Paleo, plant-based, ketogenic, raw, good fat, bad fat, good carbs, bad carbs… Canadians can certainly be forgiven for not knowing what to eat these days. While most of us have abandoned trusting mass advertising to shape our food choices, the amount of information, misinformation, and disinformation out there is phenomenal. Just a brief online search can bring up a wealth of credible-sounding reports both on why we should, and shouldn’t, eat particular diets or foods, leaving one utterly confused and frustrated.
Looking to other sources of information doesn’t help either. Popular TV shows, such as Dr. Oz and The Doctors, bring on respected experts, but the nutrition recommendations change almost daily from expert to expert. The media adds to the confusion by reporting on nutrition studies with sensational headlines that shout about each new study contradicting the last. Bloggers are another favourite source of health information for Canadians, but what credentials do these writers actually have? Some, certainly, have studied nutrition in-depth and have respectable credentials, but the vast majority have not. And they are just as vulnerable to confirmation bias as the rest of us, cherry picking the research that best fits their beliefs.
The amount of bias in both research and professional recommendations continues to be an issue as well, with studies being funded and influenced by the food industry and pharmaceuticals, and food groups wielding enormous power by lobbying politicians.
Marion Nestle, Profession of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, summarises some of these issues well in her analysis of the recent PURE study (1), which was reported on by the media with sensational and misleading headlines about fat and carbs.
Nestle discusses concerns with the funding sources for the study, limitations of the study design and the desire of the media to skew the findings to make a good story. As Nestle points out if study after study confirms that a mostly plant-based diet is the best for health, it doesn’t make for very exciting news headlines.
Nestle concludes, “The (PURE) study results are consistent with the idea that largely plant-based diets are good for health. No single study can settle the fat vs. carbohydrate debate because people eat complicated combinations of foods and diets containing those nutrients. What we really need are well-designed studies of dietary patterns—the ones done to date suggest that largely plant-based diets are associated with excellent health and longevity.”
If the well-designed studies to date show that mostly plant-based diets are the best choice for health and longevity, why aren’t most Canadians aware of this information? And more importantly, why didn’t the current Canada Food Guide (2) make this information clear?
The top resources Canadians use for nutrition information are the internet, followed by family & friends, and TV programs. The fourth source is the Canada Food Guide and the fifth is doctors and dietitians. This is according to the Evidence Review Cycle for Dietary Guidance (3) – Health Canada’s systematic approach to gathering, assessing and analyzing data relevant to dietary guidance. (We’d love to see doctors higher up on that list, but that’s a topic for another blog post!)
The research showed that most Canadians are aware of the Food Guide, so why aren’t they using it? Shouldn’t the Food Guide be the number one source of nutrition information for Canadians?
Apart from the fact that the current guide is somewhat difficult to use, findings indicate that people feel that the guide is out of date and they lack confidence in the guide’s recommendations due to a perception of influence from the food industry. According to the review, “…there remains a perception among some groups of consumers and organizations that food industry representatives exerted influence on the development of the recommendations in the Food Guide. This adversely affects the credibility of the guidance from a scientific standpoint in the eyes of these stakeholders.”
The Canada Food Guide is supposed to be a resource that helps improve the health of Canadian citizens. It is not there to increase the bottom line of food corporations and there should be absolutely no influence from industry in the nutrition guidelines.
It is an important guide, not just for the general public, but for policymakers and health professionals, such as doctors, hospitals, and dietitians. It even influences what food is served to our children in schools.
The current Canada Food Guide was last updated in 2007 and is in the process of being revised as part of a multi-year project. The goal is to strengthen healthy eating recommendations and communicate guidance in ways that better meet the needs of different users. In making the recommendations evidence-based, Health Canada is committed to using the best and most recent evidence in their decision making, considering high quality, peer-reviewed systematic reviews, and reports from leading scientific organizations and governmental agencies. Given the concerns about the current Food Guide recommendations having been influenced by industry, one hopes that this concern will also be addressed in the new Food Guide.
Health Canada published the proposed changes to the Food Guide earlier this year and invited the public to give their feedback on the Guiding Principles and Recommendations (4).
The Guiding Principles (see inset) are refreshingly clear and concise, and appear to be without the influence of industry. The recommendations place more emphasis on plant-based foods and less on animal-based foods, causing outrage from the meat and dairy industries, but bringing the guide more in line with what the research is showing is best for human health.
Consultation has now closed on these guidelines and part 1 of the new dietary guidance policy report will be released in 2018. It remains to be seen if the initial guidelines and recommendations will prevail.
With food-related illnesses such as heart disease, some types of cancer, diabetes, and many others on the rise, Canadians deserve to have an unbiased, evidence-based, clear guide to what they should eat. They should have a Food Guide that is their go-to, trusted source of nutrition information. We at The Green Moustache applaud Health Canada for taking the steps they have taken so far to bring this new guide to Canadians and help the public make the right food choices to optimize their health longevity. We look forward to seeing the new Food Guide and the positive impact it has on health professionals, policymakers, and Canadian citizens.