Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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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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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What the WHO sugar recommendations look like

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It was all over the news last week: the World Health Organization has released draft guidelines on sugar intake. These guidelines recommend a further reduction in added sugar intake from less than 10% of total daily calories to less than 5% of total daily calories. They state that this would be roughly 6 teaspoons of sugar a day for the average person. But what does this really look like?

Let’s look at the “average” person first. The “average” sedentary Canadian woman (31-50 years of age) needs roughly 1, 800 calories per day (1). Honestly, that sounds like rather a lot to me. I’m shorter than the average Canadian woman but far more active; my job is very physical and I’m currently training for the Boston Marathon and that’s about all I need in a day. Anyway… Let’s pretend that Health Canada isn’t over estimating our caloric needs. That would mean that the average Canadian woman should aim to have no more than 90 calories a day from added sugars. Knowing that one gram of sugar contains about 4 calories that means that this Average Woman would be permitted 22.5 grams of added sugar a day, or 5.63 teaspoons.

The Average Man (same age range) needs about 2, 350 calories a day. That would mean that he could have 117.5 of those calories from added sugar, or 29.38 grams, or 7.34 teaspoons.

Now, just to be clear, even though your body doesn’t distinguish between added sugar, refined sugar, unrefined sugar, naturally occurring sugar, yada yada, the WHO is only referring to added sugars. Lest you think that the food industry can get tricky and use pureed fruit or fruit juice concentrate to sweeten foods and get around these counting as “added sugars” these have been included in the definition of added sugar.

Just as most of the sodium in our diets is hidden in processed and packaged foods, so is much of the sugar. It’s not going to be as simple as eliminating the teaspoon of sugar in your cup of tea. Although, if you’re one of those people who adds two sugars to your coffee, once you’ve had two cups you’re creeping up on that limit.

How easy is it to reach that limit? Here are a few common “foods” and their respective sugar contents:

A small (16oz) Coke contains 41.4 g of sugar or 10.35 teaspoons (2).

A medium DQ Blizzard contains 74 g of sugar or 18.5 teaspoons (3).

A vanilla latte at Starbucks has 35 g of sugar or 8.75 teaspoons (4).

A 3/4 cup serving of Liberte 2% Coconut Greek Yoghourt contains 19 g of sugar or 4.75 teaspoons (reference: the tub in my fridge).

Two slices of Dempster’s 12 Grain Bread contain 6 g of sugar or 1.5 teaspoons (5).

Check out this infographic for more.

To be fair, some of these sugars will be naturally occurring. But… How are we as consumers to know how much of the sugar is naturally occurring and how much is added? And does it really matter? Unless we are eating diets that consist solely of unprocessed foods it’s going to be damn near impossible for any of us to know precisely how much sugar in a food is added and how much is naturally occurring. Unless food labels start changing to indicated added and naturally occurring sugars it’s going to be a bit of a guessing game. Personally, I think it would be better if we focussed less on individual nutrients and focussed more on overall diet. Recommending limits on processed and fast food and encouraging increasing consumption of home cooked meals and minimally processed foods would be easier to follow. The way these recommendations are framed they just steer people in developed countries toward foods sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners and allow the food industry to market nutritionally-void foods as healthy choices by replacing sugar with other things. They also make things like fruit juice perfectly acceptable even though they are essentially just liquid candy.

If you’re interested in contributing to the draft guidelines you can download the complete document here and send your comments in by March 31st.


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Follow Friday: Healthy Eating School Guidelines

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US have released an article intended to provide guidance for schools wishing to provide optimal environments for students to learn about healthy eating. The article is currently a pilot version; however, it provides useful information to school officials to aid in creating as healthy an educational environment as possible.