Long seen as the benchmark for good nutrition, Canada’s Food Guide needs to be rewritten.
The next time you visit your doctor or nutritionist and they pull out a copy of Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, you might want to pause for a minute.
Last spring, the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology released a new report, Obesity in Canada: A Whole-of-Society Approach for a Healthier Canada. The report said the time has come for the guide to be rewritten to help reduce the country’s alarming obesity and chronic-disease problems.
“Canada’s dated food guide is no longer effective in providing nutritional guidance to Canadians,” the report said. “Fruit juice, for instance, is presented as a healthy item when it is little more than a soft drink without the bubbles. Several witnesses suggested that Canada’s food guide has been at best ineffective, and at worst enabling, with respect to the rising levels of unhealthy weights and diet-related chronic diseases in Canada.”
Last updated in 2007, the food guide has been commonly taught in schools and is often used by doctors, nutritionists and people planning meals in hospitals and nursing homes. But the Senate committee examining obesity found that the guide hasn’t kept up with the times and that our knowledge of food has changed. It calls for a food guide that reflects current scientific know-how.
“In the past three to four decades there has been a drastic increase in the proportion of overweight and obese Canadians,” the report said. “Statistics Canada data reveals that almost two thirds of Canadian adults are now either overweight or obese. Over the same period, there has also been an increase in the rate of several chronic conditions; Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers, and therefore an increased demand on the health care system.”
According to the report, fat made up about 40 percent of our daily calories in the 1970s. By 2004, that had decreased to 31 percent, yet obesity nearly doubled for adults and tripled for children over the same period. The committee contends that during that same period, the intake of refined carbohydrates increased, likely in response to the reduced fat consumption. Each year, 48,000 to 66,000 Canadians die from conditions linked to excess weight.
“The proliferation of fast and processed foods, coupled with the overwhelming use of electronic devices, have led to an environment where it is all too easy to eat poorly and remain inactive,” the report said. “This is not the product of a collective loss of willpower—low-income Canadians, for example, often rely on unhealthy foods because these items are cheaper and sometimes all that is available.”
Highly processed foods, like instant noodles, soft drinks and salty snacks, now make up 62 percent of the Canadian diet, the committee was told. Soft drinks and sugary beverages provide the double whammy of adding empty calories without helping people feel full.
The mandatory yet confusing nutritional labelling hasn’t helped the situation either. There are 56 different names for sugar alone, and manufacturers are not required to group them together. One researcher found that if you ate according to the current food guide, you’d be eating more than the recommended amount of calories, due to the sugars added to processed foods.
The report said that Canada’s obesity problem also has negative impacts on employment and productivity: increased health-care costs and lost productivity costs due to obesity are estimated at between $4.6 billion and $7.1 billion annually.
And while more people may be going to the gym, everyday activity levels have dropped for the vast majority of us. In the last 40 years, everyday tasks like housework or mowing the lawn have been hired out or taken over by machines. Meanwhile, kids might be on the local soccer team, but they spend much more time in front of screens and a lot less time participating in unstructured play. Parents and teachers have tended to discourage unstructured activities because of safety concerns.
Among the Senate committee’s 21 recommendations was a suggestion to levy a tax on sugar and artificially sweetened drinks, and to use taxation to encourage better health choices. As for the food guide, the committee suggests following the example of Brazil’s new food guide, which emphasizes eating mainly plant-based, minimally processed foods and avoiding highly processed foods.
If you are watching your sugar intake (and you should be), there’s even an app for that. Free, One Sweet App (sugarcoateddoc.com/the-app) lets you scan a product’s bar code to tell you how much of the sinfully sweet stuff has been added.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation put it simply: “Don’t just cut the fat, cut the crap,” spokesperson Christine Le Grand said. “Avoid all highly processed foods.”
In other words, the more that food looks like the original product, the better it is. And then, regardless of your age, go outside and play.