweight eat as healthy and exercise as much as the average thin person.

Myth #4 – People who are overweight are unhealthy.

Measures like body weight and body mass index (BMI) are useful indicators of health for populations, but are of little use when assessing an individual’s health status.  Much more important indicators are things like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, fasting blood glucose and percent body fat.  Being overweight or obese may put someone at higher risk for developing certain chronic diseases, but by itself is a poor way to determine if someone is unhealthy.

What can you do?

Educate yourself as to the root causes of obesity.  A great place to start is by checking out the Obesity Action Coalition’s website.  The bottom line is that obesity is more than the result of someone simply making poor lifestyle choices.

It’s also important to be an advocate whenever possible.  If you hear an inappropriate joke or derogatory comment related to weight speak up and say it’s not okay.  Don’t be afraid to challenge people’s perceptions and negative stereotypes head on.

Unfortunately until weight bias is recognized as a real issue that has real consequences, the situation will continue to exist.  At the end of the day, the goal should be to fight obesity, not obese persons.

Resources

For more information on weight bias check out the websites below:

Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity –  http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/

Obesity Action Coalition – http://www.obesityaction.org/weight-bias-and-stigma

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Brazil – a model for dietary guidelines everywhere?

realfood

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the new dietary guidelines proposed by Brazilian health officials.  It’s refreshing to see guidelines that are based on overall eating patterns and eating real food instead of numbers of servings, food groups, nutrients, etc., that we’re used to in North America.

I first read about these guidelines from Dr. Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog, so I figured I’d simply quote text directly from there (also the original Brazilian document is in Portuguese, so that doesn’t do me much good!).  Below is a description of Brazil’s guidelines.

“The guidelines…..are based on foods that Brazilians of all social classes eat every day, and consider the social, cultural, economic and environmental implications of food choices.”

The guide’s three “golden rules:”

  • Make foods and freshly prepared dishes and meals the basis of your diet.
  • Be sure oils, fats, sugar and salt are used in moderation in culinary preparations.
  • Limit the intake of ready-to-consume products and avoid those that are ultra-processed.

The ten Brazilian guidelines:

  1. Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods.
  2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.
  3. Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products
  4. Eat regular meals, paying attention, and in appropriate environments.
  5. Eat in company whenever possible.
  6. Buy food at places that offer varieties of fresh foods. Avoid those that mainly sell products ready for consumption.
  7. Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.
  8. Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space.
  9. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes and meals. Avoid fast food chains.
  10. Be critical of the commercial advertisement of food products.”

Doesn’t this seem so much more intuitive than something like making sure you get 8-10 servings of vegetables & fruits each day?  Imagine how much healthier AND less stressed about nutrition/diet/food we all be if we just followed similar guidelines.

What do you think?

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Canadians love their “ultra-processed” foods

junk_food

This recent paper was brought to my attention by Yoni Freedhoff’s fantastic blog Weighty Matters last week.  (*BTW, if you’re at all interested in issues related to obesity, do yourself a favour and check it out!)

The paper highlights the huge extent to which Canadians rely on “ultra-processed” foods in their diets.  Using data from Statistics Canada’s 2001’s Food Expenditure Survey (FOODEX) researchers found that 62% of ALL the calories Canadians consume come from ultra-processed food and drink products.  Ultra-processed foods are defined as:

“…ready-to-consume/heat industry formulations manufactured from cheap ingredients directly extracted from whole foods, such as oils, fats, sucrose and flours, or processed from components extracted from whole foods such as high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, a variety of starches, and the cheap parts or remnants of meat. These products are typically added of several preservatives and cosmetic additives, with little or no content of whole foods…….Because of the nature of their formulation (including packaging), these products have a long shelf-life, dispense with culinary preparation and the need for dishes and cutlery, and are intensely palatable and appealing to the senses. They are typically energy-dense, with a high content in total, saturated and trans-fats, free sugars and Na, and little or no water, fibre, micronutrients and other protective bioactive compounds existing in whole foods. Marketing campaigns often overtly promote the compulsive consumption of these products including the use of ‘discounts’ for supersize servings.”

