And how to make them work in your favor
The great recession
What do economics have to do with health? At most universities they’re not even in the same building! But it turns out that a dip in the economy can lead to a rise in our weight according to a study done by John Hopkins. Researchers found that from 2008 to 2012—the period known as the great recession—weight gain was strongly correlated with the rise in unemployment, increasing the risk of obesity by 21 percent. This makes sense as one of the first things to go when our budgets get tight are luxuries like health food and gym memberships, not to mention the loss of health insurance that often accompanies a job loss. However, it may help to remember that there are many low-cost or free ways to protect your health—and an investment in you is the best one you can make.
How high you are
It’s a generation thing
That cursed smog
How many antibiotics you’ve taken
Antibiotics are one of the biggest miracles of modern medicine, no doubt about it. But those infection-fighting drugs may have unintended consequences. The more antibiotics a person takes during their lifetime, particularly during early childhood, the greater their risk of becoming obese, according to an NYU study. Researchers speculate that it has to do with killing healthy gut bacteria, decimating your microbiome along with the bad bugs, as good bacteria has been shown to help prevent weight gain. But if you were the kid with chronic ear infections, don’t fret, you can rebuild your good gut bacteria by taking a probiotic and eating plenty of fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
Fido and Fifi
Owning a pet, particularly a dog, slashes the human companion’s risk of obesity, says the American Heart Association. Why? Dogs need to be walked daily and are often quite persistent, encouraging their owners to walk as well. But it’s not just the extra exercise, especially since 40 percent of dog owners confess to not walking their dog on a regular basis. The researchers add that petting an animal greatly reduces stress and depression, two other known risk factors for weight gain. So if you do have a dog, make sure to walk them daily, and in the meantime soak up all the snuggles, wet kisses, and purrs you can.
The number on your paycheck
How many trees you can count from your window
Close proximity to parks, trails, and other types of green spaces is linked with lower body weight, according to research done by the American Diabetes Association. Being able to see, and more importantly walk to, greenery encouraged people to exercise more and made it feel, well, less like exercise. Parks make physical exertion feel like fun but even if you’re not using them to exercise, simply being in the presence of nature has been shown to reduce stress, lower weight and improve your health overall. The vast majority of Americans already live within walking distance of some type of park so get out there and explore your neighborhood.
All that stuff on the food label you don’t recognize
You already know that processed foods do no favors for your waistline but it turns out it’s not just the empty calories and trans fats doing the damage. Some of the most popular food additives are linked with weight gain and obesity, according to a study done by Georgia State University. Emulsifiers, which are added to most processed foods for texture and to extend shelf life, are one of the worst offenders as they interfere with good gut bacteria. But some artificial flavorings, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and even the food packaging have also been linked in research to obesity.
The New Year has barely begun and already your plans to eat more healthfully are skidding off track. You couldn’t help but devour the holiday chocolates. You’ve nibbled your way to the bottom of a bag of chips, without even really enjoying them. And that kale you’ve been meaning to eat? It’s wilting in your vegetable crisper. But don’t fret. Your willpower is probably just fine.
There’s a whole host of external factors that determine what and how you eat, from what’s written on the packaging and the colour of your dinnerware to the noise level of your surrounding environment. That’s the focus of Dr. Rachel Herz’s new book Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food, which looks at the many influences on the way we consume and experience food.
Herz is a neuroscientist known for her work on the psychology of smell. She teaches at Brown University and Boston College, and has authored the previous books The Scent of Desire and That’s Disgusting. Her latest book offers support for the notion that many of the problems we experience with food, from overeating to picky eating, aren’t moral failings. We can’t simply will ourselves to eat less or expand our palates – our relationship with food is much more complicated than that. Whether we think a food item is decadent or low-calorie can affect how our bodies respond to it; our appetites are often influenced by the people we’re with; and how familiar we are with certain foods determines how filling they seem.
But understanding these factors allows us to manipulate them to our advantage, Herz says.
“This book should make people feel that they have the power. They can take back the meal,” she says. “What I’m hoping is that people can see how they can use this information to change their relationship with food.”
Herz spoke with The Globe and Mail about hidden factors that shape our meals, including a little-known factor that makes airplane food taste so bland.
How they influence you: It’s probably no surprise that when a food item is labelled “healthy,” people tend to eat more of it. Might as well have two helpings of ice cream if it’s “low-calorie,” right? But just thinking something is healthy can actually change your body’s response to it – and not necessarily in a desirable way.
The science: Herz describes a Yale University study in which participants were given the same 340-calorie vanilla milkshake, labelled two different ways. For one group, the milkshake was called “Indulgence” and labelled as containing 620 calories. For the other, it was called “Sensi-shake,” and labelled as having zero-per-cent fat, no added sugar and 140 calories.
