“What is your profession?”

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I’ve been in the fortunate position of being able to do a lot of traveling in the last few years.  My wife and I have visited a variety of countries ranging from those that are completely modern and developed to others that would traditionally be considered “third world”.  When meeting people from all these different places, you tend to get asked a handful of very similar questions.  “What is your name?”  “Where are you from?”  “How do you like our country?” And of course “What is your profession?”

Depending on where you come from this last question about what I do for a living might seem like an easy answer.  However, the more I travel, the more I realize this is not really the case at all.

In Canada and other similarly developed countries dietitians are like any other healthcare professional.  While there still may be confusion about the differences between dietitians and nutritionists, the general public is quite familiar with the term and have a decent understanding that a dietitian is an expert on diet and nutrition.  Not so, in less developed countries.  It’s something I’ve encountered elsewhere, but I’m not sure it was highlighted ever more so than our recent trip to Ethiopia.  It seemed that very few people I met had any idea what I was talking about.

Of course language is part of the issue.  Most people that even speak a little English are rarely familiar with the term dietitian and honestly I can’t really blame them for that.  If you only speak enough English to get by, learning the word “dietitian” is probably pretty low on your priority list.  Overall I tend to have a little better luck with “nutritionist”, but usually I’ll just describe my job as “teaching people how to eat healthy”.

However, after moving to Egypt something I found out that honestly surprised me a bit was that many languages don’t even have a term for dietitians or nutritionists.  In Arabic for example (at least in Egypt), the profession is sometimes referred to by a term that translates to “food doctor” (which almost certainly contributes to the notion that nutritionists are more qualified than they actually are, but that’s another issue for another blog).  But when you think about it, it totally makes sense why.

For much of the world’s population all food is in a sense healthy.

Aside from the past 50-100 years, at no point in human history would making optimal dietary choices been a priority to anyone because most people didn’t have the luxury of making “healthy choices”.  Food was simply something that nourished us and kept us alive.  It’s tough to get more healthy than that.

Unfortunately in Ethiopia (and many other places in the world) this is still true.  For the most part people there literally still need to eat whatever is food available to them just to survive.  It may not always be what we in Canada consider healthy, but it’s all they’ve got. It stands to reason that in such a place you would never need a word for a profession for someone who tells what you should be eating?  It was a humbling revelation to say the least.

Just another example of how travel and exposure to different people and cultures can really flip your preconceptions on their head…

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Ugh… Cairo’s “Chocolate Run”

Cairo Runners Snickers2

There are some types of partnerships that shouldn’t exist.  You know the type I’m talking about.  The kind that make you cringe because it’s clear to everyone from the outside that the two entities involved have objectives that just don’t jive.

Cairo Runners’ recent Chocolate Run, sponsored by Snickers is exactly that.  And while it may not be on the same level as something like Pepsico sponsoring the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the American body representing dietitians) or Coca Cola sponsoring the American Academy of Pediatrics, it’s clearly another example of the food industry attempting to create corporate goodwill and market their products (while coincidentally co-opting the public’s health) by linking up with otherwise health-minded organizations.  Admittedly Cairo Runners doesn’t have the same moral obligation to act in the public’s best interest as the aforementioned organizations, but as an entity founded out of a desire “to change Egyptian’s lifestyle to a healthier one where it would be a normal thing for people to hit the streets of Cairo and exercise which was never a familiar thought before“, it seems curious to choose a partner whose product possesses little nutritional value, 250 calories and nearly 7 teaspoons of sugar (27g)*.

*Based on the normal size version.  From the photos I’ve seen from the event the bars being handed out were smaller (124 calories), but as evidenced by the photo below, it appears you could take as many as you wanted.

Cairo Runners Snickers4

What’s the big deal you say?  It’s just a chocolate bar.  People aren’t naive enough to think that a Snickers is healthy.  Everyone knows its just a treat.

Sure, that may be true, but it’s the other things that are reinforced by this partnership that worry me.

The first is the message that obesity is dictated primarily by how active one is, not by what one eats.  Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary (as an example, here’s a recent report by the World Health Organization that concluded the major driver of the world’s obesity epidemic is increased food energy supply), junk food companies continually stress the importance of exercise in a healthy lifestyle, while minimizing the role that diet plays.  It comes as no surprise when you hear that a company like Coca Cola spent $1.5 million on the recently disbanded Global Energy Balance Network, whose goal was to focus its message on the “need for people to increase their physical activity as the key to achieving a healthy weight”.

The other issue I have is the idea that most people tend to grossly overestimate the calories they burn during exercise and underestimate the calories they consume.  Providing people a venue for a short 4 km run, then giving them a chocolate bar as a reward (assuming they take and eat just one) basically negates any of the caloric benefit they just achieved.  Again, I understand Cairo Runners’ never promised anyone to help them with their weight loss goals, it just sends the wrong message.

The final problem I have with this particular event is the more overt forms of marketing that occurred.  On the event’s Facebook page Cairo Runner’s included the following text:

We want to start a new year with an energy boost and having lot of fun with Snickers Chocolate!  If you are going to Sweat. Sweat Sweetly!

Cairo Runners Snickers3

Heck, they even gave away certificates of participation that proclaim “You’ve completed 4 KM, and now it’s time to treat yourself”

Cairo Runners Snickers

Now I know I’ve heaped a ton of criticism on Cairo Runners (and justifiably in this particular case) but what they’ve accomplished here in Egypt is nothing short of remarkable.  In a culture that traditionally eschews all forms of non-football related activity they’ve created a community of literally thousands of people who come together to run the streets of Cairo every week.  They organize regular running trips all around the country and host Cairo’s only annual half marathon race.  It’s safe to say they are a major contributor to the recent rise in running culture in Egypt. I mean they’ve only been around for 3 years and their Facebook page has nearly 400,000 likes!  That’s pretty impressive.

But to quote my favorite superhero – “With great power, comes great responsibility.”  It’s time to recognize that as the biggest player in the Cairo running scene, with all the influence that this provides, these types of partnerships no longer make sense.  Regardless of how much money they take in it’s not worth the hit to their credibility.  Here’s hoping this is the last we see of Cairo’s Chocolate Run.

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