Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Chair of Nutritional Sciences at UofT Says Canada's Food Guide Sucks

And boy does it ever. I've been railing on about how bad it is for nearly a decade now, and just a few weeks ago, Dr. Mary L'Abbe, the Chair of the University of Toronto's Department of Nutritional Sciences, along with her graduate student, Mahsa Jessri published their paper, "The Time for an Updated Canadian Food Guide Has Arrived (Full Text)". After reading it, I invited them to write me a guest post, and here one is as written by PhD candidate Jessri.
Since 1942, Canada has published food guides with a strong emphasis on meeting nutrient requirements. Canada, like many other Western countries, however, experienced a nutritional transition decades ago where widespread micronutrient deficiency was replaced with overconsumption of energy-dense foods and calories. This phenomenon has resulted in a drastic increase in diet-related chronic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases; thus we now need dietary recommendations targeted specifically towards the types of foods associated with maintaining a healthy body weight and preventing chronic diseases. Recently we published a critical review of 2007 Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide (EWCFG) calling for an urgent update to these national Canadian dietary guidelines. Now you may be asking what are the limitations of EWCFG 2007 and why it needs an “urgent update”?

Firstly, if you add up the calories recommended for the four food groups: Fruits and Vegetables, Grain Products, Meat and Alternatives, Milk and Alternatives, and healthy oils (essential calories) for each age and sex group, the total would be higher than the recommended energy requirement for Canadians, confirming the claims made by previous researchers that following the EWCFG leads to overconsumption of calories. There is also no room left for the calories from “other foods” (e.g., high fat and sugary products) which are completely omitted from the 2007 EWCFG, which is another problem. We know from the Canadian national nutrition survey data that nearly 1/4 of the calories consumed by Canadians are from “other foods”; food guides from most other countries leave some calories for these treats that we sometimes eat - which further suggests that EWCFG is obesogenic in nature. Equally important, the same number of servings are recommended for all physical activity levels, with no different recommendations for a sedentary individual and a very highly active athlete.

As pointed out by other researchers, the Canadian EWCFG was highly influenced by the food industry; one-third of all stakeholders involved in consultations were from the food industry who could therefore have influenced much of its development.

Another important issue that’s lacking in the current food guide is consideration of cultural dietary behaviors. We know that one in every 5 Canadians was a visible minority in 2011 and yet our EWCFG 2007 neglects their cultural food preferences and practices, and instead recommends one eating pattern for all, while we already know there is more than one way of healthy eating. Of course, the first step towards development of a comprehensive evidence-based, culturally-sensitive dietary guideline would be to collect food intake information from multi-ethnic individuals in Canada. Unlike other countries, Canada does not have a plan for conducting multiethnic nutrition surveys.

These along with other limitations mentioned in our article, call for an evidence-based unbiased action for drafting a new Canadian food guide using the most recent national Canadian nutrition survey, considering the changes in food supply, the epidemics of chronic diseases, and using a socio-ecological perspective of different food patterns. Such an “ideal” Food Guide would be more focused on maintaining a healthy body weight and reducing the risk of chronic diseases, rather than preventing nutrient deficiencies - which Canadians have a very few of!