The Canada Food Guide is killing you: ‘The obesity epidemic… really began with our dietary guidelines’ | National Post カナダのガチョウジャケット

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The Canada Food Guide is killing you: 'The obesity epidemic… really began with our dietary guidelines'

'The evidence shows the public has complied (with the Canada Food Guide) and has got fatter and sicker' because the guide emphasizes the wrong foods

Walter Tychnowicz/Postmedia News

Canadians are a pretty obedient bunch when it comes to eating what the government says we should be eating.

[np_storybar title=”Why the Canada Food Guide is Difficult to Digest” link=””]

The Canada Food Guide is one of the government’s most popular documents, downloaded more than 230,000 times with more than 1.7 million print copies. It shapes countless school lunches and hospital menus, and remains the go-to guide for many doctors, dietitians and institutions.

But the food guide is also widely criticized as outdated, confusing, soft on ultra-processed foods and unduly influenced by food industry groups.

And its classification system, which equates fruit juice with real fruit, deli meat with chicken breast, and whole grains with sugary cereal? Nonsensical, say some experts.

It’s not an easy task to come up with a document in an easy-to-understand, eye-catching format that captures the essence of what we should be eating, considering Canadians’ various health needs, special diets and demographics.

Since the guide falls short, we ask experts: How should we be eating?

Jean-Claude Moubarac

A researcher in public health nutrition at the University of Montreal, Jean-Claude Moubarac said the guide does not do enough to counter the immense role that ultra-processed, ready-to-eat snack food plays in the modern diet.

The consumption of ultra-processed food increased more than any other food group since the 1980s, said a Canadian Senate report released last month. These foods now account for up to a quarter of calories Canadians consume every day, yet they fall under the“other foods” category in the guide, said Moubarac.

“If you have a typology that doesn’t allow you to qualify a quarter of what people are eating, then your system needs to be updated.”

Moubarac is a proponent of the Brazilian food guide, which he helped develop as part of a team from the University of Sao Paulo tasked by the ministry of health to revise the old guidelines.

The Brazilian guide, released in 2014, is often held up as a shining example of what a food guide ought to be in the modern food landscape.

It’s based on the notion — and sound scientific evidence — that a diet based on home-cooked foods and minimally processed food is going to be healthy. “If you base your diet on (home) cooked food and minimally processed food — it doesn’t matter if you’re eating beans or meat or apples or mangoes — they’re all food,” said Moubarac.

The Brazilian guide also moves beyond food to provide lifestyle advice: cook at home as much as possible, eat with friends and family, and be wary of food marketing.

Desiree Nielsen

Vancouver dietitian Desiree Nielsen had to dust off her copy of the Canada Food Guide in preparation for this interview. She doesn’t use it for clients because it’s too confusing.

“There is so much emphasis on knowing numbers and counting and measuring what is a serving,” said Nielsen, author of Un-Junk Your Diet. She encourages people to make good meal choices, rather than focus on nutrient intake.

Her advice: Eat as many vegetables as possible. “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” she said. “That’s an easy thing to eyeball.”

Replace highly processed food with whole foods. “The less human involvement in altering it, the better.”

Nielsen said the guide needs to come out stronger against ultra-processed food. At the back of the guide, in fine print, is a sentence recommending people avoid foods and beverages high in calories, fat, sugar or salt, she noted.

“If that’s not the No. 1 message, then our Food Guide is doing Canadians a disservice.”

Dr. Michael Lyon

Any revision of the Canada Food Guide should be made without involvement from corporate interests, says Dr. Michael Lyon — something last month’s Senate report also recommends. “We know we live in an obesegenic society,” Lyon said. “The last thing we need is the food industry to be a major influencer in what we are teaching the general public.”

Lyon, who runs B.C.’s only MSP-covered weight management clinic in Coquitlam, likes using the Harvard School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate with his clients.

It uses plate imagery similar to that of the U.S. government’s MyPlate, which replaced the old pyramid-shaped food guide in 2011. But it is also markedly different. It explicitly tells users to avoid sugary drinks and trans-fat and displays a glass of water beside the plate, compared to the government’s version, which depicts a serving of dairy.

Unlike the U.S. government’s version, noted Lyon, the Harvard version was not influenced by food lobby groups.

Lyon said the best diet is one you can stick with. He counsels eating more plants and more simple foods made from scratch. “Eat whole foods. Eat more plants. That’s all I have to say. End of lecture.”

Unique Guidance

The Swedish food guide is unique in the world. Announced in 2015, Sweden’s revised dietary guidelines take into account the health of the planet and the impact of the human diet on the environment. It counsels its citizens not only to eat healthy, but in season and sustainably.


Over the last three decades, we’ve upped our intake of fruits and vegetables while reducing fat and dairy. We’ve increased grains and fish in our diet and reduced red meat, eggs and butter. We’ve even scaled back on sugars (not counting high fructose corn syrup found in processed foods) and soft drinks.

Yet, despite an overall adherence to the Canada Food Guide — held up as the country’s trustworthy blueprint for what should be a healthy, nutritious diet — the country is in the grip of an obesity epidemic, with two-thirds of adults considered obese or overweight and obesity rates double that of 1980 figures.

So what gives?

One U.S. science journalist and author say it’s because the food guide got it all wrong.

“Canadians have, on the whole, followed their food guidelines,” said Nina Teicholz. “Everything that’s supposed to be up is up and everything that’s supposed to be down is down. The evidence shows the public has complied and has got fatter and sicker.”

