Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Of logical fallacies and opinion pieces

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I wrote the following in response to this Postmedia opinion piece that was published a couple of weeks ago. I did send it to them in the hopes that they would publish it. Unfortunately, I never received a response so onto the blog it goes!

In reading the Point of View Focus on food costs, not advertising bans from Postmedia Network I couldn’t help but wonder if it was written solely to elicit reaction. After all, who could genuinely be opposed to revamping Canada’s Food Guide so that it’s more user-friendly and based on the most current scientific evidence? Who could be opposed to banning advertising of unhealthy foods to children?

The writer sets-up the issue as a false dichotomy. The reader is left feeling that in order to be supportive of efforts to improve food access in the North that they must be opposed to efforts to improve nutrition labelling across Canada, revise the Food Guide, and ban food advertising to children. This is not the case. These are all important issues facing our country and to support some of them does not mean that you are opposed to others. Bringing up the lack of access to affordable food in Northern Canada is a logical fallacy. It’s irrelevant to the matter at hand and only serves to derail the conversation. 

Despite what the author says, the government would not be “pre-empting the work parents have traditionally done, which is watching their children’s diets all by themselves” by implementing a ban on advertising of unhealthy food to children. In fact, the government would simply be supporting parental efforts to foster healthy eating habits in their children through such a ban. With the majority of Canadian children not meeting current minimum recommendations for consumption of vegetables and fruit, clearly the current method of allowing food companies to market to children while parents attempt to fend off the never-ending flow of food marketing is not working. The effectiveness of the advertising ban in Quebec shows that such bans can encourage healthier eating habits in children. Such a ban does not remove the role of parents; it simply supports their efforts to raise healthy eaters.

As for Canada’s Food Guide, many criticisms have been launched against it over the years. However, it’s an important tool for dietitians and teachers to promote healthy eating patterns in children and adults. Unfortunately, the criticisms of The Guide have served to cause many to disregard all of the guidance contained within. Revising The Guide to reflect the most current scientific evidence and responding to public and educator concerns will help to make it a more effective tool, and thus, improve the eating habits of Canadians.

As a registered dietitian, I applaud the efforts of our government to provide a healthier food environment for Canadian children and to promote healthy eating habits among Canadians of all ages. I also encourage the government to address issues of food access and affordability across the country through measures such as increased access to affordable fresh vegetables and fruit, basic income guarantee, and living wages.


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Follow Friday: Canada’s Food Guide Revision

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FINALLY Health Canada has announced plans to update Canada’s Food Guide. I know that you all have opinions about it so now’s your chance to make them heard. Go complete their survey now so that your thoughts will be considered.

There are many criticisms of the Food Guide but it really is a useful tool for group nutrition education. Let’s make it a better, evidence-based tool to guide Canadians in making healthy food choices in the future.


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Is Canada’s Food Guide making us fat?

Oh goodie. Nina Teicholz is at it again (still at it?). In an article in the National Post the other day she purportedly claimed that the cause of obesity in Canada is our strong adherence to Canada’s Food Guide.

See, that might be a remotely good argument if Canadians were actually following Canada’s Food Guide (even then, the causal relationship is unlikely). However, we’re not. Not even close. Only one quarter of the population (two years of age and over) met the minimum recommendation for vegetables and fruit according to one study. Similar results are consistently found through the CCHS (Canadian Community Health Survey administered by Stats Canada). We don’t eat enough vegetables and fruit, we don’t get enough milk (or alternatives), we eat too much meat…

Even if it were true that we were all following Canada’s Food Guide there are significant flaws with this logic. One, it’s a spurious correlation. You know, like the correlation between the number of people tripping over their own feet and dying and the number of lawyers in Nevada.

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Just because two things happen to correlation doesn’t mean that there’s a connection between them. Just because obesity rates have been rising since the latest incarnation of CFG doesn’t mean that the CFG caused the rise in obesity.

Two, what about the rising obesity rates across the planet? Does Teicholz mean to suggest that Brits, Americans, and Australians are all strictly adhering to the Canadian Food Guide? Who knew our guide was so popular!?

Three, obesity rates were quite likely rising before we adopted Canada’s Food Guide. Both in Canada, and around the world. It’s impossible to say what the trend in obesity would have been if Canada’s Food Guide hadn’t been adopted in the 1980s. It’s possible that the trajectory would have been the same. Maybe it would have been even more rapid, slower, or dropped. There’s probably no causal relationship between the adoption of our national food guide and the increase in obesity rates.