Obviously the findings of this study are pretty disappointing, if not unsurprising.  You don’t need to be a dietitian to understand that ultra-processed foods aren’t very good for you.  They’re high in calories, fats (particularly the bad ones), sugars and sodium.  And they promote the development of all sorts of chronic diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.  Not exactly the types of foods you want making up two thirds of your diet.  It would be nice if we had a little more recent data, but considering that the current food environment is arguably worse than it was in 2001, I would expect that we probably eat even more ultra-processed foods today.

I found it interesting that the study compared its results to similar data from Brazil which showed that Brazilians only get 20% of their total calories from so called ultra-processed foods.  The authors suggest this is most likely due to the relative high cost of ultra-processed foods in Brazil.  I can’t seem to find similar pricing data from Egypt (it probably doesn’t exist), but at least from an anecdotal perspective, I can definitely say that ultra-processed foods tend to be quite expensive, yet unprocessed/minimally processed foods are relatively cheap.  As a result, we buy even less of them than we used to.

So if we want to reduce Canadians intake of ultra-processed foods, it would seem an effective strategy would be to target interventions that increase the price discrepancy between healthy and ultra-processed foods.

Anyone else think it might be time to consider a “junk food” tax?

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Egypt is slowly turning me into a vegetarian

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My 18 year old self would never have believed it.  For some reason while growing up a meal didn’t quite seem complete if meat wasn’t included somehow.  I was the Barney Gumble at Homer’s BBQ.  Even after I became a dietitian the type and quantity of meat I chose to eat certainly changed but it was still a relatively rare occurrence for a lunch or dinner not to include meat or fish of some kind.  This is no longer the case.

There are a few reasons for this.

It’s partly due to availability.  We don’t eat out that often, so we largely rely on foods we buy in the supermarket.  And the supermarkets I regularly visit essentially have two types of meat available at the deli counter – chicken and beef.  One place has fish/seafood too. That’s pretty much it though.  No pork.  No lamb, turkey or bison.  It’s a bit of a change from what I’m used to for sure.

Much of the meat that is available in supermarkets here is of questionable quality.  To put it nicely the meat counter can smell a like a slaughter house.  It’s kinda gross.  It doesn’t exactly make you want to pick up a steak while passing through that section of the store.

I have real concerns about the food safety standards here in Egypt.  Somehow I suspect there aren’t the same regulations we have in Canada about temperatures, cross contamination, etc.  If there are, from what I’ve seen, the workers are not following them.  Fortunately, we haven’t experienced any serious bouts of food poisoning, but it’s probably mostly luck.  To minimize the risk of getting sick, the meat/fish we buy tends to be frozen, but obviously that’s not exactly ideal either.

In addition to the lack of availability and questionable quality, the meat here is pretty darn expensive – at least comparatively speaking.  The cost of beef is roughly the same price as what it costs in Canada.  Chicken’s a little cheaper.  But when you consider that our income level is nowhere near what it was back home, it becomes a lot easier to look for other options.

It may sound like I’m complaining, but honestly I’m not.

The produce here is amazingly good.  I really love how cheap and fresh fruits and vegetables are here year round.  I’m still learning exactly when certain items here are “in-season” but it’s great that you can always find lots of local produce.  It’s also been cool learning to make regional vegetarian dishes, like koshary and couscous tabbouleh.

Plus there’s the added benefit of vegetarianism being quite healthy 🙂

So while I’m not sure I’ll ever completely swear off meat, I could definitely see this trend continuing even after we return to Canada.

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Why We Need to Calm the F$&k Down When it Comes to Nutrition

Just stumbled across this blog. Couldn’t agree more with the philosophy.

The Nutrition Guru and the Chef

I was chatting with my dietitian friend the other day and she said something wonderful.

“We all just need to calm the f$&k down when it comes to nutrition.”

She is so very right. Somehow, nutrition and health has turned into this frightening, bombarding world of conflicting information. ‘Don’t eat this because that will happen, the food industry is killing you, 10 foods that will give you cancer.’

