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"Does Canada's Food Guide promote weight gain?"

That was the provocative title of a debate held recently at the University of Ottawa. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute, faced off against Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, director-general of the Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion at Health Canada.

The two scientists agreed on a lot of points, namely that Canadians are getting fatter, at an alarming rate, and that the main culprit is the obesogenic (fat-promoting) environment in which we live.

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But where they disagreed was on the role of Canada's Food Guide, an iconic document that has been around since 1942 (though often updated, most recently in 2007).

Not surprisingly, Hutchinson defended the food guide, saying it's a help, not a hindrance, in the battle to get Canadians to eat better and achieve a healthy weight: "What Canada's Food Guide does is describe a pattern of eating that is healthy. It does not promote weight gain."

He said the recommendations – seven to 10 servings of fruits or vegetables, six to eight grain products, two milk products and two servings of meat or alternatives for adults – are scientifically based and, if they are followed to the letter, people will eat well and not gain weight. For example, when you crunch the numbers, he said, a sedentary adult woman should get 1,800 calories daily.

Freedhoff said the food guide is important because it sets a standard for what Canadians expect is a healthy diet. But he argued that, in the real world, someone following the recommendations will greatly exceed the theoretical caloric intake.

Why is that?

First of all, nobody is really clear on what a "serving" is any more. Technically, a serving of meat or fish is the size of a pack of cards; but when people put a serving on their plate it's easily two to three times that size and, if they're eating in a restaurant, likely larger still.

Health Canada uses something called the 1997 nutrient file to determine the size and calories in various foods. In that file, a slice of bread (one serving) is 65 calories. But Freedhoff noted that in virtually every loaf of supermarket bread, a slice is 120 calories. So, if you eat the recommended six servings of grain products, you may actually be consuming 10 servings or more. The same is true for many foods; even your average orange is a lot bigger than it was in 1997.

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While the debate did not wade into corporate influence – a topic for another day perhaps – how do you explain some quirky recommendations? There are two foods Health Canada says we should consume every day – two glasses of milk and two to three tablespoons of unsaturated fats such as canola oil. (Dairy and grains are powerful industries.) It also classifies fruit juice as a fruit, which is quite a stretch, given that many juices contain more sugar than Coca-Cola.

The most consumed vegetable in Canada, by far, is the potato (it accounts for 40 per cent of all our veggies). Further, 40 per cent of the spuds we eat are fried – chips or French fries. But the food guide assumes that the only potato you will consume is baked, with no condiments (butter, sour cream, cheese, bacon bits or other yummy caloric stuff). Similarly, sugar-laden cereals count as grains.

Canada's Food Guide is an academic document. It does not make any provisions for "other foods" that are not included in the four main food groups – such as wine, soft drinks, coffee, chocolate, ketchup and so on. Yet in the real world, those account for 25 per cent of all our calories.

When you tally up the differences between the theoretical ideal and the practical reality, Freedhoff argued, an adult woman who roughly followed the food-guide recommendations would probably consume about 3,300 calories a day, not 1,800. That means significant weight gain.

Freedhoff says the fundamental flaw with the food guide is that "we are pretending Canadians are eating in a way they do not." He believes the guide should recommend that we eat a lot less food than it does now (which it did prior to 1992, when the guide switched from minimum dietary requirements to both energy and calorie requirements).

In fact, countries are increasingly moving away from guides based on servings and arranged into a pretty rainbow of food groups, like Canada's Food Guide. Instead, there is more emphasis on pushing people to cook for themselves using fresh ingredients rather than eat microwavable processed meals or fast foods, and offering practical suggestions such as substituting water for juice.

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To be fair, Canada's Food Guide has added that kind of advice over the years, but it is a secondary rather than primary focus.

The challenge for Health Canada is how to offer sound, scientifically based nutritional advice – despite the pressures coming from other parts of government to take into account the interests of the food industry – and the first step is creating a food guide that is useful in the real (obesogenic) world, not just the laboratory.

Editors's note: Canola oil is an unsaturated fat, not a saturated fat as stated in an earlier version of this article.

Follow me on Twitter: @picardonhealth

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