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Canada’s Thinnest Province Loves its Desserts

One of the little appreciated facts, is that Quebec happens to have the lowest combined rates of overweight and obesity (56%) of any Canadian province.

It now turns out that (as one may have suspected), Quebec is also the one province in Canada that truly maintains a true and distinct eating Culture (that is culture with a capital “C”).

Thus, according to the 15th edition of Eating Patterns in Canada (EPIC), a recent survey from the market research group NPD, Quebecers report eating dessert with supper about 112 times a year compared to about 89 times in Atlantic Canada, 57 in Ontario and 55 on the west coast.

This is also a province that particularly values home-cooked lunch and dinners. Thus, 6 out of 10 lunches and 6.5 out of 10 dinners in Quebec households are apparently made from scratch.

According to the NPD news release,

“Less calorie conscious than the rest of Canada, Quebec households take great pleasure in eating. The majority (82 per cent) also feel that it is important to enjoy full and regular meals each day, which compares to 60 per cent of western Canadians and 63 per cent of Ontarians. As a result, Quebec residents are also the least likely of all the provinces to snack.

Twenty-nine per cent try to avoid snacking entirely and, unlike the rest of the country, have fewer snack occasions annually. Quebecers are also less likely to skip traditional meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner).”

While I am generally cautious about inferring cause-and-effect, I am also the first to support any move to improving eating culture. As I have often said – fast food is more of a ‘fast’ than a ‘food’ problem.

Improving eating culture in the rest of Canada requires a discussion of ‘values’ – apparently, Quebecers place a higher value on home cooking, regular eating, and finding pleasure in food than the rest of us.

Changing this culture will take more than taxing and banning foods. Indeed, I am confident that changing culture will eventually change consumer behaviour, which in turn will ultimately change supply.

No easy task – but perhaps worth a wider discussion. In the mean time, perhaps more of us should enjoy our desserts.

Edmonton, Alberta
photo credit: Indiewench via photopin cc

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  1. I lived in Quebec for 26 years, mostly on the French side (you can live in Montreal and practically never interact with francophones if you try hard enough) and I concur with the findings of the study.

    I would add one thing, though: heredity.

    Although there are always “outliers”, many old stock, francophone Quebecers have a small and often wiry build. Perhaps as a group (I’m not speaking about individuals here), they are less likely to be on the heavy side. Certainly, when I was in university and had a part-time job in retail, I could usually spot old-stock Quebecers a mile away and addressed them in French first. I could tell by the person’s build and…sense of style. Once you’ve lived in Quebec, the rest of Canada often looks incredibly dowdy.

    Just an anecdote: My late, French-Canadian mother-in-law was painfully thin until she reached menopause, then she gained a lot of weight (in part due to the stress of losing her husband when she was in her early 50s) and lost much of it, once her life settled down. Her living room was, to me, a minefield of sweets and salty treats: cookies, candies, chips, peanuts, you name it. However, although she partook in junk food EVERY SINGLE DAY (including her at least one Coke a day habit), she didn’t pig out on it. It was just there, another essential food group for her (along with nicotine and caffeine, a light breakfast, often no lunch and an early, perfectly healthy supper).

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  2. Interesting comments re eating patterns in Quebec. I also agree that the culture around food is value driven and a discussion on societal values as they relate to food needs to occur. This will no doubt include a broader discussion on the challenges of modern day families!

    I interpret your synopsis of the Eating Patterns Report as it relates to reducing the liklihood of overweight/obesity as:
    1). Eat most of your meals at home. 2). Cook your own food (i.e., don’t buy ready-made or processed foods. 3). Eat three meals a day – and try not to skip a meals. We know that people who skips meals like breakfast tend to overeat at some point in the day – usually the evening (while watching TV…)]. 4). Reduce snacking or at least have fruit or a healthy snack if you need it. 5). Eat dessert as it will decrease cravings and the over eating of sugar packed unhealthy foods later. [We all like sweet things!]

    Finally I would also add – watch your portion size. I am not sure if there was any information on this in the report, but if you have ever lived or travelled in Quebec/France you quickly notice that food portions are often significantly smaller than in North America.

    I think most of us would agree that these are straightforward, simple, evidence-based recommendations for healthy eating that can help reduce the liklihood of overweight and obesity. The big question is – why do the majority of Canadians find them so very difficult to follow?

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  3. I believe you are right. Can’t remember when I last saw an obese Quebecer (and I work in Quebec). But then I see lots smoking, drinking sugary Pepsi and don’t forget they were the inventors of Poutine. Now if you had included longevity rates or made the conclusion that they are “healthier” with numbers I would embrace the lifestyle. But I think I will stick to just adding in more wine for now. You are right–it is hard to evaluate a true cause and effect. My guess is perhaps some good genetics have passed down through the French population. But I’m a true believer in avoiding fast food and embracing home cooking. So if it can spur the rest of the country to eat better then let the translating begin.

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  4. What a fascinating glimpse at the cultural intersections of culinary traditions, prized social values and weight outcomes. It would be interesting to know if there are other cultural differences shared by a majority of Quebecers, differences which might seem–at first glance—much less obviously linked to weight, such as family size, economic security, educational levels, principle sources of income and/or kinds of employment, average number of hours per week at work, and so forth. Cultural differences can be so difficult to analyze, as Dr. Sharma suggests, especially when looking for probable causality. I do believe, however, there is much to be admired about people who find great pleasure in preparing and eating–and especially sharing together–delicious meals that are valued for more than their nutritional content or speediness of access.

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  5. I wonder if they’re also the thinnest province because they smoke the most?

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  6. I don’t have any figures but our QC friends and family smoke heavily. Doesn’t matter how thin you are if heart disease and lung cancer get you first. Usually by age 65.

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  7. Regarding the speculations about heavy smoking and weight outcomes: I’m not exactly sure why comments about smoking and weight seem so irksome to me, frequently, but perhaps it’s because they often imply something more (something unkind), left unsaid, about the moral choices people make (their so-called lifestyle choices) and their consequent life expectancy.

    For many people who habitually smoke (often in spite of many efforts to quit permanently), it has been my observation that the (challenging) option to quit smoking (completely and/or permanently) brings unforeseen consequences, which often include hardships.

    Smoking tobacco often functions as a form of self medication for symptoms of mental/physical disability or so-called disorder (ADHD or PTSD or depression, for example). When the self medication (with smoking) ceases, and symptoms become increasingly problematic for the “ex smoker”, other forms of help and/or treatment may not be readily available. I’m not referring here to “smoking cessation” assistance or programs.

    I’m referring to treatment for disorders that may remain undiagnosed or inadequately treated because of social institutions that remain locked within dominant cultural paradigms that distort common notions of moral decision making (ethical choices).

    Thus, as with comments about people’s size and/or weight (or their choices about eating, activity or “lifestyle”), comments about the smoking habits of others cause me to feel very uncomfortable (or sad), most especially when the comments may imply, indirectly or directly, that passing moral judgement on people who smoke is a warranted and/or ethical option. That kind of moral judgement-making is unwarranted and unjust—given that social and material conditions (for instance) continue to limit people’s options (sometimes SEVERELY limit or even erase)—to make “better” or “healthier” choices.

    Bias and stigma come in many forms. Weight bias/stigma is one form. Without full recognition of all forms, we limit our own human potential for compassionate care and concern for our fellow human beings.

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  8. No one was making moral judgements. Go back on your meds.

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