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Celebrating National Nutrition Month

With omega-3s, olive oil, and "uhhs"

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Celebrating National Nutrition Month

"How are you going to observe National Nutrition Month"? The question, posed to a group of successful, health-oriented women in an informal poll, drew conversation to a halt. Susan, a full-time writer with a law degree, finally asked into the silence, "Uh, when is it"?

“How are you going to observe National Nutrition Month?” The question, posed to a group of successful, health-oriented women in an informal poll, drew conversation to a halt. Susan, a full-time writer with a law degree, finally asked into the silence, “Uh, when is it?”

When told Canadians are asked to focus on nutrition and healthy lifestyles during the month of March, Susan started the responses coming with, “Well, I already eat really well. Maybe I’ll go to McDonald’s.”

This is not the kind of response Canadian dietitians are hoping to hear during the Dietitians of Canada 2009 “Stay Active. Eat Like a Champion” campaign, with festivities across Canada. Still, according to a recent poll, Canadians do want to eat healthier.

From the ground up
We’re paying increased attention to how our foods are grown and processed, reported the Nielsen Company in a June 2008 Health and Wellness study series.

Sugar, fat, and salt top the list of ingredients consumers know to avoid. Sixty percent of Canadian households had purchased organic products in the previous year.

Seven in 10 households know about the benefits of probiotics. One in three households report trying to incorporate omega-3 essential fatty acids into their diets.

But are these initiatives enough? No, suggests the new Tracking Nutrition Trends VII survey by the Canadian Council of Food and Nutrition (CCFN). Despite the fact that eight out of 10 Canadians consider themselves knowledgeable on the subject of food, we’re, well, actually confused—no doubt perpetuated by (often contradictory) information from friends and media.

On the plus side, the survey reports that Canadians choose foods to maintain good health (87 percent reported), boost energy, and manage weight (74 and 68 percent, respectively). We also know that fibre can help protect against high cholesterol and certain types of cancer, and that the omega-3s found in fatty fish, walnuts, and flaxseed are beneficial.

Canadian consumers
Arguably, however, most Canadians would give only hesitant responses during a nutrition quiz.

Whereas many Canadians are aware of food safety and cautious about imported food, we’re generally not concerned about eating foods that have a low-glycemic index, in which carbohydrates are slowly released as sugar into the bloodstream—the very foods we should try to eat more often.

According to the Tracking Trends survey, we do like to snack, which also helps keep blood sugar levels regular. But many of us skip breakfast, a no-no that affects brain function and messes with metabolism. Seventy-seven percent of us also tend to eat while multitasking—watching TV or using the Internet. The downside to saving time is that we tend to overeat.

We’re also a little sketchy on cholesterol facts, believing that cholesterol in foods such as meat and high-fat dairy is strongly related to high cholesterol in the body, which is actually due more to the effect of trans and saturated fats on the cholesterol-producing liver.

Only four in 10 Canadians take a multivitamin-mineral supplement, even though it is mainstream practice.

Despite all these survey results, we’re clearly improving. Yet Canadians still have a way to go nutrition-wise. What better time to make an extra effort than this March?

Nutrition at home

When asked how she would observe Nutrition Month, my mom gazed at me blankly for a moment. “Exercise more?” she asked, as if this were an exam. Not a bad answer, since exercise is, of course, a vital part of the healthy lifestyle that health experts the world over promote.

“Eat healthier,” said my sister Lorill, a sporty film industry assistant. Even better, if a little lacking in specifics.

Angie, my other spinach-loving sister, said, “I’m going to keep my green drink powder on the counter so I won’t forget it, no matter what my clean-freak husband says.”

The founders of Nutrition Month would be thrilled if all these ideas were put into practice.

Other people wanting to make that extra effort this month can pick from countless healthy eating trends. For one, functional foods are a hit. You’ve surely seen them around—eggs with omega-3s. Margarine with plant sterols. Yogourt with probiotics. Heck, we might as well get a few extra nutrients wherever we can.

Ethnic foods are popular. Luckily for us, the medical properties of many herbs and spices used therein, such as turmeric, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, and garlic, are increasingly lauded by science as disease fighters.

Eating at home is also a good choice, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada anticipates that many more of us will be doing that this year. This is good news because Canadians who don’t eat out have better eating habits, reports the CCFN.

And while at home, we may be gardening. The grow-it-yourself mantra is hot. Who can argue about the nutritional value of fresh produce that is as local as it gets, ripened to its fullest potential, and with a guarantee as to how it’s been grown?

Eating for longevity

Whether fridges will prepare shopping lists and electronically arrange for deliveries, or whether we’ll soon pay for our groceries by fingerprint—both possibilities recently proposed by a global market group—remain to be seen. But there are a few trends we should latch onto—and soon—says Dr. Quinn Rivet, chair of nutrition at the Boucher Institute of Naturopathic Medicine in New Westminster, BC.

Dr. Rivet points out that “a lot of outcomes don’t happen for years and years down the road. [The] isn’t as immediate as, say, a bleeding nose. It’s more a low-grade smouldering that’s imperceptible at early stages, until you get an overt symptom.”

To help avoid degenerative disease in the long run, he urges us to eat more colourful berries, which are rich in protective plant chemicals. He also suggests we cut consumption of white flour and white sugar, as too many of these simple carbohydrates contribute to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other problems.

“Science shows us what we need to eat to stay healthy,” Dr. Rivet says, “and yet [eating] is just not being done by the general population.”

The Canadian Food and Nutrition Council might be nodding in agreement.

The Okinawa lifestyle

One tradition keenly studied now in naturopathic medical school is the Okinawa diet. The Okinawans have less chronic disease and a long lifespan, which Dr. Rivet explains are linked to smoke-free living, good family connections, and a whole foods diet that’s low in saturated fats and includes fish, seafood, and plants; whole grains and beans; and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil.

The take-away lesson for Canadians? Reduce our intake of animal proteins such as beef and chicken. Tuna and some shellfish bioaccumulate heavy metals, so try white fish or herring instead. And eat more vegetarian meals.

“The more organic the better, and you leave less of an environmental footprint,” says Dr. Rivet, echoing yet another nutrition trend for 2009—eating green.

Start with one trend, kick in a few more, and before you know it, you’ll be eating healthier—and possessing a ready answer in case a stranger at the health food store asks you, “Excuse me, how did you observe National Nutrition Month?” 

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