Let Evidence be Your Guide

July 24th, 2017 No Comments Tags:

I have heard the cheers for the proposed plans of the new Canada’s Food Guide. I’ve been pondering this more deeply though, hmmmm. I want to join the throngs of enthusiasts, but to me, the jury is still out until I see the final product. You may recall the post I wrote: Does the Food Guide make my butt get fat? a while back. I revealed that creating any educational material for a target group of people poses many challenges. So devising a new Guide for 35 million people over the age of two, living in a culturally and geographically diverse country such as Canada makes this a mammoth task – understatement of the year…

The Good

At first blush, the guiding principles seem sound: The first outlines what to eat (more veggies, fruit, whole grains and plant based proteins), the second cautions what not to eat (ultra processed and prepared foods, especially those containing a lot of saturated fat, sugar and salt) and the third provides strategies on how to eat (highlighting a need for more cooking and eating together) – very Brazilian Guide-esque, don’t you think? That guide received rave reviews, so including these elements makes sense as these issues are applicable to Canadians too. The devil is in the detail. People want specifics; however, like “what should I buy, then what and how much should I eat?” Don’t leave consumers hanging Health Canada because people will fill in the blanks which could lead the population down another dark, new epidemic alley.

The Bad

I believe in the old adage “if something seems too good to be true, it probably is”. This rings true in this case. Don’t call me a Debbie Downer. I am certainly hoping for the best, really I am. But as I read the centrefold of the Globe & Mail’s National News section on July 19, 2017 a few alarm bells rang. Put the pom poms down and hear me out.

The Consultation Process I liken Health Canada’s consultation process to sending a “Dear Santa” letter when I was young. It’s a dark hole where everyone and their monkey’s uncle weigh in. Many people feel because they eat, they must know a thing or two about food. I am all for the democratic process but when building a document as important as the new Food Guide the final decisions must be based in food and nutrition scientific evidence, not popular opinion. Should the loud minority be hushed by making changes? I certainly hope not. Decisions need to be made seeped in evidence – period.

For example, just because a very small percentage of the population don’t drink milk in their culture shouldn’t mean we remove that section of the guide, especially if a vast majority of the population benefit by it. I am sure the Canadian Consumer Health Survey results are in and I’m guessing the findings about what Canadians are eating are grim, thus the need to make such sweeping change. I surmise that Canadians are snacking more of ultra processed food, cooking less, not meeting requirements for essential nutrients, eating alone and eating out a lot. If one nutrient rich food, such as milk can single handedly fill an array of nutrient gaps for many age and gender groups when you do a modelling exercise, wouldn’t that be a good reason to keep it in the new guide? Including nutrient rich choices makes sense. I have many more reasons why dairy belongs in the guide: Don’t be a dairy contrarian?

The Ugly

Creating this is difficult enough with food and nutrition as the primary focus, but Health Canada wants to pull in environmental sustainability too. I want to believe this can be included, but I encourage them to put food and nutrition as the primary goals and the environment as a secondary one, after all it’s a Food Guide.

Look folks, I’m all for “making our planet great again”. In my very household, we are getting rid of two gas guzzling vehicles and replacing them with one electric car, putting solar panels on the roof and more (and yo, if you see me hitch hiking by the side of the road because I forgot to recharge my car like I sometimes do with my phone, have a heart and give me a lift, would you?). In the balancing act of creating a new guide and covering all of the evidence-based food and nutrition bases, making the environment central to the decision making might be a stretch, especially if we end up nixing important dietary elements because of it. Don’t bite off more than you can chew by trying to be all things to all people.

You don’t know what you don’t know, you know! I have been a sad spectator of this “gluten-free” craze over the years. It’s been “a thing” for much longer than expected unfortunately. I know some intelligent people who have assimilated that “a diet must be healthier without gluten” because we’re still bombarded with all of these alternate facts and nonsense for so long. Alternative facts are permeating people’s consciousness as a consequence. If Health Canada decides to remove the dairy group to shut the loud minority up, I worry people might make similar wrong assumptions.

Empower the People!

If Health Canada wants to empower Canadians to make better food choices, then they should be committed to providing the best tools to do so. Usher in a better Nutrition Facts Panel (NFP) for instance. If you want Canadians to eat less sugar, add that line with grams of added sugar per serving right on the panel? Also, while the Skip the Dishes app seems to be all the rage as consumers eat out more, why not mandate all of the NFP information be available to Canadians for restaurant food, starting with fast food. The fact that only a few tidbits of nutrition information of menus is available in various provinces isn’t something to cheer about. Consumers need all of this info available in every province now. What are you waiting for Health Canada?

Alas, I applaud the Food Directorate’s efforts in this painstaking exercise. Do keep food and nutrition scientific evidence as your primary focus and don’t let popular opinion of the loud minority influence your decisions. Get all of your policy ducks in a row – from food labels for all food Canadians consume – packaged and restaurant food alike. Don’t make sweeping change for the sake of making change. Include dietitians as the “go to” experts to help Canadians make sense of all of the food and nutrition non-sense. And at the end of the day, realize that whatever you decide, people won’t be holding hands and singing Kumbaya, but it is a necessary task nonetheless.

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