Recreation centres slow to adopt nutrition guidelines

(Edmonton) Alberta’s recreation centres are making progress in offering healthier food choices to their clients—more than half of them youths—but much more needs to be done, says a University of Alberta researcher.

Of 151 recreational facilities surveyed, only six per cent are implementing the Alberta Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Youth, which were introduced in 2008 for voluntary use by schools, child-care facilities and recreation facilities.

U of A nutrition researcher Dana Olstad hopes the findings, recently published in the journal BMC Public Health, encourage awareness and greater uptake of the province’s voluntary guidelines in recreation centres across the province. The guidelines would be more effective if they were mandatory, she added.

“There is some slow progress being made towards adding more nutritious foods to their menus, but recreation centres aren’t doing a lot to limit the unhealthy options, and children are still more likely to choose the unhealthy options,” said Olstad, who conducted the study as a PhD candidate in the U of A’s Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science and the School of Public Health. The research was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Recreation centres, with their emphasis on physical activity, can play a valuable role in influencing healthy lifestyle choices, and although food safety rules are in place to protect the public, the same doesn’t apply for nutritional value, she noted.

“We allow foods to be sold that are unsafe for nutritional reasons.”

Olstad conducted in-depth studies of three facilities to explore the reasons recreation centres aren’t adopting the province’s suggested nutrition guidelines. One had adopted the guidelines in its food concessions and vending machines, one had partially complied by adding new choices to its vending machines, and a third centre was not using the guidelines at all.

The viewpoint of facility managers played a large part in whether healthier food choices were adopted, Olstad noted.

“They had to be on board, they had to be champions for change who personally valued healthy eating and they had to be willing to take some financial risks.”

Many managers believed that having unhealthy food on the menu was more profitable, and even those facilities that did adopt the guidelines continued to offer unhealthy options along with healthy ones—for instance, offering sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, but still selling regular soft drinks.

“Although only a small percentage of facilities’ revenues came from food sales, these revenues still mattered to them,” Olstad said.

Teaming up with their food contractors helped recreation facilities get on board with healthier food choices, the study showed.

“Managers who had good relationships with food contractors were able to work within existing contracts to offer healthier items in their facilities,” Olstad noted. “And because some of the contractors had already worked with schools in adopting the provincial guidelines, they had the know-how to help the recreation centres by knowing what foods would fit with the guidelines.”