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Is The Food Guide Or Over-Consumption To Blame For Obesity Problems?

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The Food Guide correlates serving size and calories, outlining how much of what you should be eating. It recommends a daily intake of 2400 calories for men and 1800 for women. It needs to be personalized and not taken at face value. Overeating healthy foods is not likely a cause of obesity. Meal deals, cheap junk food, confusing food labels, etc. seem to pose the "bigger” threat.

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Canada’s Food Guide has taken a lot of heat over the decades and this writer is no stranger to criticizing it. No doubt it’s confusing for the average Canadian to make sense of, interpret, and apply to real life and everyday settings. In fact, I’ve been a large and vocal detractor of it over the years but after 18 years of practising as a dietitian-nutritionist, I’ve made peace with this document.

It does have a time and place for its use – it’s all about context and the audience.

Deconstructing the Food Guide I find is the best way to help bring clarity to the patients and clients I’m serving, if and when I choose to use it; it is but one tool in the toolkit that can be used to help people eat better.

While it’s not perfect, I do take exception to sweeping generalizations that it’s the root cause for the current epidemic of overweight and obesity. The Food Guide is routinely lambasted as being obesogenic as if to suggest that following the recommended number of servings and portions sizes will cause people to gain weight.

Are People Really Overweight Because Of The Food Guide?

Keep in mind that the Food Guide’s primary purpose is to help Canadians understand what one possible pattern of healthy eating might look like [a variety of different foods and suggested serving sizes to help people conceptualize how much of those foods are needed to achieve better health – 1 apple ain’t gonna cut it].

The types of foods found in the Canadian food supply are grouped together based on agricultural base and how foods have been typically used in meal preparation (i.e. fruits and vegetables are prepared in ways that meats are not.

Likewise, a potato may have lots of starch like rice, oats or grain-based foods like pasta, but it has historically been seen as a vegetable versus a ‘starch’ [unless you have diabetes] and is therefore put in with fruits and vegetables).

The actual theoretical framework for the creation of the Food Guide is complicated but it ultimately gives a range of servings within each food group understanding that different foods within each group will have different amounts of calories.

For example, 100 g of albacore tuna packed in water has 128 calories while the same serving size of lean ground beef has 272 calories. Many have argued that calorie ranges like this within the food groups has resulted in nearly 70% of Canadians being overweight or obese since it treats all foods within each group as the same.

Mental note – it’s not meant to be followed to the letter of the law nor is it meant to be so literal. It’s a guide.

What’s In The Recommended Number Of Serving Sizes?

Using the reference age group for adults 19 to 50 years, the recommended servings from each food group provides, on average, 1800 calories per day for women and 2400 calories for men [perfectly reasonable].

  • Fruits And Vegetables: MEN 8-10 servings, WOMEN 7-8 servings
  • Grain And Grain Products: MEN 8 servings, WOMEN 6-7 servings
  • Dairy And Alternatives: MEN 2 servings, WOMEN 2 servings
  • Meat And Alternatives: MEN 3 servings, WOMEN 2 servings

Serving sizes are part of the equation too. Food companies can call a serving size whatever they want to but the serving sizes in the Food Group are standardized to ensure that they provide a consistent number of calories within an acceptable range (one day might provide 1700 calories, another day 1900 as this is how people normally eat; more on some days, less on others).

It’s important to note that what people eat day to day does not reflect what the Food Guide offers as a guideline; people are eating portion sizes far greater than what’s found in the Food Guide.

Case in point is fruit juice. One of the fruit servings that haters of the Food Guide love to pick on saying that it’s ‘nothing but sugar’, or ‘no better than soft drinks’, or ‘has no place in a healthy diet’.

This, of course, is ridiculous. To suggest that a 4 oz serving size of 100% fruit juice, with about 60 calories, is the cause for obesity is as enlightened as saying the same thing about the four horsemen of the dietary apocalypse [potatoes, rice, pasta and bread].

But a 700 ml / 24 oz bottle of fruit juice found alongside, and promoted with, water, sweetened iced tea or soft drinks IS a problem when it comes to the availability of excess calories. Throwing back a bottle juice that size is easy; it doesn’t require any chewing and before you know it, you’ve consumed 335 calories!

Where Are The Extra Calories Really Coming From?

The problems with over-consumption are more to do with food producers and how they create serving sizes (extra large bagels), food labels which are not easy to use & hugely confusing, the food landscape in general not the least of which is our hyper-saturated advertised eating environment, subsidized junk food, endless cues to eat, meal deals, and the ubiquitous hyper-palatable processed foods and the like.

If you critically analyzed and deconstructed how and what people, who follow a healthy diet for the most part, are eating, you’d see that it approximates something like the Food Guide whether that’s Canada’s or similar from around the world.

Not necessarily in terms of the exact number of servings from each food group but in general.

It’s true industry was ‘at the table’ when the number of servings and the serving sizes were determined [not ideal – get over it and don’t throw the baby out with the bath water].

So it’s important for people to understand that the serving sizes are neither minimums or maximums; 2.5 oz of meat is not the most someone is supposed to eat. A chicken breast is typically 6 oz – the portions sizes are fluid within reason. A person, like myself, can choose to eat little to few grain products but I get loads ‘carbs’ from fruit, tubers like sweet potatoes, and pulses [chickpeas, lentils, dried peas and beans].

Keep in mind the Guide is meant as starting point at a population level and then can be personalized/individualized during a one-on-one consultation with clients and patients as it should be.

Death By Food Guide?

In my almost 18 years as a dietitian-nutritionist, I’ve never met anyone who is overweight or obese because they ate the recommended number of servings and portion sizes from the Food Guide.

I’ve never met anyone who is overweight or obese from eating too many fruits and vegetables either and fruit is often vilified because it’s “loaded in sugar.” Some have called for fruit to be separated out as it’s own food group and intake limited.

This to me makes no sense considering that whole foods are self-limiting; because they take longer to chew and are not highly refined or processed, simply fill you up.

Never heard of the banana and skim milk diet? Try eating 3 large bananas and a glass of skim milk and you’d be stuffed for only 450 calories. Or consider that a Big Mac has 560 calories. You could eat that in 90 seconds, try doing that with 7 apples for the same number of calories. Good luck!

It’s true that overeating healthier foods can lead to weight gain but no one truly believes that our obesity problem is because, as a society, we’re overeating too many servings of brown rice, grilled salmon, and steamed broccoli. Do they?

People are overweight and obese because they follow the Food Guide? C’mon, please!

Doug Cook
Expert

I am a Registered Dietitian & Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and former Certified Diabetes Educator with over 15 years of clinical nutrition experience. I practice a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements where appropriate. My strength lies in my ability to explain complicated nutrition and scientific concepts in plain language which I then put into everyday practical dietary advice. I have a unique approach to nutrition counselling. I have the solid education & training of a dietitian but know that there are many points of views outside this model, and I incorporate them into my practice.

Doug Cook
Expert

I am a Registered Dietitian & Integrative & Functional Nutritionist and former Certified Diabetes Educator with over 15 years of clinical nutrition experience. I practice a holistic and integrative approach providing science-based guidance on food and diet along with nutritional supplements where appropriate. My strength lies in my ability to explain complicated nutrition and scientific concepts in plain language which I then put into everyday practical dietary advice. I have a unique approach to nutrition counselling. I have the solid education & training of a dietitian but know that there are many points of views outside this model, and I incorporate them into my practice.

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