I once put a picture on our Facebook page page of our trolley of which contained a stack of healthy foods. I had a reader ask with disgust as to why I would be buying grated cheese. ‘Surely you should know as a nutritionist that you shouldn’t eat pre-grated cheese because of the preservatives’

Give me a break. Am I going to die because of the artificial anti caking agent in a bag of cheese that I purchase once every 6 months?…

View original post 474 more words

A little perspective…

“In order to properly understand the big picture, everyone should fear becoming mentally clouded and obsessed with one small section of truth.”  – Xun Zi

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forest trees

I attended a free talk at the CSA a few days ago.  The presenter was discussing some of the public’s top misconceptions when it comes to health and nutrition.  It wasn’t a huge turnout (only 8 of us) but given that it was in the middle of the day I suppose it wasn’t all that surprising.  The benefit of having a smaller group is that attendees tend to speak up a little more, making for better questions and discussion.

Anyways, I can’t remember exactly what the “misconception” was, but the take home message was that it’s important to stay hydrated over the day and that water is your best choice for this.  Good, solid advice for sure.

But the discussion didn’t end quite there.

Someone asked,  “Does it matter which type of water I drink?”

Another piped in, “Yes, I was just about to ask the same thing myself.”

The woman sitting beside me quickly replied.  “Oh yes.  I prefer brand x, but brand y is good too.  Don’t buy brand z though”.

“Why?”

Brand z is really high in sodium.”

The presenter concurred.  “Yes, you shouldn’t choose brand z.  It is high in sodium.”

I was a little taken aback.  We happen to have brand z at home and never had I once thought my water tasted salty.

But because I’m relatively new to Egypt, maybe I was unaware of one of the realities of bottled water over here?  I’d never actually looked at the sodium content of brand z so I chose to keep my skepticism to myself.

On my way home however I decided to buy a bottle of brand x so I could compare it to my “salty” water.

It turns out they were right.  Brand z had a whopping 16 mg of sodium per litre, whereas brand x had a much healthier amount of 14 mg per litre!

This sort of thing tends to happen in nutrition all the time.  People get caught up on individual nutrient contents of foods and focus less on their overall eating patterns throughout the day or week.  I’ve had more than one person tell me they don’t eat carrots because they’re high in sugar.  Or others who say they avoid eating a lot of fruit because of the carbs.

Does brand z have more sodium than brand x?  Sure.  But it’s important to put this into context.  Healthy individuals should be aiming for about 1500 mg/day of sodium in their diet.  The maximum recommended amount is 2300 mg/day.  Most people eating a Western diet are way over this amount and usually get around 3000-4000 mg/day.

Now, the Institute of Medicine says that to stay adequately hydrated adult males require 3.7 litres of fluid/day and that adult females require 2.7 L/day.  Keep in mind these requirements are for fluid and not necessarily water, but water makes an excellent choice because it has no calories. (*Note the old adage of drinking 8 glasses of water/day doesn’t actually have any basis in science).  Given that we’re likely to get some of our fluids from sources other than water, I think it’s fair to say the average person should be realistically aiming to drink around 2-2.5 litres of water per day (maybe more if you are active).  So if I drink my 2.5 litres of water and choose to drink brand x over brand z, I’m saving myself exactly 5 mg of sodium.  That’s 5 mg of sodium compared to the 1500 mg that I should be aiming for daily.  You don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that 5 mg in relation to 1500 mg isn’t much.  In the science biz, that’s what we’d call “negligible.”

The funny thing is, more often than not, the person who advocates for one brand of water over another is also the same person who has no qualms about eating out at cafes and restaurants on a regular basis.  Maybe they order a soup or salad?  Maybe a sandwich?  Maybe they even order the lowest sodium item on the menu.  Whatever it is, I can pretty much guarantee that it will have 25 to 100-fold more sodium than what is contained in their bottle of water.

If you’re concerned about your sodium intake (and frankly most of us should be), it’s probably better to invest your time targeting lifestyle changes that will actually make a meaningful difference in the amount of sodium you consume.  For example, if you decide to cook one meal at home from scratch rather than go out for dinner, you’d save yourself the same amount of sodium you’d get from drinking the “higher sodium water” for months.

