Friday, April 8, 2016

Canada's Food Guide - A Dietitian's Perspective

As a Registered Dietitian, we get taught that the Canada’s Food Guide is the holy grail of nutrition advice and that we should be recommending all of our clients follow it to achieve health. I admit that I’ve always been a little weary.  While I’m in full support of evidence-based nutrition recommendations, I do hesitate when it comes to the food guide simply because of how involved industry was in its creation. I can’t help but feel like it’s slightly biased and maybe doesn’t represent the healthiest way to eat. That being said, it’s probably not a bad place to start for someone looking to eat healthier without any other knowledge or nutrition support.

The Canada’s Food Guide has been in the media lately.  Headlines read “Canada’s “dated” food guide needs drastic overhaul”, “critics demand drastic changes now”, “The Canada’s Food Guide is Killing you!”. These sensationalized headlines have caught my attention, and I imagine they would have caught my attention even if I wasn’t in the dietetics profession.  For any self-proclaimed ‘foodie’ or anyone interested in their health, I imagine that these headlines are alarming and confusing.

A lot of this backlash comes on the heels of recommendations made in March 2016 by the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.  They released a report pushing for a national campaign to combat obesity and a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks and a direct call to immediately and completely revise Canada’s Food Guide, claiming that it needs to be more evidence-based and take a stronger stance against highly processed foods.  Sounds reasonable right?

Canadians have generally  followed the food guide – we eat more of the recommended foods like whole grains, and less of the foods we were told to limit like fats.

Over the last three decades, we’ve upped our fruit and vegetable intake while reducing fat and dairy – as per food guide recommendations. Canadians are relatively compliant with nutrition recommendations. But yet, despite this, we’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Two thirds of our adult population are considered obese or overweight, a number which has doubled in the few years since 1980. The food guide is obviously not producing the outcomes it has intended. This also demonstrates the potential of a revamped food guide to positively impact the health of Canadians. If we’ve followed it into ill-health, we can follow a newer version into our best health.

The Current Food Guide

The current food guide is broken into 4 food groups with a recommended number of ‘servings’ per group. Serving sizes vary depending on the food. This in itself is an issue for me and for many of the clients I’ve seen in my office. It’s so confusing. Nobody wants to measure everything they eat or count calories or servings at every meal. The recommended servings are based on the average Canadian in each age/sex category meeting micro and macronutrient recommendations. This itself is a flaw. Not every adult female has the same needs. This system ignores satiety cues and true hunger in an attempt to eat a specific number of servings of certain foods.

The current guide is way too processed carbohydrate heavy. It recommends adults consume 6-8 servings of grains per day, and that only half of these should be whole grains. Examples of foods in this group include bagels and cereal. Foods which can be highly processed and full of sugar and preservatives. Not exactly the picture of health. It also considered 100% fruit juice a serving a fruit and vegetables. Fruit juice doesn’t contain all the same nutrients and fiber, and contains way more sugar per serving then whole fruit.

Moving Forward

So what changes would I make to a new food guide? How do I think Canadians should be eating? As a Registered Dietitian with a Masters of Public Health, I feel like I have a bit of knowledge on population health and nutrition.

In my opinion, an effective food guide needs to focus on a whole diet approach. It needs to focus on choosing fresh, whole foods that are limitedly processed. We need to stop being so afraid of fat that comes from meat, eggs, nuts, seeds and other natural foods. We need to cook more and rely less on pre-prepared foods. We need to simplify the ingredients we use and consume. But, like most things, this is easier said than done.
The first question is how do we make choosing the healthiest option the easiest option? Processed foods and fast foods are so easy to grab and go and can be less expensive for those on a fixed income. How do we change the environment around food to make sure that healthy foods are accessible and affordable for everyone? Living in the Northwest Territories, I’ve seen first-hand how expensive fresh fruits and vegetables can be, and how hard it came be for a family to afford a healthy diet.

