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Reducing saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats (found inavocado) was shown to benefit heart health.istock/The Globe and Mail

As always, it was a good-news, bad-news year in nutrition, this one marked by controversial study findings, sombre obesity statistics, updated food regulations and encouraging news stories.

Many of the stories that made headlines (and the ones that didn't) offered takeaways that can help us improve our diets in 2018 and beyond. Here are five big issues that I paid attention to, and why you should, too.

Trans fat banned

This fall, Health Canada announced that as of Sept. 15, 2018, it will be illegal for manufacturers to add partially hydrogenated oils, the main source of trans fats, to food products. This is probably the most important change to our food supply in decades.

There is no safe level of trans fat in the diet; any amount of intake is believed to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. A steady intake of trans fat is also associated with a greater risk of Type 2 diabetes.

To avoid trans fats January through August, 2018, read labels. Choose foods with zero grams of trans fat. Avoid products that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated oil or shortening as an ingredient. (Partially hydrogenated oils are often listed as hydrogenated oils.)

Saturated fat controversy continues

It was a back and forth year for saturated fat, the type found in fatty meats and dairy products. In April, three cardiologists published a headline-grabbing editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine debunking the idea that saturated fat clogs arteries.

Then, in June, the American Heart Association (AHA) released an advisory report to clear up the confusion surrounding the link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. After an analysis of the scientific evidence, the AHA's review refuted the notion that saturated fats are not tied to heart risk.

Reducing saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, olives, avocado) was shown to benefit heart health. So was replacing saturated fats in the diet with whole grains.

My advice for 2018? Watch your saturated fat intake, but don't forget about the rest of your diet. The best-studied diets for cardiovascular health emphasize fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, nuts and unsaturated oils and limit refined carbohydrates and red meat.

Childhood obesity at all-time high

In October, a comprehensive study published in the Lancet revealed that the number of obese kids, between the ages of 5 to 19, worldwide has skyrocketed tenfold over the past 40 years.

A contributing factor to childhood obesity: a sedentary lifestyle. A fact that, last month, prompted Canadian experts in exercise physiology and obesity and the non-profit group ParticipAction to release 24-hour movement guidelines for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Recommendations for stronger, fitter, healthier kids include tummy time for babies and at least one hour of "energetic" play spread throughout the day for one-to-four-year-olds.

To help foster lifelong healthy eating, get your kids in the kitchen more often. Have them help you plan and prepare nutritious meals.

Kids who cook are more likely to eat a wider variety foods. Plus, cooking with your child provides an opportunity to talk about health and healthy ingredients.

Gluten-free diet's nutrition questioned

This year, scientists warned against following a gluten-free diet if you don't have a medical reason to do so.

In March, findings from a large observational study suggested that eating a low-gluten diet increased the odds of developing Type 2 diabetes, presumably because it's lacking in fibre.

Two months later, European research showed that, compared to gluten-containing products (e.g., breakfast cereals, breads, pasta, cookies), gluten-free alternatives were usually more calorie-dense, higher in fat and lower in protein.

Whether you avoid gluten for health reasons or simply because you prefer to do so, replace gluten-containing foods with alternatives that deliver fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Include gluten-free whole grains such brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, sorghum, millet and teff in your daily diet. Sweet potato, beans and lentils also deliver fibre-rich, gluten-free carbohydrates.

Plant protein popularity soars

It was a good year for protein, especially plant protein. A growing number of consumers decided to eat less animal protein for health reasons combined with environmental concerns, which fuelled the growth of plant protein in 2017.

This translated to more protein-rich plant foods on grocery store shelves, from Ripple's plant-based milks (made from yellow peas) to Catelli Protein pasta (made from fava beans). Expect to see a continued rise in plant-based offerings next year.

Diets that include more plants are tied to protection from heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. Plant foods such as beans and lentils, edamame, tofu, nuts and seeds deliver protein along with fibre, vitamins, minerals and countless phytochemicals.

In 2018, aim to include at least five plant-based meals (breakfast, lunch and/or dinner) in your diet each week.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private-practice dietitian, is director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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