Among its recommendations, the guide advises adults to eat six to eight servings of grain products a day and to limit saturated fat, which occurs naturally in animal products such as eggs, dairy and meat as well as in some vegetable oils like coconut and palm oils.

It counsels Canadians to trim visible fat from meat, limit butter and cook without or with little added fat. It also advises consuming only two to three tablespoons of unsaturated fat — often described as the “good” fat that is found in plant-based foods and oils — daily.

It’s precisely this fixation on carbohydrates at the expense of saturated fat that’s driving obesity and obesity-related chronic diseases, argues Teicholz in her bestselling book, The Big Fat Surprise.

“The obesity epidemic in the U.S. and Canada really began with our dietary guidelines,” she said. “The evidence points in that direction.”

For decades, governments and scientists in the U.S. and Canada have warned of the harmful effects of saturated fat on the heart and cardiovascular system, urging consumers to shun butter, eggs and red meat.

The demonizing of saturated fat was based on Ancel Keys’s landmark Seven Countries Study that found an association between coronary heart disease and total cholesterol levels.

The evidence was weak and preliminary, said Teicholz, but that didn’t stop the American Heart Association from pushing the idea in 1961 that saturated fat and dietary cholesterol caused heart disease.

“At the time, the U.S. was in a panic over rising heart disease,” she said. “The organization needed to say something. Everyone got on board with this hypothesis and that has become the accepted dogma adopted by leading scientists.”

Since then, more rigorous, billion-dollar, government-funded clinical trials involving tens of thousands of participants have failed to find an association between saturated fat and heart disease.

“All those reviews clearly imply that saturated fat has been unfairly condemned,” said Teicholz, one of dozens of witnesses who testified in Ottawa last year at a Senate committee hearing on finding ways to curb Canada’s rising obesity rates.

The results of the hearing: A damning report released last month that eviscerated the Canada Food Guide as “dated” and “at best ineffective and at worst enabling” the country’s obesity crisis.

Witnesses told the committee that fat consumption in the early 1970s made up about 40 per cent of daily calories. Then Canadians heeded the exhortation to reduce fat and reduced their fat intake to 31 per cent by 2004. But during this time, obesity rates spiked, which suggests that dietary fat is not a “primary contributing factor” in obesity, said the report.

A higher-fat diet — one that has more fat than the current diet that limits fat consumption to 25 to 35 per cent of total calories — is healthier and a better disease-fighter than a low-fat diet, said Teicholz, citing more than a dozen reviews and meta-analyses that concluded saturated fat is not associated with heart disease and has no effect on cardiovascular mortality.

But she said many of these studies are ignored, even stricken off the record, because they go against the government’s official low-fat dietary advice. Case in point: Teicholz was recently uninvited from a panel at the National Food Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., this week.

“There’s a lot at stake here,” she said. “If the people who invested in these guidelines are wrong, that’s a bad story.”

Teicholz’s findings are controversial but have been bolstered by other studies and reports.

A 2013 paper published in the British Medical Journal called the link between saturated fats and heart problems a “myth,” while a 2014 study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that people who ate fewer carbs and more fats, including the saturated type, lost more body fat and reduced their risk of developing heart disease.

Last fall the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation issued a position paper overturning the usual warnings about saturated fat and focusing instead on a “whole diet approach” and the dangers of highly processed food. It noted that, in hindsight, dietary recommendations that encouraged people to cut back on fat and boost carbs may have played a role in increasing calorie consumption and rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome.

Teicholz said she is not advocating people start gorging themselves on eggs, cheese and fatty meats — only that saturated fat does not deserve its villainous casting and should be “let out of jail.”


She does not suggest an ideal fat consumption level, arguing only that government remove limits on fat. Asked whether there should be a cap on carb intake, Teicholz pointed out that before the existing dietary guidelines were in place, Americans ate less than 40 per cent of their daily calories in carbs. Today, that number is 50-60 per cent.

“Simply reversing that back to 40 per cent would be a common-sense kind of recommendation for a healthy population,” said Teicholz, a “near vegetarian” in her younger years who now estimates her diet to be about 50 per cent fat, with moderate protein and low carbs.

B.C. obesity expert Michael Lyon said the assumption all saturated fat is evil is a mistake, but cautioned against “bandwagon diets.”

“It’s like a pendulum that swings from one extreme to another,” said Lyon. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to recommendations about fat.”

Not all saturated fats are created equal, said Lyon. Some, such as hydrogenated fats, should go. But rather than promoting “the extreme end” and bulking up our diet with meat, fat and cheese, Lyon recommends a more measured route: “It would be more sensible to consider becoming more moderate in our consumption of carbs and choosing our carbs more wisely.”

The Senate report noted there was no consensus regarding how much fat, dairy, starch and sugar comprises the optimal diet. All witnesses, however, agreed that whole foods are best and highly processed foods should be avoided. And all of them recommended an immediate review of the Canada Food Guide to better reflect current scientific evidence.

The report also prompted a petition by Ottawa resident Mike Sheridan urging Health Canada to revamp the food guide. The petition has garnered more than 21,800 signatures in less than a week.

In an emailed statement, Health Canada said it is conducting a review of the evidence to determine if there is a need to revise the current guide.

“The current evidence review process will help to identify whether there are needs to revise current guidance or develop new guidance,” said spokesman Andre Gagnon.

The results will be announced publicly later this year.

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