In January 2017, high school student Aiden Smithen reached out for help with getting a dietitian’s perspective on some common questions about nutrition. In exchange, he kindly allowed me to use the experience as the inspiration for this article. The following is an edited transcript of our email interview.
Q1: How accurate is the Canadian Food Guide? Should one follow it?
A: Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide was the government’s best attempt to summarize the evidence available as of ~2006 to advise Canadians on how to eat well. The effort was complicated by the government’s competing priorities to promote industries, such as agriculture and food processing, and to promote health.
As of 2017, it’s now 10 years old and out-of-date. Nutrition research has moved forward, and some recommendations should shift.
Should you follow it? I will say that Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide is still a reasonable place to start a nutrition plan. I just wouldn’t follow each and every recommendation exactly. In particular, the amount of food should be personalized to each individual’s energy needs. Growing teen athletes, for example, may need quite a bit more food than is shown for your age and gender group.
Q2:What is the biggest food group that most people lack in their diet? (e.g. fruits & vegetables, dairy, etc.)
A: In my clients, I’m often seeing a lack of vegetables as the priority food group to increase. For the overall Canadian population, I’d choose vegetables, too. Vegetables and fruit are similar, but not the same. So it’s not okay, for example, to meet your Canada’s Food Guide servings of Vegetables and Fruit by eating all fruit.
There’s also evidence that Canadians & Americans aren’t meeting recommended levels of calcium (1000-1200mg/day), so you’ll see reports that we’re not eating enough dairy products (since milk & alternatives are our main source of calcium). However, the recommended level of calcium for North Americans is likely too high. See https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium-full-story/ for a more complete discussion on this point.
Q3: How often should you be eating and when?
A: It depends. Sorry, I know that’s an annoying answer.
Generally, people do well eating balanced meals at least every 4-6 hours. Some prefer to eat small meals and snacks throughout the day, about every 2-3 hours, while others are comfortable with 3 moderate meals, spaced further apart. Both are good options.
And, when we look further into other meal timing options, there’s also good reason for some people to attempt intermittent fasting, using protocols like eating for just 8 hours of the day. This is an advanced nutrition strategy that is not right for most people, though.
When is it practical for you to have a meal with other people? When do you tend to get hungry? These questions can go a long way to helping you design a meal pattern that’s right for you.
Q4: How crucial is it for intense athletes to have a very healthy diet?
A: “Intense athletes” are most likely to have a more challenged immune system due to the intense training. So eating right is pretty important to reduce the risk of coming down with colds and other infections. Proper nutrition also supports muscle building, and having the energy to complete the training as well as the rest of your day. A well designed nutrition plan can make a noticeable difference in the athlete’s performance (speed, strength, perceived effort, etc), as well as on more everyday things like concentration and memory.
Next, healthier fast food seems like an attractive option to a lot of busy teens and adults. Aidan asks:
Q5: Are the healthier fast food chain restaurants such as Subway, Extreme Pita, Pita Pit, etc. healthy for you? Or are they just as bad as McDonald’s?
A: See, that’s a trick question. McDonald’s has healthier, “better for you” choices, too. People just tend not to choose them. All fast food tends to be high in sodium, and can encourage overeating through large portion sizes, high fat content, and/or a lack of fiber. A sub or pita place could be healthier than a burger place because the vegetables are assumed to be part of the meal, and you might be able to get more whole grains and less-processed meats or alternatives. But I wouldn’t count on it. Throwing together a few fresh or freshly-prepared items at home or at the grocery store is almost always your best bet.
Q6. What kind of foods should you avoid eating?
A: I like to keep this list short. For good health, you might limit some things, or choose them less often. But avoid entirely? That can be counterproductive. For the general population, I’d start with just these three categories:
– Anything you’re allergic to.
– Anything you know you’ll find gross (especially if you’ve already tried it prepared a few different ways).
– Large portions of really unhealthy foods (very sweet, salty, or deep fried) that you don’t actually enjoy very much. An example of this category for me is commercially-prepared birthday cake. It just tastes fake.
Otherwise, if you eat a variety of foods every day, then the downsides of any one food doesn’t matter very much.
Q7. What kind of foods should you eat more of?
A: Here’s my top five:
Vegetables. Everyone could eat more vegetables. It’s almost possible to live on nothing but vegetables. And prepared right, they’re genuinely tasty.
Whole grains in place of any refined grains.
Nuts & seeds in place of other sources of fat.
Beans & lentils as one of your high-quality protein sources.
Fish, assuming you’re not vegetarian. Especially those high in omega-3 fats and simply prepared (i.e. not battered & deep fried)
Q8. If there is one bit of advice you could give to someone regarding nutrition/diet what would it be?
A: For this last question, I’ll quote one of my favourite nutrition-related authors, journalist Micheal Pollan. After reading everything he could about nutrition, and interviewing some experts, he summarized all the best advice into his 7-word manifesto: “Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
Thanks to student Aidan Smithen for asking these questions, and being the inspiration for sharing the answers with you.
Need healthy meal ideas? There’s a page about that.
Need clearer advice about the nutrition & eating style that’s right for you and your goals? Work with me to get personalized advice and support.