In my opinion, it’s not worth the time or effort to focus on the minutiae of 5 mg of sodium.  People can drive themselves crazy when they get obessed with counting every single gram (or milligram) of every nutrient that they eat.  There may be a small percentage of people for whom this strategy works well for, but in my experience most people just can’t sustain it.  I know for myself, I can’t.  And besides, the bigger picture is more important anyways.  Avoiding processed foods, limiting meals out and reducing the amount of salt you add to your recipes will have a greater impact on your sodium intake than what brand of bottled water you choose ever could.

What’s that old saying about seeing the forest for the trees?

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Chocolate – A True Super Food?

chocolate (2)

Here’s a link to an article that I had published in the February issue of Cairo West Magazine.  I kind of wished I had a little more space in the article to expand on some of the points (and even discuss a few other purported benefits).  Oh well.  Such is life when working under a strict word count.

Anyways, if you’re interested in finding out whether or not chocolate is really the super food it’s sometimes touted to be click on the link below.  Hint:  As long as you’re choosing the dark kind, it still makes a solid Valentine’s Day option.

Enjoy!

http://www.cairowestmag.com/chocolate-a-true-super-food/

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Marcus O’Neill: Dietitian and….Magazine Editor?

jameson

I got the call (or rather the email) yesterday.  I’ve been offered a position as Media and Communications Coordinator at the Community Services Association (CSA) here in Maadi.  What does this mean?  Well, my primary responsibilities will be related to their monthly magazine – Oasis.  If you recall, I’ve been writing nutrition articles for them for the past few months.  In my new role, I’ll be more or less acting as magazine’s editor, coordinating and editing content.  I’ll also be producing regular newsletters, posters and any other media/communications required by the CSA.

I suppose this requires a bit of an explanation.  As a trained dietitian, becoming the media and communications coordinator for a local organization wasn’t exactly the job I was expecting to find when we decided to move here.  But upon submitting my most recent article (Iron Woman) the current coordinator mentioned that she’d be leaving her position soon and suggested that I apply.  Apparently, I’m the only one who she doesn’t have to chase after to get their articles in on time and that she felt I’d make a great fit.  Finally, my tendencies towards hyper-organizing everything are leading to something other than annoying my wife!

At first I was a little taken aback.  Why me exactly?  She obviously knew I was a dietitian as I’d been sending her nutrition articles for the past few months.  Then the more I thought about it, the more I really started to like the idea.  Not only will this position give me the opportunity to gain more experience in the realm of writing and publication (something I’ve been enjoying a lot since moving here), but now I’ll also have the power to veto and/or edit bullshit non-evidenced based articles about health and nutrition.  As you know this is one of my biggest pet peeves, so the fact that I’ll have the ability to ensure the public is getting health advice that is based on sound evidence is exciting.   It sounds as though a big part of the job is simply staying on top of things and nagging people to get their articles in.  I think I can do that.

So last week I met with the current coordinator and she introduced me to the CSA’s general manager and executive director.  Again, somewhat to my surprise, they seemed quite keen on bringing me on board.  In some ways it felt more like I was being recruited rather than being interviewed.  Salaries are low here compared to Canada, so they definitely wanted me to know of the other perks the job offered (ie. discounts for programs/on-site shopping, free gym access, atmosphere, etc…).

And the other thing they’re quite open to me doing is offering nutrition services at the CSA.  It turns out they hired another nutrition consultant before Christmas but since she’s only available 1-2 days a week, there’s more than enough room for me to do one-on-one counselling and/or group talks as well.  Pretty cool, right?

It sounds like I’ll be starting later this month, so I’ll be able to see how they put the finishing touches on March’s issue.  The current coordinator will be around until the end of March, so she’ll also help with training for April’s issue.  To be honest, it’s a huge relief that she’ll be around to show me the ropes those first couple of issues.

