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Food & Wine Grocery stores are hiring nutrition experts, but is their advice hurting more than it’s helping?

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With beach-wavy locks the colour of ripe papaya, naturopathic doctor Joel Lee Villeneuve was easy to spot among the rows of produce at a suburban Ottawa Farm Boy grocery store. I had signed up for one of her free nutritional tours – a spotlight on vegan foods – advertised on the grocer's website. I joined a small gathering of women in the organic section just as Villeneuve was holding up a bag of soybean sprouts, one of the vegetables she recommends adding to our breakfast repertoire.

"You know who told us we should have cereal in the morning?" she says, "Mr. Kellogg."

As a 20-year veteran in the natural health-care industry in private practice, Villeneuve has made a career of nudging the public toward healthier food choices. She was even able to predict my question of what to do with the inevitable half-bag of limp sprouts after a few days of adding them to wraps, rice bowls and soups (answer: Blanch them for one minute in boiling water and toss in a Korean vinaigrette.).

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Her monthly Farm Boy gig puts her in the company of a growing number of nutrition experts popping up in grocery aisles to dispense healthy-eating advice. Like the presence of nutritional star-rating systems on shelf labels, roving dietitians are the latest sign that grocery stores are getting pushier about offering nutritional advice. It makes sense from the shoppers' perspective: Where better than the supermarket to pick up the latest "it" ingredient, get recipe ideas and discover healthier snack options?

But this assumes we are all nutritional truth-seekers who require an intervention to feed ourselves. When I signed up for one of the guided tours advertised at my local store, I was drawn to the idea of having a supportive companion on-hand while I shop, like a dinnertime doula. But by the end I was asking myself: Are dietitians becoming the helicopter parents of the grocery aisle?

In an age in which the common-sense approach to nutrition has been hijacked by Dr. Oz and daily coverage of new scientific studies touting the latest miracle ingredient or superfood, the question of what's for dinner is as fraught as the old chicken-or-egg question. Which is better for you, flax or chia seeds? Is kelp the new kale? And forget gluten-free, haven't you heard? It's all about FODMAPs now. Confused? Well look no further than the friendly dietitian in Aisle 6 stationed just beyond the wall of protein bars and the 478 types of yogurt. Dashing into the store for eggs and milk? Why not grab some answers to questions about what to eat for diabetes or to lower cholesterol or to prevent cancer or to lose weight or sleep better or live longer or just feel better?

Traditionally dietitians come into people's lives when a doctor suggests it, whether it's to lose weight for better health or in response to a disease diagnosis. That's where Loblaw Cos. Ltd. saw an opportunity to step in. Its Shoppers Drug Mart takeover last year would help to cement its brand as purveyors of health, wellness and nutrition. It now employs upward of 64 in-store dietitians in 159 of its stores across the country. Meanwhile Metro has implemented a smiley-face symbol to identify items that are approved by its team of dietitians as part of its "My Healthy Plate" initiative. Sobeys, with more than 1,500 stores across the country, piloted a project to create Wellbeing sections in some of its stores in Atlantic Canada. It now employs 20 full-time "Wellbeing Counsellors" across the country.

Courtenay Legacy, the holistic nutritionist on staff at the Sobeys's Extra in Burlington, Ont., says her store attracts a lot of seniors who require counselling on products to help them make confident purchases. "I'd say about 80 per cent of customers are feeling overwhelmed," she says. She estimates spending about half of her time on the floor talking to people about nutritional supplements, homeopathic and herbal remedies. "Most people don't go into a grocery store expecting to buy supplements," she says. "It's fun because you get to introduce them to new products and they get excited about their health."

As part of her job, Legacy organizes special events, such as a gluten-free food fair, and consults with the kitchen manager on a healthy meal deal each week for the prepared food counter. She packages a $6 salmon-and-kale salad alternative to the ubiquitous pizza and fried chicken. She's also been known to visit a local running club to discuss nutrition and sports. "That's what makes us different," says Legacy. "We can go out into the community to bring customers into stores."

During my 30-minute supermarket tour, Villeneuve chatted about various products while caddying her large purse around in an otherwise empty grocery cart. I learned about the benefits of seaweed (it stimulates metabolism) and fresh turmeric (rich in beta-carotene) and got tips on how to steam collard greens to make the bitter leaves as pliable as a sandwich wrap. "I call it nature's tortilla!" she says.

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Only once did she linger longer than seemed necessary over a display of fresh herb packages, urging us to buy at least two kinds every time we shop. Was this a plug on behalf of the store (and her client)? Who knows. I do know that when the tour ended I was craving a green smoothie and brown rice sushi – clearly something had clicked. I felt genuinely inspired to transcend my vegetable rut.

But here's the rub. The more we invite and accept dietitians into our daily lives, the more we are turning over the act of feeding ourselves to experts, and the more overwhelmed we may end up feeling. It reminds me of the arguments being made against overparenting – the more helpful advice and loving support parents try to provide their kids, the more they are robbed of a chance to develop belief in themselves.

If supermarkets really want to promote health, they'd make it easier for us to shop and cook healthy meals for ourselves out of whole foods. Why not merchandise food according to suggested recipes? That would be a great service. Instead I fear that supermarket wellness programs serve to enhance our reliance on specialists and reinforce the false idea that food choices boil down to a set of nutrients.

That's the kind of thinking that any good dietitian encourages clients to avoid. Diana Chard who has worked as a retail dietitian at Sobeys in Halifax says that often the best choices are foods without the healthy claims. She says she sympathizes with customers who are overwhelmed and confused when buying groceries. "Honestly, I think we're all making it too complicated for ourselves. There are so many products," she says. "I just try to help people figure out what to focus on."

While supermarkets battle it out to be the best at tackling that confusion while winning our loyalty, it might also be feeding into an obsession with healthy eating. An unhealthy preoccupation with so-called "clean eating" has been associated with a disorder known as orthorexia, a candidate for the bible of psychiatric disorders, the DSM.

"I do think it's a growing concern," says Chard of the hyper-restrictive diets that can make people sick. "I think everyone thinks that's how dietitians eat – they think we only eat salad."

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In that sense, supermarkets risk becoming part of the problem rather than the solution.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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