Fortunately, there’s a voice of reason. Unfortunately, it comes in at the end of the article (after most people have likely stopped reading). Lyons says what I’ve said all too often, that we shouldn’t be demonizing or glorifying any foods. Rather than go all-in on saturated fat, we should be consuming fat from a variety of sources (save for man-made trans-fat). Rather than go from low-fat to high-fat we should consume a variety of foods. Let’s not sweat the small stuff so much.


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Should Canada take a page out of the Brazilian Food Guide?

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Examples of Brazilian lunches from the Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I was reading this article about The best and worst nutritional advice from around the world today (yesterday if you’re reading this on the day it’s posted, but that’s neither here nor there) and the criticism of Canada’s Food Guide got under my skin.

If you’ve been with me for a while then you’ll know that I’m no great fan of our Food Guide. However, it doesn’t feature chocolate milk or pudding. In fact, it doesn’t mention them at all. There is an accompanying site from Health Canada called My Food Guide. This interactive tool allows you to personalise the guide by inputting your age and sex and selecting from lists of foods that you enjoy. Chocolate milk and pudding are a couple of the foods included on the milk and alternatives list. Unfortunate, certainly. I’d still argue that they’re not present on Canada’s Food Guide, let alone “featured”. In my mind this is Canada’s Food Guide:

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What do you think? Is the print version of Canada’s Food Guide The Food Guide or does the online interactive My Food Guide constitute Canada’s Food Guide? Maybe it’s just semantics.

This all lead me to think more about the comparisons of the various food guides and I don’t really think that they’re fair comparisons. I’m not even sure how valid the criticisms of the “worst” guides are. Is it really so terrible that the Italian food guide includes things like salami and biscuits? I think it’s good that they’re providing recognition of realistic eating patterns and including foods that can be part of a healthy diet. As long as the intent and interpretation don’t lead people to believe that the Italian government is recommending that people eat more cured meat and cookies.

The criticism of the Japanese food guide is that grains are recommended as the foundation of the diet. Again, not necessarily a terrible recommendation. We need to acknowledge that there are cultural differences and that there is no definitive “right” or “wrong” diet. Grains can be the foundation of a healthy diet. In Canada when I was a kid the Food Guide actually featured grains as the dominant colour in the rainbow. This was switched to vegetables and fruit because they provide us with more nutrients for fewer calories as obesity became a growing concern in our country. This doesn’t mean that a healthy diet can’t contain plenty of grains, this was just an easy switch to make on the food guide to encourage weight loss. Not that it’s made an iota of difference.

Okay, so the “worst” advice isn’t really all that terrible. How great is the “best”? It is pretty great. From a professional standpoint. The Brazilian guidelines are 80 pages. The Swedish are 26. Both documents are very thorough and take a whole food approach rather than focussing on single nutrients. Excellent but not exactly something that you can easily handout to a patient or client or stick to the fridge.

Considering that about half of our population struggles with low literacy, how useful would it be for us to have an 80 page food guide? Even if people could read it I’m highly doubtful that many would. I copied and pasted some of the text from the Brazilian guide into Hemmingway app and it came up at a grade 15 level! That’s not exactly easy reading.

Yes, our Canadian Food Guide could certainly use a make-over. We could take a page from Brazil. I don’t know about all 80 though. Comparing it to these lengthy documents is like comparing apples to oranges or chocolate milk to plain kefir.


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The relationship between dietitians and the Food Guide

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I spend a lot of time explaining the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist to people. I’ve done it on this very blog. I was doing this recently when someone jumped in to say that dietitians go by the Food Guide. It’s funny because I would never think to mention Canada’s Food Guide when explaining the difference between RDs and RHNs to anyone. It’s true that we are taught about the Food Guide during our degree but it’s not something I’ve used much in practice. I can understand why RHNs (and others) would sound a little disdainful when claiming that dietitians follow the Food Guide. After all, I’ve voiced disdain toward the Food Guide myself.

Perhaps some dietitians use Canada’s Food Guide as a bible but I think that most of us, if we use it at all, it’s as a guide. It’s a tool, albeit not a great one; designed to help people make healthy food choices that will meet their nutrient needs. Unfortunately, the government allowed industry to have a voice at the table when the Food Guide was being developed. Industry has the goal of boosting profits. This is generally incompatible with the goal of boosting Canadians health.

Dietitians have many different roles and I certainly can’t claim to speak for all members of the profession. However, in addition to being taught the Food Guide in University we were also taught to think critically. I would hope that this would translate into the Food Guide not being a factor when comparing dietitians and nutritionists.