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Long-Term Dietary Patterns Increase Risks of Chronic Disease in Canada

News Release 12-108

Ottawa, May 14, 2012—Although Canadians have made small improvements to their diets in recent decades, persistently poor eating habits continue to increase their risk of developing a chronic disease later in life, according to a new Conference Board of Canada report.

“In some ways, Canadians eat better than ever before,” said Daniel Munro, Principal Research Associate. “But despite the small improvements, Canadians are exposed to unnecessary risk because we continue to eat too much harmful fats, sodium, and sugar, and not enough fruits, vegetables, and fibre. It’s also very troubling that children’s eating habits are poor and getting worse.“We need to take action to improve dietary patterns—especially among children—in order to reduce the future health, economic, and social burden of chronic diseases.”

The Conference Board report, Improving Health Outcomes: The Role of Food in Addressing Chronic Disease, considers the food-related risk factors for three highly prevalent chronic diseases—cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. The report, published by the Centre for Food in Canada, also assesses how industry, governments, and consumers, are managing dietary risks, and proposes actions that could lead to improvements.

The report identifies aspects of Canadians’ diets that increase their risk of developing a chronic disease:
• Canadians’ average daily consumption of sodium—3,400 mg—is well above both the adequate daily intake level of 1,500 mg and the upper limit target of 2,300 mg per day. Canadian processed foods tend to contain more sodium than equivalent products sold in the United States, although, overall, Canadians consume less sodium daily than Americans (See Chart: Salt Consumption, Selected Countries).
• Seven in 10 Canadian men and five in 10 Canadian women eat more calories than they expend through activity. By 2008, 62 per cent of Canadians were overweight or obese—which is a key risk factor for many chronic diseases.
• Few children eat the recommended five or more servings of fruit and vegetables each day, and many children consume more calories than they burn – through their low and declining levels of physical activity. An alarming 8.6 per cent of children aged 6 to 17 are obese; one in four are overweight or obese.

Consumer knowledge has improved—aided in part by Canada’s Food Guide, Nutrition Facts tables, and public awareness campaigns. And the range of healthy food options—including the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round—has increased (See Chart: Canadian Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables at Least Five Times Daily). However, the range of less healthy food options has also expanded and many consumers are still unwilling or unable to eat well.

The report identifies measures that industry, government, and consumers, should consider adopting to help reduce the dietary risks of chronic diseases:
• Use population-wide strategies to address sodium and trans-fat intake levels and other population-wide risks.
• Focus on high-risk subsets of the population with specific dietary problems, such as the seriously overweight and obese.
• Clarify nutritional content descriptions on labelling and packaging.
• Conduct further research on the social, economic, and psychological drivers of consumers’ food choices as the basis for designing policies that influence their behaviours.
• Provide information, expertise, funding, and programs to parents and schools to improve children’s food literacy, eating habits, and physical activity.

The report is one of 20 being prepared by the Conference Board’s Centre for Food in Canada. The principal goal of the Centre is to engage stakeholders from business, government, academia, associations, and communities in creating a Canadian Food Strategy—one that will meet the country’s need for a coordinated, long-term strategy on healthy and safe food, consumer security, industry viability, and sustainability.

Click for a video of Daniel Munro discussing the role of food in addressing chronic disease.

For more information contact
Brent Dowdall
Associate Director, Communications