Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Food Guide Follies: How Brazil is Leading the Way to a Healthier World

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, one of the biggest challenges facing the world today is getting people to take care of their bodies. In a world of fast food chains and a seemingly infinite supply of gummy bears, our cave-people brains face temptations almost beyond description. In their attempts to help us on the path to choosing healthy options, the governments of most western countries have put together food guides.

Generally speaking, these guides try to take a complicated issue and present it in a way that the average person can understand. Unfortunately, they almost always fail miserably. Whether you are basing your recommendations on the four food groups (meat and protein, fruits and vegetables, dairy, and grains) or some kind of crazy pyramid scheme it is pretty easy to go off the rails describing serving sizes, individual differences, vitamins, and granting people the occasional candy bar out of sheer guilt.

Because of the complexity and inherent confusion that goes along with making dietary recommendations, it is pretty uncommon for doctors, nutritionists, and researchers to all come out in favour of any country’s food guide. However, that is exactly what has happened recently with the guidelines published in Brazil, a country with rapidly growing access to fast food chains and even more rapidly expanding waistbands. So why has Brazil’s new food guide met such universal acclaim? The reason is that the recommendations focus more on how people eat than what they are actually eating.

The full guide is an 87-page behemoth of a document that the authors knew no one would read all of, so they distilled the overall message down to ten simple rules for a healthier diet:

1.       Prepare meals using fresh, staple foods.
2.       Use oils, fats, sugars, and salt in moderation.
3.       Limit consumption of ready-to-eat foods and drinks.
4.       Eat at regular times and pay attention to your food. Don’t multi-task and relax while you enjoy your     meals.
5.       Eat with other people whenever possible.
6.       Buy your food from markets and shops that sell mainly fresh (not ready-to-eat) foods.
7.       Develop, practice, share, and enjoy your cooking skills.
8.       Share cooking responsibilities and set aside enough time for healthy meals.
9.       When you eat out, go to restaurants that specialize in fresh food. Avoid fast food chains.
10.    Be critical of food-industry advertising.

As you can see, rather than a rulebook of numbers and steps, Brazil’s new food guide is about a lifestyle. Even better, it seems like a pretty fun lifestyle. Cook and eat with friends? Develop cooking as a skill? Go to farmer’s markets? What’s not to love?

As much as we might like it, the true test of any food guide is whether or not it will actually encourage people to eat right. Fortunately, recent research might suggest that this new approach to healthy eating is just what the doctor ordered. Specifically, studies have shown that people respond well and adapt their behaviour when food is framed as part of their lifestyle.

Researchers have looked at the effect of labeling menus on people’s dietary decision-making. In a study comparing menus with no additional labels, labels with the number of calories in each dish, and menus displaying how much exercise would be needed to burn off the calories in the food, researchers found that people made the healthiest choices when they were told what they would need to do to cancel out their meal. More to the point, the prospect of 35 minutes of jogging makes people less likely to eat a chocolate bar than telling them it contains 240 calories. Even more promising, other research has found that people are more likely to eat at restaurants that label their menus with nutritional information.

It all goes back to the way we detach ourselves from our food. We so rarely know where things come from, what is in them, and how they are made that when we are presented with relatable information about how food affects our lives, we make smarter choices. Not having to chase down a live chicken for dinner has made us poor decision-makers. Maybe the combination of skillful home-cooking with friends and the threat of hours on a stairmaster can bring us back to reality.