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What’s A Healthy Diet? Many Canadians Don’t Know

How difficult is it to drink a couple of glasses of milk a day, or pack a nutritious lunch to take to school or work?

Insurmountable tasks, according to Canadians who report in a new survey they’re not eating even basic foods key to health – milk and alternatives, vegetables or fruits.

A national survey released by the Dietitians of Canada and registered dietitians with Dairy Farmers of Canada last week finds consumption of these foods far below recommended levels. Many surveyed said they’d eaten from none of these food groups the day prior to the survey – an indication of daily food consumption patterns.

Thirty-eight per cent surveyed said they didn’t drink milk and nearly a quarter (23 per cent) weren’t consuming any vegetables or fruits.

Most also said they didn’t know why they should consume these foods and were unaware of associated health benefits. Three per cent of those surveyed said they didn’t even know what a healthy diet was.

The data was collected by IPSOS Reid from more than 2,000 people across Canada in August 2009.

Why aren’t Canadians eating the healthy foods that are readily available to them?

Many people said the pace of their lives make it difficult to fit in healthier food choices. Many also said they don’t know much about how to prepare and cook healthy foods that don’t break the food budget. Some also cited cost of healthier food choices as a barrier but that wasn’t the main barrier. The study did not analyze the data based on income levels.

NO TIME

“The biggest barrier is time,” says Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian in private practice in Winnipeg.

Long work days and long commutes combined with packed after-school schedules in families leave little or no time left over for meal planning or consideration of healthier food choices, she said. Family meals are haphazard. Many skip breakfast and grab fast food for lunch.

“We’re running from early in the morning until late at night with activities and our kids’ activities. We are a time-starved society,” she said. We grab high-calorie, low-nutrient dense foods on the run that merely fill our stomachs. We’re relying on a lot of these convenience foods.”

This survey’s findings show Canadians’ eating habits haven’t improved either. A more comprehensive national analysis by the Canadian Community Health Survey in 2004 also reported Canadians did not consume even the minimum recommended servings of dairy products and vegetables and fruit. That report also found as much as 25 per cent of daily caloric intake came from “other foods,” such as high-fat snack foods.

Registered dietitians warn the trend may have serious consequences on the nutritional health of Canadians. Many told the survey they’d be more motivated to eat better if they knew more about the role milk products and vegetables and fruits play in better health, such as controlling blood pressure or lowering the risk of some cancers.

PREVENTION

Yet right now, more resources focus on treating diseases than on teaching people how to prevent them, Sunderland said.

“Our whole health-care system is very much a treatment system, versus a prevention system,” Sunderland said.

Preventive approaches would include more resources that not only tell Canadians to include the recommended number of servings of the four food groups from Canada’s Food Guide but have health professionals emphasizing why foods are so important, she said.

There is huge need for practical approaches that boost food knowledge and food skills, Sunderland said. More resources are needed for programming such as community-based kitchens and gardens which would help parents and children learn these skills together, she said.

Schools also need to offer this as an important lifeskill more often, she said. “Not every school offers home economics and cooking. But if parents don’t cook, their children aren’t learning those life skills in the home.”

Fundamentally, Canadians need to re-examine what they’re making a priority for their time too, she said. “I think we really need to make healthy eating a priority, even if it means another activity needs to be let go. The emphasis needs to get back to some of those basics.”

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About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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