Those who drank the “Indulgence” shake experienced an immediate surge in the hunger-signalling hormone ghrelin after an initial taste. But a half-hour later, their ghrelin levels plummeted three times more than in those who drank the “Sensi-shake,” whose ghrelin levels remained flat. That means simply believing they were drinking a high-calorie shake made participants’ bodies respond accordingly; they felt less hungry, regardless of the actual calorie content.
“If … you’re interested in not having your body pack on every calorie that’s in the food, you should approach all food as it being decadent, to the extent that you can,” Herz says.
How they influence you: What makes food filling? Besides attributes such as being high in fat, providing roughage and being served in solid form instead of as a liquid, Herz says there’s also a psychological factor at play: The more familiar a food is to you, the more satiating it seems.
The science: Herz points to a study from the University of Bristol in which participants were shown pictures of various common foods, all in 200-calorie portions, and asked how often they ate them. Then they were asked how filling they thought each food was. Participants rated the foods they consumed most frequently as most filling.
The take-away: Familiar foods act as a signifier that you’ve eaten or that you’re satisfied with what you consume, Herz says, which explains why individuals accustomed to eating rice may only feel full when they’ve had rice, or why those accustomed to eating meat and potatoes don’t feel a meal is complete without those staples. She suggests you can use this to your advantage to train yourself to feel satisfied with eating vegetables.
“If after your lunch, you have a couple celery sticks or a couple carrot sticks or whatever, then that sort of becomes a psychological marker for being full and being done eating,” she says.
How they influence you: Remember Pepsi-Cola’s failed colourless Crystal Pepsi? Or Heinz’s short-lived green ketchup? Colour has a big impact on how we experience food, and whether we’re willing to consume it. But the colour red, in particular, can influence us in multiple ways, Herz says. Since we associate red with the colour of ripe fruit, it can make food taste sweeter, yet since it is also a signal for danger, it can curb mindless snacking.
The science: Herz describes a German study that invited participants to help themselves to pretzels, presented on either a blue, white or red plate, while they were asked to fill in a questionnaire. Those who were served pretzels on the red plate ate half as many pretzels as those who were offered them on blue or white plates.
“Red works to kind of alert you, first of all,” which can make you more mindful of what you’re eating, Herz explains. “And at the same time, it also makes you potentially question: Should you consume?”
The take-away: If you want to reduce absent-minded nibbling, choose a red plate, Herz suggests. But she says, if your goal is to try to encourage eating, avoid using red dishes and serving vessels.
How they influence you: The loud, continuous hum inside an airplane dampens your perception of saltiness and sweetness, which contributes to the lacklustre taste of airplane food, Herz says. Yet the volume doesn’t alter your sense of bitterness, so bitterness may be amplified, and it actually intensifies the taste of umami, or savoury brothy flavours, which explains why tomato juice is such a popular inflight beverage choice.
The science: There are three cranial nerves that innervate our perception of taste, Herz explains. One in particular, the chorda tympani, also innervates our perception of hearing. It transmits taste information from the tongue to the brain, and crosses through the ear along the way, she says.
“Loudness actually influences the degree to which our taste buds are able to communicate with the brain and it alters our taste in specific ways.”
The take-away: Cranking up the volume can make an umami-rich meal more delicious, but you may want to turn it down in time for dessert.
Eggs can come with a lot of labels these days — free-range, organic, cage-free. How is a consumer to know which ones are the best choice?
Here’s the breakdown of what all those labels on your eggs mean.
1. Conventional eggs: These eggs often don’t have their harvesting practices labelled, and are usually the least expensive. In conventional systems, four hens are typically housed in each two-square-foot battery cage, in barns containing thousands of birds. This makes them prone to injury and infection, so they receive antibiotics daily, as well as hormones to increase egg production. Their feed is unregulated, so they’re often fed leftover animal by-products mixed with grain. Battery cages are banned in the EU and are often the subject of animal-rights debates.
2. Free-run eggs: Free-run hens are not confined to life in a cage, but are allowed to roam the floor of the barn. They are still densely packed into these barns with no required outdoor access. Free-run hens eat the same feed as conventionally raised hens, and are given antibiotics and hormones.
3. Free-range eggs: Free-range hens must have access to the outdoors for the majority of the year, with a roost area for resting. Their feed can’t contain antibiotics or hormones, and the roosts must have at least two square feet per hen. The government does not regulate free-range egg farms, so you must trust the farmers. Some farmers call these eggs “antibiotic-free” or “naturally-raised.”