The second question is what skills do people need to be able to cook for themselves and their families? What knowledge do people need to be able to make healthy choices at the grocery store where they are bombarded with flashy packaging and health claims like “fat free” “diet” “all natural”. It’s not enough to simply tell people what to eat. People need to be informed enough to make their own choices and need to have the skills to use the fresh food they are buying.

The third question is what place does the food industry have in all this? A new Canada’s Food Guide should be developed based on evidence-based research and not tainted by biased science developed by the food industry. I do think that we need to hold the food industry more accountable for the misleading messages they send the public about how ‘healthy’ a product is. We need to stop allowing them to advertise sugary processed foods to kids.  We need to work with them to create products that make it easy for consumers to eat foods that nourish them. The food industry should be a partner only after the guide has been developed, and should not be a part of developing the recommendations.

Ultimately, I think the food guide recommendations are being given way too much thought.  Instead of prescribing how Canadians should eat, we should be changing our food industry and food environments to be more conducive to choosing healthier options. Imagine walking into the grocery store and not cringing at the cost of fresh produce.

As a dietitian, I believe that there are 2 types of foods. Some foods nourish your body, and some foods nourish your soul. A healthy diet nourishes both without depriving either. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Virtual Coffee Date: April 7 2016.

If we were having coffee this morning I’d be so grateful you’ve listened to the ups and downs of my life at the moment. I’d want to hear all about yours too. We’d share some laughs, cave and order the giant cookies half way through our date and leave with a satisfying buzz, from the caffeine and conversation, vowing not to wait so long before we do it again.

I love coffee. I love coffee shops. There’s something about them that makes me feel introspective and open. It’s one of my favorite ways to unwind, it’s my favorite place to get school work done, and one of my favorite ways to connect with friends.  So pull up a leather arm chair and a fancy coffee and let’s chat.

If we were having coffee this morning I’d order a large Americano. Strong and dark and hot. I’d tell you how excited I am to be almost done school. I’d tell you how little motivation I have to fulfill the last few requirements. I only have one last set of revisions for my culminating report and a 10 minute PowerPoint presentation to complete. But this final project has been dragging on and I’m so mentally checked out and disengaged. I’m majorly over it. I’m trying to battle through it and get it done before the last minute so that it’s over. I want to do a good job and present my project in a way that highlights how much I have learned throughout the entire program. I think the high expectations I have set for myself for this presentation are one of the things keeping me from starting.

If we were having coffee this morning I’d ask about your family. I’d tell you how much I miss living close to my parents and grandparents. I’d tell you how much I appreciate having my sister in the same town as me since she’s the only family member within several provinces. Thank goodness for social media, facetime and texting. While I appreciate how connected we can be via technology, I miss the face-to-face interactions of everyday life. The time spent hanging out in my parents living room and kitchen with the intense loudness of the whole family in one space. It makes me sad that Max hasn’t really been exposed to that dynamic yet. I really hope that one day we will live closer and be able to see everyone more often and that Max will have a really close relationship with my family, like I did growing up.

If we were having coffee this morning I’d tell you how torn I am about what our future holds. On one hand I can’t wait to move from Hay River and live somewhere closer to my family, closer to some more amenities and with a lower cost of living. On the other hand, I love the lifestyle we have here. I love being able to snowshoe, go quadding, go boating and paddle boarding and be at the beach within minutes. I’m nervous about moving somewhere without any family. At least here we have my sister and mother and sister-in-law. I would love to have a career in my field and be doing something I am passionate about on a daily basis, instead of a menial administrative job that I find boring and uninspiring. I know a move will be best for us in the long run, but it’s a terrifying (and exciting) thought at the moment.

If we were having coffee this morning I’d tell you how excited I am to get married next month! I’m excited for the week-long holiday with our family and friends. I’m excited to get to marry Chris and be his wife. I’m excited for a hooliday and a break from ‘real-life’. The man marrying us sent me vows to review today and reading them fills me with such joy and giddy excitement. I can’t wait to see Chris at the altar, have all of our family and friends in one place and get to spend an entire week celebrating with everyone. It will be a much needed vacation after a very busy last 2 years.