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Why Brazil’s new food guide leaves me hungry for more

Theresa Albert

Racheal McCaig Photography

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

I don't know about you, but my great grandmother, with her limited education, taught me about as much about healthy eating as the Brazilian government is teaching its population.

Brazil's new proposed food guide stresses things like eating with other people, preparing fresh food and limiting the use of packaged food.

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Now, I know these things are true, all of them, but is that what I really want to hear from my presumably educated and well-paid policy makers? If I quoted these loose tips to private clients in my consultation with them, they wouldn't pay my bill.

These are generally accepted practices that everyone knows; they don't need to hear them again. What people don't know is how to carry them out in their busy lives. Specific tips are more helpful.

Recently the World Health Organization announced new sugar guidelines that stated for ideal health benefits, individuals should reduce their sugar consumption to just 5 per cent of daily caloric intake, which for many people is about six teaspoons. This is something people can visualize.

By most standards, naming the amount is brave enough, but offering a 5-per-cent threshold for optimal health is a pretty drastic move. However, unlike Brazil's proposed food guide, it gives a clear goal to shoot for based on the science that the policy makers have at their fingertips. I'm willing to bet that such sugar news changed habits – at least for a week.

That kind of guidance feels more useful to me, and to the people I am lucky enough to guide.

Furthermore, the Brazilian suggestion to avoid "fast-food outlets" is not only moot, it is absurd. Instead of zero tolerance, why not focus on steering people away from deep-fried food? The fact is that most fast-food outlets also provide an accessible, somewhat affordable salad that isn't otherwise being consumed at home. Doesn't it make more sense to show something they might be able to achieve?

As a first step in the process, Brazil's guidelines make sense. But it means turning a cultural Titanic around, so it had better act fast to teach people how to cook, implement home-economics programs, and make fresh food more affordable and available to the masses. And maybe it should focus on social programs like daycare, too, so parents could have more time to make real meals instead of rushing from pillar to post because of inadequate or overly expensive care.

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Here are a few of Brazil's guidelines and how I would adjust them:

1. Prepare meals using fresh and staple foods.

Prepare 80 per cent of your meals, use a majority of fresh, single ingredients.

2. Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.

Use a maximum of 2 tablespoons of fats, 6 teaspoons of sugar and 1,500 mg of salt.

3. Limit consumption of ready-to-eat food and drink products.

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Ready-to-eat food should be consumed no more than once a week. Drink no liquid calories other than dairy.

4. Buy food in shops and markets that offer a variety of fresh foods. Avoid those that sell mainly ready-to-eat products.

When in shops that offer ready-to-eat products, choose only those that contain mostly fresh vegetables and nothing deep fried.

5. Develop, practise, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking.

Engage in your government supported Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box. Support children in their school programmed meal preparation classes by empowering them at home.

6. When you eat out, choose restaurants that serve freshly made dishes. Avoid fast-food chains.

If you are in fast-food restaurants, make the fresh salad options the bulk of your food choice.

Theresa Albert is a food communications consultant and a registered nutritionist based in Toronto. She blogs here and you can follow her on Twitter @theresaalbert

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