As a media dietitian and nutrition and food expert, I’m often called upon to comment on the latest diet books and fads. I was on CTV National News yesterday to comment on statements made by an American journalist about Canada’s Food Guide and dietary guidelines in the U.S. being responsible for the obesity epidemic.
The headline? “Canada’s Food Guide is Killing You”. How’s that for sensational?
The journalist quoted in the story, bestselling author Nina Teicholz, knows how to get the most media exposure possible. She makes outlandish claims that make great headlines. It’s not surprising that she ties in her bestselling book, The Big Fat Surprise, in her comments about Canadian and American food guidelines.
She goes on to say that:
“The obesity epidemic in the U.S. and Canada really began with our dietary guidelines. The evidence points in that direction.” Teicholz also notes that even though people seem to be eating better (getting more vegetables, having less pop and sugary sodas, etc.) obesity is still an issue. So it must be the food guide’s fault, right? Even though people are eating more vegetables and cutting down on added sugars, many Canadians are still nowhere near the recommended servings of vegetables and fruit per day.
Teicholz is right about a few things. The “heart healthy” dietary guidelines of the 90s encouraged people to choose lower fat diets. Not such bad advice, but what were people supposed to replace the fat with? The food industry fed the low fat craze (pun intended) by making low fat ice cream, low fat cookies, and other highly processed foods loaded with refined carbohydrates and sugar. In a word: disaster. Of course, this only served to make people fatter and sicker than ever.
This is the perfect example of what can go wrong when we try to blame certain foods or food groups for what ails us. If everything is killing us, what are we supposed to eat?
What does this have to do with Canada’s Food Guide? I agree it could definitely use some updates. It has some redeeming qualities, like encouraging plenty of vegetables and fruit, making the point that foods high in salt and sugar should be limited, and recommending that people drink water to quench their thirst to avoid empty calories from sugar-sweetened beverages.
Health Canada is currently undergoing a review of the latest nutrition research and dietary guidelines from other countries before starting to develop our newest food guide. Now’s our chance to make sure its accurate and helpful for Canadians.
Is Canada’s Food Guide perfect? Far from it.
A few things need to change.
I agree that encouraging people consume 6-8 servings of grains every day is overdoing it. Especially when you consider the most commonly consumed vegetable in North America is the potato. Not a vegetable in terms of its impact on blood sugar and it’s caloric density, now is it?
I break down foods into groups based on their nutritional merits, not commodities. To me (and my clients) it makes way more sense to put non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens in one group and starchy vegetables and whole grains in another group. The former should be the bulk of the diet, not the latter.
Canada’s Food Guide recommends having 1-2 tablespoons a day of unsaturated fats, but this needs to be more specific. Not all unsaturated fats are created equal when it comes to health. We know that the current ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the North American diet is closer to 17:1 than the ideal of 1:1. This promotes inflammation, an underlying contributor to chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity and more. Where are all of these omega-6 fatty acids coming from? Cheap oils like sunflower, corn and soybean oils are used in processed foods and do not belong in the same category as omega-3 fatty acids from oily fish or health-promoting foods like nuts.
And what about monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocado? These fats have heart health benefits and a neutral effect on inflammation. They’re part of the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean Diet, one of the healthiest eating patterns in the world. It’s time we gave people specific information they can use to improve their health rather than speaking in general terms.
My main issue with our food guide is it doesn’t emphasize food quality enough. As I said in a recent CBC Radio Here and Now interview, we need to take a page (literally) from Brazil’s food guide and make it clear that processed foods should be limited, fresh, whole foods are the healthiest choices, and cooking food at home is a great way to eat a healthier diet.
So most of us agree Canada’s Food Guide needs an update and obesity is a problem. Does that mean we should get rid of grains in our diets altogether? Or that we should put plenty of red meat and butter back on our plates? Obviously not. The nutrition world seems to thrive on extremes and flip flops between polar opposites. This way of thinking is what I’m here to question and hopefully change.
As I said in the CTV interview, it’s the overall diet we need to be looking at rather than vilifying certain foods or macronutrients. As a dietitian and weight loss expert, I focus on what people CAN eat rather than giving a laundry list of foods to avoid forever.
Sorry, book authors who have zero nutrition background or experience helping clients improve their health with nutrition therapy. You have it wrong. Your scare tactics get headlines but you’re only worsening the obesity epidemic. Nutrition and food confusion is your fault.
Interestingly, Dr. William Davis, cardiologist and author of the bestseller Wheat Belly, was called upon by CTV to debate the pros and cons of Canada’s Food Guide with me. Again, no shocker here… he quoted the quack science that fills his book and stated that hundreds of people a day come to him (he must have a massive waiting room) having cured their arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome and more by avoiding wheat for 3 days.
I’m curious to know what these people were eating before and what they switched over to. When people cut wheat out of their diet and replace it with more vegetables, it’s no surprise they drop some weight and feel better. They’re eating fewer calories and consuming nutrient-dense foods. Did they also cut down on added sugars and processed foods? You bet.
Sorry, Dr. Davis. My logic isn’t flawed. I stand by my assessment of the current body of scientific literature we have that strongly supports eating a mostly plant-based, fibre-rich diet. Yes, this specifically includes whole grains in reasonable portions, along with lean proteins, beans, healthy fats like nuts, seeds and olive oil, and of course, plenty of vegetables.
Based on Dr. Davis’s comments during the interview, I doubt he’s even seen Canada’s Food Guide. He seems to be referring to an outdated version where grain products were recommended to be the bulk of the diet. It’s been vegetables and fruits as the biggest section of the rainbow for the past 9 years. Someone didn’t do his research…
Nutrition experts like fellow media dietitian Rosie Schwartz and obesity expert and physician Yoni Freedhoff have slammed Dr. Davis’s theories. On his blog Weighty Matters, Dr. Freedhoff has said of Wheat Belly:
“Dr. Davis has eschewed his medical responsibility to ensure that the information he conveys to the public while wearing his MD hat is firmly supported by and grounded in science (or at the very least point out when a view is highly preliminary and theoretical), and instead, uses his MD platform to push his own personal theory onto a trusting, vulnerable, and desperate public, as nearly irrefutably factual and scientific.”
Cherry picking studies to support an extreme viewpoint that wheat (or fruit… or insert current trend here) is killing everyone is clearly bad science. So is lumping together all grains into the “bad” category. Blaming obesity and diabetes on processed foods, refined grains and added sugars makes partial sense… and there is some evidence for that. But avoiding whole grains that are packed with nutrients and cancer-fighting compounds because they’re distant cousins? Now that’s flawed logic.