In regards to the other projects I’ve been working on, I expect I’ll continue writing regular articles for Cairo West Magazine.  A new article for February’s issue should be out in the next couple of days (I’ll post a link on the blog when it’s available).  And it’s always possible that private counselling opportunities will arise outside of the CSA (I actually have a strong lead on this too.  Stay tuned for updates).  When you add that to the 30+ hrs/week I’ll be putting in in this new job, it sounds like I’ll be pretty busy.  But, by no means am I complaining.  In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever been as excited for a new job.  Especially considering it only pays $5.00/hr :-)….

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Daytrippin’ to Alexandria

We were beginning to feel a little antsy after spending the past 3 weeks in Cairo.  When our friend and guide, Mike mentioned he was hoping to run a day trip to Alexandria, we jumped at the opportunity.  It turned out we were the only people interested, so we had ourselves another private tour.

Alexandria was originally founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC.  Upon Alexander’s death, his empire was divided amongst his generals and Ptolemy was awarded Egypt.  As the new pharoah, Ptolemy moved the Egyptian capital from Memphis to Alexandria where the city flourished for several centuries.  During Roman rule, Alexandria still played a prominent role in the region and did so until Rome’s decline in the 4th century AD.  In the 7th century the conquering Muslim armies decided to move the capital to Cairo, furthering Alexandria’s decline throughout the middle ages.  It didn’t begin to turn around again until Napoleon arrived in 1798 recognizing the strategic importance of this port village.  During the subsequent reign of Muhammed Ali in the early 1800’s, Alexandria became one of the busiest ports on the Mediterranean and attracted many inhabitants from throughout the region.  In recent years, much of the city’s international population has migrated elsewhere, but many of their European influences are still evident.

We began our tour of the city by checking out the Roman Theatre.  This theatre complex was originally constructed by Ptolemy I, but was also used and redeveloped during Roman times.  The original theatre had approximately 60 rows, whereas the current one only has 13.  While the site itself was pretty neat, we’ve seen such incredible Greek/Roman ruins over the past year or so (Ephesus, Jerash, Amman, Athens), it was a little underwhelming.

Roman Theatre

Roman Theatre

After the theatre, we headed over to Alexandria’s Bibliotheca.  In ancient times, Alexandria boasted one of the most amazing centres for learning in the world – the Great Library.  The Great Library was established in 283 BC, with the non-trivial goal of possessing a copy of every book in the entire world.  It has been estimated at its peak it had over 700,000 books in its collection.  Unfortunately, most of this knowledge is lost today as the library itself was destroyed in antiquity (there are several theories as to who was responsible).

Bibliotheca Alexandria

Bibliotheca Alexandria

The new Bibliotheca, built in 2002, attempts to reclaim some of the Great Library’s previous glory.  In addition to it’s vast collection of books, it also has 3 permanent museums, 4 specialized libraries, a planetariam, a conference centre, temporary and permanent exhibitions and a full schedule of events.  Unfortunately, it was closed, so the front steps were as close as we’d get this day.

From there we headed to lunch.  Mike promised that this restaurant was an authentic Alexandrian seafood restaurant.  That sounded great to us.  We ordered two fish (Mike didn’t know the English name – they kind of looked like a trout), prepared Singary-style.  We also had prawns, calamari, rice, salad, eggplant, soup, tahina & bread.  It was all pretty delicious.  Definitely one of the highlights of the day.

Fresh fish!

Fresh fish!

Lunch in Alexandria

Lunch in Alexandria

Prawns

Prawns

Fish Sigary

Fish Singary

After lunch, we toured the Qaitbay Citadel (Fort).  The Citadel was used as fortifications to protect against incoming invasions, but was built on the same site as Alexandria’s lighthouse – one of the Great Wonders of the Ancient World.

Qaitbay Citadel

Qaitbay Citadel

posing at Qaitbay Citadel

posing at Qaitbay Citadel

Following our tour of Qaitbay, we stopped for a traditional Egyptian dessert – Roz be Leben (kind of a rice pudding) before heading home.

Roz be leben

Roz be leben

A great day for sure.  If we do return, we’ll have to make sure it’s a day that the Bibliotheca is open.  And stop for some of that fish again too :-)…