4. Pastured eggs: Pastured hens are kept in cages with at least two square feet per hen. The structure containing the hens is moved to different areas of the grass daily so the hens can forage for at least 20 percent of their food. They are also not allowed to be fed antibiotics or hormones in their supplemental feed.
5. Organic eggs: Hens must be raised from birth on organic feed that contains no hormones, pesticides or genetically modified organisms. They must have outdoor access year-round; when they are kept inside, they must be fed organic sprouted grains. They must also be allocated at least two square feet of floor space per bird.
Why ‘you really need to be a detective’ when reading food labels
Two-thirds of food and beverages tested by a group of Ontario researchers, including baby foods and products marketed as healthy, were found to contain added sugar.
The researchers, from Public Health Ontario and the University of Waterloo, examined the ingredients of 40,829 products sold in March 2015 at a national grocery retailer.
In a study published in Thursday’s issue of CMAJ Open, Erin Hobin and her team searched for 30 different added sugar terms, ranging from sugar to dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose and fruit juice concentrate.
Dietitians say added sugars are a concern because they tend to be consumed in much larger quantities than naturally occurring sugars found in foods such as bananas or milk.
Added sugars are a sign of more food processing, which has health implications, including weight gain and high blood pressure. The World Health Organization and Heart & Stroke now recommend that people limit their sugar intake to no more than 10 per cent of overall calories, or about 12 teaspoons a day
“It definitely is tricky,” Hobin said in an interview. “You definitely need to know what you are looking for when you are scanning the ingredients list, and you really need to be a detective and take your time.”
Added sugars are defined as all sugars added to foods by the manufacturer plus the sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices.
Examples of names for sugar include fruit juice concentrate, dextrose and high-fructose corn syrup. For more, see “Sugar’s on the food label, but …”
Products you might suspect contain the most added sugar, such as candy or chocolate, showed the highest sugar content.
Fruit juice processing
“What we also found was that some of the products that are marketed as healthy also frequently contain added sugar. So that included breakfast cereals, granola bars and a lot of fruit juices,” Hobin said.
Sarah Nowak of Toronto is the mother of three girls, ages six, three and 18 months.
“These, I thought, were just dried fruit,” Nowak said as she examined the front of one box. “Once again, where are the ingredients? Apple puree, concentrated juices, more juices, blueberry juice, carrot juice.”
When whole fruits and vegetables are processed, nutrients are stripped away, Hobin explained.
“You are just left with the fruit juice concentrate that is used as a sweetener, so it is put back into products to sweeten up the product.”
Almost half of all infant formulas and baby food studied also listed added sugars as part of their ingredients.
Nowak said she wished the labels were more transparent. “It makes me feel a little bit duped,” she said.
The researchers suspected a large proportion of products on grocery store shelves contained added sugar, but there was little empirical data. Now, they have a snapshot.
Some evidence suggests that if you feed sugary food to young children, then their palate adjusts, and they grow more attracted to that in the future, said Bill Jeffery, executive director of the Centre for Health Science and Law in Ottawa. “It may be cultivating a lifelong market.”
If food labels indicated products weren’t very healthful, then sales would decline.
“They have a strong vested interest in making sure that the nutrition labeling is as useless as possible, to be candid,” Jeffery said.
In December, Health Canada announced changes related to the list of ingredients and nutrition facts table — the information boxes on the back of food products.
The federal government won’t require labelling of added sugars.
Group added sugars together
Asked why, a departmental spokeswoman said, “Added sugars are ingredients that manufacturers add to their products and that must be declared in the list of ingredients.
“The Nutrition Facts table declares the amount of nutrients, rather than ingredients. On the Canadian Nutrition Facts table, the amount of added sugars in the food is included in the amount of total sugars, which is consistent with the approach to all other nutrients. Laboratory tests cannot distinguish between naturally occurring and added sugars.”
Health Canada is requiring manufacturers to group all added sugars together in the ingredients list.
Food & Consumer Products of Canada, an industry association, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from CBC News.
The analysis did not include fresh fruits or vegetables, fresh meat, raw ingredients (water, baking ingredients, coffee, tea, fats and oils, etc.) and non-food items (such as natural health products or nutrition and protein supplements).
Lobbying by food industry means Canada food labels won’t list ‘added sugar’
There are 152 ways to say “sugar” on a food label. It can be called isomaltulose, agave, barley malt, sorghum or brown rice syrup, even potato syrup solids.
All of those obscure synonyms will be listed in one convenient place on the food label, behind the word “sugar,” as Health Minister Jane Philpott announced Wednesday.
