Eat right, if you please

Eat right, if you please

Canada’s Food Guide is too polite to be effective

It’s two of my favourite things: politics and food. Though when discussing the politics of food, it becomes admittedly less interesting than other political news (Trump tweets are truly a gold mine). This is demonstrated by the fact that as I write this, I am lunching on pizza pops and coffee. Nutrition though is an important national issue and an exchange of ideas on this issue is of utmost importance.

One quick glance at the Health Canada website reveals a wealth of information about food safety that demonstrates the importance of this ministry to setting food safety standards. Especially at a time when there are e.coli contamination concerns in flour. Though one may think that this doesn’t concern them, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how flour is found in a wide variety of foods we buy: bread, cereal, noodles and desserts, just to name a few. More information on this particular recall is found in the Related Links below.

While important, the recall isn’t the subject of this post. What’s to be discussed is arguably more important to the health and well-being of Canadians as it relates to all of the foods we consume everyday.

Credit: Health Canada

The Government of Canada has recently begun a phase two consultation process on updating Canada’s Food Guide, which sets the country’s nutritional standard. Its initial consultation last year included submissions from about 15,000 Canadians, and the government is moving toward making changes that some would consider radical.

For the first time, the government is said to be considering listing foods in the guide that should be avoided altogether. Currently, the message being sent by the Food Guide is to eat from four main food groups, and indulge in anything outside of the specified groups in moderation. The guide’s emphasis is on healthy eating, but only features one bullet point where it discusses foods such as sodas, granola bars and cookies.

I remember studying the food guide in school. I also remember, as an elementary school child, my mother ensuring that I made a lunch for myself which included, for the most part, healthy foods. A sandwich, banana, couple of apples, a cupcake and a soft drink. When I think back on this now, I regret that I almost always traded away my healthy snacks for pizza breads my friend brought to school everyday. Here I was thinking I was actually making a winning deal — years later, the healthy eating habits continue to prove elusive.

Canada’s Food Guide is typically Canadian — in fact, stereotypically so. It comes off less as a governing national standard and more like a polite suggestion the public ought to abide by. While governments cannot (and should not) be in the business of literally forcing healthy foods down our throat, a more forceful language in the food guide, a document taught in schools providing critical nutritional and health information, is arguably needed. It needs to outline in greater details the drawbacks of not eating healthy, not only to the human body, but to the country’s capacity to cope with its effects. This is, after all, a pillar of a broader national public health strategy.

The American food guide, called the Food Guide Pyramid, is much more forceful than the Canadian guide. For starters, it acknowledges as one of the food groups things that are unhealthy, like fats, oils and sweets. They are displayed prominently at the top of the pyramid with the advice “Use Sparingly”. In comparison, the Canadian guide almost appears to deny the existence of these unhealthy foods. The only mention of foods that are unhealthy comes in a single, obscure bullet point in the middle of the second page of the document.

The use of graphics throughout the longer American document highlights critical bits of information — for example, limiting fats to 30 per cent of total calories or drawing comparisons between healthy options (such as a baked potato) and unhealthy ones (such as French fries). By comparison, Canada’s Food Guide, while colourful and concise, looks cluttered and unfocused.

Now, you might be asking why I’m placing so much emphasis on the American guide when it’s clear that obesity is a public health crisis South of the border. You get no debate from me on that. I’m simply showing that there are strategies to be learned from the American example.

For a look at more successful models, I’ve also turned to two countries who are in the top 10 in terms of lowest obesity rates: Singapore and South Korea. There is some commonality to both countries’ nutrition guidelines: they were both recently developed and both of them have separate, more age-specific guides and plans, particularly geared toward children and seniors.

The Singaporean example is unique in the level of detail it outlines, particularly in the guide for seniors. Including recommendations such as “drinking more fluids to counter constipation” or consuming “quality, nutrient-sense foods over quantity” provides the elderly of that country with direction. Singapore’s STAR initiative (which stands for Simple, Tasty, Affordable Recipes) provides seniors with specific meal ideas that they claim are costed at less than five dollars.

The opinion I’m offering is that there needs to be more toughness, more definitiveness to Canada’s nutritional standard. In addition to there being directions on what to do, there also needs to be a definitive outline of what not to do. It needs to stop being polite and start being convincing. It also, in my view, needs to be expanded from its current format — a 2-page graphical outline — to a more expansive source of information which can be used as a standalone curriculum in Canadian nutritional standards. Tailoring the guide to certain age groups will also allow drafters of the document to zero-in on specifics for each group.

At this juncture, you might also be asking whether changes to the food guide will mean practical changes to nutritional habits for much of the population. After all, does anyone have a copy of the food guide at home? The answer is admittedly, and unfortunately, no. Not immediately, anyway.

A robust nutritional policy needs to have much more than a food guide. In countries like Japan, Singapore and South Korea, cleanliness and social structures are a contributor to low obesity rates. Rice, as an example, can contains various toxic chemicals left over from the growing process that need to be washed out prior to preparation. These countries also place a heavy emphasis on collectivism and family, and meals are often times for the household to come together. This is a much better habit than someone sitting down to dinner with a medium pizza powering through whatever’s popular on Netflix. The food guide is simply a start.

It should be said that the Government of Canada is doing some things very well. An example of this is their partnership with Carrot Rewards, a healthy-living application for iPhone and Android. The app awards rewards program points (Aeroplan, Scene, Petro-Canada and Save-on-More) for completing things such as short quizzes, watching brief videos and completing activity goals — most notably daily and weekly step count goals. The federal government, in partnership with a number of non-profit organizations and the governments of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador are leveraging technology to encourage healthier lifestyles. If only I could get some Carrot credit for this post, eh?

The up-side to changes in the food guide need to be viewed on the long-term. The updated guide will be taught in schools, meaning a new generation of kids will be taught and encouraged to eat healthy at an early age; publicly subsidized food programs will need to abide by new standards outlined in the guide, meaning healthier options in schools, community food banks, community centres, publicly-operated long-term care homes and medical facilities. Public health policy related to food and nutrition will have a governing document that is clear and consistent. This would be helpful particularly at a time when the Government of Canada is also considering new advertising regulations related to the targeted marketing of sugary drinks to young people.

Nutrition in many developed nations is quickly becoming a public health emergency. Health care costs associated with treating chronic diseases as a result of poor nutrition choices are rising. Government can only do so much and any changes to the food guide will not spark a collective Canadian epiphany that compels everyone to eat right overnight. It is; however, a larger step in the right direction to greater health and wellness in this country.

Related Links

Flour Recall Warning Issued by Health Canada

Canada’s Food Guide (current as of June 10, 2017)

For Residents of British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario:
Carrot Rewards App (to earn points faster, my promo code is patrickv2803)

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