What’s in a Label

What’s in a Label
Claudette Pelletier-Hannah

A friend just told me she has identified herself on the autism spectrum. That was a bit of a surprise to both of us, but not really. For her it explains a lot about how she’s experienced life. There’s understanding and validation in that. For me it’s just info that fits the way she tells it and how I know her.

That’s what labels do. They give an immediate explanation for a set of characteristics that allows us to understand something.

But that’s not all. Consider these words:

Did you notice a reaction or a bias regarding any of those words? It’s pretty much guaranteed you did. Labels might help us to clarify, but they also have the potential to invoke judgment. From labels we create stereotypes. We can find evidence for whatever we look for. And once we make up our minds it can be hard to change.

Consider the stereotypes, judgment and discrimination of persons with severe obesity. Maybe you’ve experienced it yourself. It is well documented that people with obesity don’t get the same quality of care from the medical profession. Often every problem is treated with “You need to lose some weight.” Yet few are actually treated for obesity, which is now classified as a chronic disease. That’s another label, but an important one for advancing the treatment of this group.

It is a common assumption that people with obesity are lazy and lack willpower. “If they would just eat less and exercise more,” we say. If only it were that simple.

What labels don’t say is a whole other story and equally important. Have you ever considered that many people with obesity:

  • may have a medical condition(s) and/or medication(s) that cause weight gain?
  • may consume less than average weight people and are still overweight?
  • are constantly dieting?
  • judge themselves constantly?
  • may have many stressors and/or traumas that you don’t have?
  • lift and carry a lot of weight with every movement?

And then there are nutrition labels.
We should all be using those. Like any label, it is limiting if we only look at one piece of information. Ideally, we look at the whole picture of a person, or a group, and we look at the whole nutritional picture.

Many weight-conscious people just look at the number of calories in a serving. That doesn’t tell you the whole story. Not all calories have the same impact on our weight and health, for one thing. Highly processed foods contribute to weight gain and ill health more so than whole foods do.

Are you just looking at the carbs? What’s really important is how much fibre is in that carbohydrate. According to the Government of Canada most Canadians get only half of what we need. Women need roughly 25 gms daily and men need 38 gms, less after age 50.

Breakfast cereals illustrate where we can make a big difference. Let’s look at the macronutrients (the ones we can’t live without) in Rice Krispies, for example. They contain 25 gms of carbohydrates but zero fibre, zero fat and 2 gms of protein in one cup. There’s not much food value except for a few vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) that have been added.

Superstore’s Fibre First offers 44 gms of carbohydrates but 21 gms of fibre, 2 gms of fat and 8 gms of protein in one cup. I know what you’re probably thinking, “Yuck! It tastes terrible.” No worries. You don’t need to eat a whole cup of it. Half a cup is a significant contribution to your daily fibre and your protein requirements, especially if you add fruit and nuts. Delicious and nutritious!

As I’m not a dietitian this isn’t a complete picture either, but I think you get where I’m going. It’s always good to look beneath the surface, whether we’re looking at a nutrition label or a label we give to people.

Labels can be useful when we are able to interrupt our judgment and have an open and curious mind instead. Let’s appreciate that we’re all more alike than different if we care to look closer.