But you will still never know how much of that sugar was deliberately added by the food processing industry and how much is just there naturally.
And in the first round of the great Canadian food label fight, that is a victory for the food industry.
Consumers, health professionals, even the provincial and territorial governments, had wanted labelling of added sugars.
It’s all there in the document Regulations Amending the Food and Drug Regulations published in the Canada Gazette on Wednesday.
“The proposal to declare the amount of added sugars in the Nutrition Facts table was popular among consumers and health stakeholders (including health professionals, NGOs and provincial and territorial governments)” it says.
But industry doubted the science. Food company lobbyists argued that the human body doesn’t know the difference between added and natural sugars.
As well, “added sugars” is confusing, the industry argued, directing Health Canada experts to a U.S. study that suggested “consumers have a limited understanding of the ‘added sugars’ declaration in the Nutrition Facts table.”
A study that was funded, in part, by the food industry.
Requiring industry to reveal how much sugar it adds to products was one of the original proposals when the previous Conservative government began the label change consultations in 2013.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to want the same thing. In his mandate letter to the new health minister, listed among the top priorities was “improving food labels to give more information on added sugars.”
Instead, Philpott kept the Harper government’s wording, which had dropped “added sugar” from the labels when it published the first draft of the changes in June 2015.
‘Opportunity to educate’
There was hope that the new government would rescue the “added sugar” description. In a recent commentary in the CMAJ, University of Toronto’s nutrition sciences professor Mary L’Abbé called on the new health minister to restore the “added sugars” wording so consumers will know how much unnecessary sugar they are eating.
The disclosure could also encourage industry to lower sugar levels in processed food, she said. If added sugars can’t be tracked, it means a loss of data.
“For health researchers, we can’t do those types of studies to see what are the effects of consuming high amounts of added sugars,” L’Abbé said in a related CMAJ podcast.
“They’re missing a huge opportunity to educate consumers but also to allow consumers to make informed decisions.”
Canada out of step
By leaving “added sugars” off the label, Canada is out of step with the U.S., the U.K., and the World Health Organization, where “added sugars” or “free sugars” have been set at a limit at 10 per cent of daily calories or about 50 grams a day (12 teaspoons of sugar). That sugar allowance is almost used up by a single can of soda pop.
|For Canadians, the cost of waiting five years for the new labels
is estimated to be more than $1 billion in lost improvements to their health. (CBC)
Instead, Canada has decided to talk about “total” sugars on the new labels, which includes both added and naturally occurring sugar.
That means the Canadian label on a can of soda pop will state that it contains about 35 per cent of the total recommended daily sugar intake. The consumer might think, “That’s less than half, so not too bad, right?”
Wrong. For anyone who finds it confusing, there will be a helpful reminder in fine print on the bottom of the label that reads, “Five per cent is a little and 15 per cent is a lot.”
The label change has the deliberate objective of getting Canadians to eat less sugar. It says so in the document.
Yet paradoxically, Health Canada has set the daily recommended total daily sugar intake at the exact level we already consume.
In 2004, research showed that Canadians were eating about 20 per cent of their daily calories in sugar. And after years of consultation, the new labels will suggest we eat no more than 20 per cent of our daily calories in sugar (about 100 grams or 24 teaspoons of sugar.)
The thinking appears to be that because almost half of Canadians, especially those under 19, consume a lot more than 20 per cent of their calories in sugar, it will be an improvement for them if they read the label and change their habits.
But for everyone else, it’s sugar as usual. Or will be, when the new labels are finally in place by the year 2021.
And that raises another curious aspect to the label changes. The point is to encourage healthier food choices, but there is apparently no urgency.
Industry has five years to bring in the new labels, so it can gradually incorporate the changes into the normal product business cycle, use up their old labels and save money.
Health Canada estimates the changes will cost industry between $500 million and $800 million.
For Canadians, the cost of waiting five years for the new labels is estimated to be more than $1 billion in lost improvements in their health.
(This is the formula: Health Canada estimates that changing food labels will prompt Canadians to make healthier food choices. Using a conservative estimate, ministry officials calculate those health improvements will lead to an almost $2 billion saving to the economy over 10 years in reduced heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and other illness — that’s about $275 million each year in health savings. Delaying that by five years? About $1.4 billion in health improvements that didn’t happen.)
And finally, in this first round of the great Canadian food label fight, industry won another small victory. Health Canada wanted the ingredients to be marked by bullet points to make the labels easier to read. But industry complained that it would cost too much and take up too much space on the label. They wanted to keep the commas they’re already using.
So by 2021, when the new labels are finally in place, two things won’t change. There there will be no “added” sugars on the nutrition facts table. And the commas stay.
