Notes From a Registered Dietitian: Talking About Healthy Eating

Image says "Join the movement. Bike. Walk. Play. activeto.caAs a dietitian with Toronto Public Health’s Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention program for the past 11 years, I have had many years of experience bringing healthy eating messages to newcomers. In my experience, what influences my audience isn’t dazzling them with details about the science of nutrition, it’s helping them to understand how to make healthier choices delicious, easy and practical.

Healthy eating is one of those topics that can be complicated to communicate. Often people get caught in the details, like the whole butter vs. margarine debate.  With the huge amount of “alternative facts” spreading around the internet, people often lose sight of the big picture. Most people in Canada don’t get nearly enough vegetables needed for optimal health. This is a great place to start when talking about healthy eating.

Getting enough vegetables and fruit is key in preventing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. They contain vitamins, minerals and fibre and their benefits cannot be replaced with juices, pills or powders.

What’s in a Colour?

Dark green and orange vegetables are often lacking in our diets, which is why Canada’s Food Guide encourages us to choose one of each daily. Dark green vegetables, such as romaine lettuce, green peas, broccoli and spinach, are an important source of folate, a B vitamin needed to make red blood cells and is important in the reproductive health of women.

Dark orange vegetables, such as carrots, squash and sweet potatoes are in important source of carotenoids, which the body converts to Vitamin A, and is key in promoting healthy eyes.

How to Start a Classroom Discussion

What are examples of different vegetables and fruit that you and your ESL learners enjoy? What are some challenges that your learners have in getting enough vegetables and fruit? How have others been able to overcome these challenges? These questions can bring out rich discussions. Sharing tips on where the best deals on vegetables and fruit can be found is always valuable for newcomers when adjusting to a new home in Canada. If your learners need help accessing food, there are also service guides published by the City of Toronto that might be helpful.

When working with newcomers, I find that tips or information that are simple, visual and practical are the most helpful. In my practice, I’ve found that having an opportunity to explore Ontario grown seasonal vegetables is a topic that many people are interest in. Filling half of the plate with vegetables is a key message I use to help people understand how to create a healthy and balanced meal. And this is also one of the simplest (yet most difficult) goals for most people to attain. English language classes are a wonderful place to introduce students to local, seasonal produce. Foodland Ontario and Half Your Plate have a wealth of information, recipes and nutrition information.

Making It Seasonal

September is a month that has a lot of vegetables in season. Next time you’re shopping, think about what looks good at the grocery store or farmer’s market and what vegetables are on sale. Maybe try bringing in a flyer or printing a picture of zucchini and talking about it. How many of your learners have tried it? What ways could they prepare it? Is it possible to bring in a sample to prepare and taste with your learners? Sharing ideas amongst your students is a great way to share knowledge and ideas and also to help newcomers settle into their new home.

In my groups, I often find that students’ themselves have a wealth of knowledge to share about food and cooking. Why not take advantage of that and get the conversation rolling? The benefits of these discussions extends beyond learning English, but can also bring people together in their communities and helps them to learn about healthy living.

Looking for More Ideas?

Contact Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600 to request a consultation with the Public Health Nurse working in your Toronto neighbourhood. There are also curriculum supports available including lesson plans and resource tools available at this link:

Stay tuned for upcoming posts in this health series from Toronto Public Health!  Next up, exploring labels.

Post written by Toronto Public Health


3 thoughts on “Notes From a Registered Dietitian: Talking About Healthy Eating”

  1. Thank you for this post; it’s quite timely for me. Recently a student in my literacy class was diagnosed with diabetes. I’m ashamed to say that his symptoms dragged on for months without his getting a diagnosis, symptoms I SHOULD have recognized after having studied Best of the Reader – Hashim Has Diabetes and English in Vancouver’s videos about Emily’s dad’s blurry vision, fatigue and thirst. Now that my client has his diagnosis, not much has improved because he doesn’t yet know how to shop, plan meals and snacks, or practice good self-care as someone with diabetes. Fortunately, Diabetes Wellness is stepping in this week to support him. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking a look at these links you’ve provided in hopes of incorporating some lessons on healthy eating for him and for the entire group.

  2. Hi Kelly,

    Thank you for your comment. You are not alone in the experience you described; we have heard it from many of your colleagues.

    You should be commended for your work, not feel ashamed. What you noted is why we have partnered with TESL Ontario to promote health and well-being in the classroom. We know that ESL Instructors are a trusted source of information for newcomers to Canada and that you support people to take action regarding their health. That said, ESL Instructors are not healthcare providers and shouldn’t expect to be an expert or make a diagnosis. It was great that you had the knowledge to recognize that they required referral to their primary care provider to investigate their symptoms. Everyone benefits from increased awareness about what can be done to stay healthy, and how to improve our health.

    We are so pleased to hear both you and your student feel supported and are accessing the free resources available in your community. If you suspect someone is experiencing the symptoms of diabetes they should be referred to their primary care provider, or a Diabetes Education Centre or Diabetes Education Program for support.

    Speaking more generally about supporting healthy living, please do connect with your local public health unit. We/they are here to support you in the important work you do. For us at Toronto Public Health, you can view all of our current healthy living curriculum resources at the following link:

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