The second round is already underway over proposed front-of-package labels for sugar, fat and salt. Public consultations close on Jan. 13, 2017.
Canada to follow World Health Organization recommendations released in 2010
The federal government is overhauling Canada’s healthy eating guidelines with a sweeping strategy that will include new rules for marketing and labelling certain foods aimed at children.
Health Minister Jane Philpott said the “iconic” Canada Food Guide has not kept up with the country’s changing demographics and lifestyles.
“The classic one-size-fits-all guide no longer meets the needs of Canadians,” she said in a Montreal speech.
Philpott said the guide must be “relevant and practical” and provide advice for Canadians whether they are shopping at the grocery store or looking at a restaurant menu. It must be individualized and adaptable for food preferences and sensitivities, she said.
Another change will eventually require labelling on the front of packages that will highlight if a product is high or low in certain nutrients such as sodium, sugar and saturated fats.
Protect children from marketing
In May 2010, the World Health Organization released recommendations on the marketing of food and beverages to children. It called on governments worldwide to reduce the exposure of children to advertising and to reduce the use of powerful marketing techniques employed by the manufacturers of foods and beverages high in saturated fats, trans-fat acids, free added sugars or sodium.
|New regulations will eventually require front-of-package labelling,
which will highlight if a product is high or low in certain nutrients
such as sodium, sugar and saturated fats. (Kelly Crowe/CBC)
Today, Canada is acting on those recommendations, following the lead of Quebec, which already restricts marketing to children under the age of 13.
It will take anywhere from five to 10 years to implement the changes, after consultations with industry, stakeholders and the public.
The last food guide was criticized because it was based on much input from industry. Philpott said stakeholders will have a say in the process, but they will not dictate the results.
“I think it’s only fair for the people who are selling food to be able to have opportunity to comment in terms of what the impact might be on them,” she said.
“But they will not have impact on the advice given in the guide.”
All meetings and correspondence between stakeholders and officials in her office will be transparent and made public, she said.
Conservative Senator Kelvin Ogilvie, who chaired a committee that carried out a sweeping study on obesity in Canada, welcomed the initiatives as “very encouraging.” He called the plan to ensure the food industry remains at arm’s length in the decision process “most heart-warming.”
“It’s a total conflict of interest,” he told CBC News. “You simply can’t have the people who make the greatest degree of money selling you any product, making a final recommendation to government as to how healthy that product is.”
Informed food choices
A group representing the sector said the industry is already taking steps to encourage Canadians to make more informed, healthy food choices, and said it is “keen” to ensure further steps are taken
“That said, this is an unprecedented amount of change that will require an unprecedented level of investment in an unprecedented time frame,” said Joslyn Higginson, vice-president of public and regulatory affairs for the Food and Consumer Products of Canada, in a statement.
“This will change what’s in our products, what’s on our product packaging and how those products are marketed.”
The food and beverage industry continues to face challenges with timely regulatory approvals and costs for reformulation and innovation. Outdated regulations mean it takes longer to bring new and reformulated products to market in Canada than in other countries.
“Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency must address lagging regulatory modernization quickly — before imposing new regulations,” she said.
“It’s the only way that food and beverage makers will be able to implement this scale and magnitude of change, and hope to remain competitive, much less grow and innovate.”
Food guide consultation continues
Health Canada just completed a scientific review of the Canada Food Guide. It found that most of the science behind its recommendations was sound.
However the department found there were not enough distinctions between age groups, sex, activity levels, or height.
Consultations will wrap up Dec. 8, 2016. The guide was last updated in 2007, but it remains the most requested document at Health Canada.
Philpott said the Healthy Canada strategy has three pillars:
- Healthy eating, including the updated food guide and new labelling and marketing rules.
- Healthy living, including promotion of physical activity and fitness and new rules to deter smoking and vaping.
- Healthy minds, including new initiatives to improve mental health.
Elimination of trans fats to continue
The federal government asked industry to voluntarily eliminate trans fats in processed foods in 2007. No regulations were ever introduced by the previous Conservative government.
Many food manufacturers took them out of their products anyway, bowing to consumer demand. But some trans fats still exist in products, and Philpott said more action will be taken to eliminate them.
Sasha McNicoll, co-ordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, urged the federal government to fund a school food program in every school in the country as a way to ensure kids are eating nutritious food.
She said the program would cost about $1 billion a year, and suggested the federal government kick in 20 per cent of the costs shared by the provinces, municipalities and civil society groups.
“It can improve their health and it can improve their education outcomes,” she told CBC News. “An investment now can help children develop better eating habits into adulthood and that will hopefully save in health-care costs down the road.”