Food Guides See No Evil – Dr Yoni Freedhoff

Yesterday I attended and enjoyed a lecture at the University of Alberta by Dr Yoni Freedhoff of the University of Ottawa.  Dr. Freedhoff discussed the Canada Food Guide, and “How Omission, Commission and Downright Stupidity Shaped Canada’s Food Guide“.  From  what I have seen, Dr Freedhoff’s comments will apply equally well to the USA equivalent  the ‘Food Plate’.

I come to presentations like this with a completely different perspective.  That is to say, the government has their perspective, Dr Freedhoff has the same perspective – he spends his time arguing the facts. My perspective is very different. In simplest terms, I take a ‘healthicine’ perspective, while the government and Dr Freedhoff take a disease, or an illness perspective.  Let me explain.

At the start of the presentation, Dr Freedhoff said “The food guide is designed to present the best diet for prevention of chronic disease“.  I think the government agrees with that statement.  Then Dr Freedhoff proceeds to demonstrate that the design goal was not met for many reasons, and in some cases clearly circumvented by commercial interests.

I have a different objective.  We need a food guide that is designed to “optimize the health of our citizens“.   How would this influence the guide, and how would it influence Dr Freedhoff’s discussion?

Dr Freedhoff’s discussed the issue of ‘nutrient content’ of foods. The food guide is often used on packaging to tell us if a specific food meets our daily needs for specific nutrients –  Vitamin A, Vitamin C, etc. This way of looking at foods creates two major issues.  It can, according to the label, ancourage manufacturers to market a bottle of sugar water, laced with some chemical equivalent ‘vitamins’, and say that it is ‘better’ than an orange.  The other issue is that no-human can actually make sense of the labeling, as clearly demonstrated by a video ‘advertisement’ that recommends clients go to the Health Canada website to “learn how”… duh…

How would foods be labeled if the objective was to ‘optimize the health of the consumer’?  Of course, we would have arguments about which foods are healthier. But I believe these arguments would be MORE useful than the so called ‘food facts’ that our government presents, and a brave few, like Dr Freedhoff argue against.

Is juice a fruit?  Dr Freedhoff tells us that a) Juice is not a fruit, b) Australia’s food guide clearly says that juice is not a fruit and recommends LESS than 1/2 cup a day of juice, c) The Canada food guide calls juice a fruit and recommends ‘2 servings of fruit a day’.  I don’t think he mentioned that the US food guide also calls juice a fruit: “Any fruit or 100% fruit juice counts as part of the Fruit Group”.  He then shows slides that demonstrate that a glass of ‘100 percent grape juice’ contains more sugar than a glass of Coke. And to be frank, not a significant amount of nutrients.

“Juice is a fruit” fails the food guide objective “to prevent chronic disease”, but I’m sure the juice marketers in Canada and the USA don’t care, as long as the food guide increases their sales.

In the USA, the Food Plate is not presented by the Department of Health, it is presented by the Department of Agriculture.  The conflict is clear.  In Canada, according to Dr. Freedhoff – the guide is presented by Health Canada, but it was NOT designed by health professionals – it was designed by food marketing and agricultural representatives.  I expect that these members of the Food Guide team were paid twice as they worked on the food guide.  They were paid for their day jobs – marketing foods, and also paid to participate in the design of the food guide. A clear conflict of interest.

What if our food guides were designed by Health Professionals?  Dr Freedhoff thinks this is a good idea, but he misses an important detail.  We have lots of medical professionals, and many of them call themselves ‘health professionals’ – but we don’t have any ‘health professionals’, not in Canada, not in the USA, and not in Australia either.

Is it really better in Australia?   The food guide is presented by the (so called) Australian Department of Health and Aging, and their Vision statement is “better health and active ageing for all Australians.” However, their ‘indicators’ of healthiness are: mortality, child mortality, obesity, smoking, lowering financial barriers that decrease treatment and preventable hospitalizations.  Clearly these are indicators of ‘illness’, not of health.  There is no department of health in Australia either. Not much different from Health Canada, which presents a mission: “Health Canada is committed to improving the lives of all of Canada ‘s people and to making this country’s population among the healthiest in the world” but then continuing with…. “as measured by longevity, lifestyle and effective use of the public health care system.”  Is there any agreement among scientists on how to measure healthiness? No, there is not. If we are to become the healthiest in the world – surely we need to know how to measure healthiness? We need a science of healthicine.  Enough ranting, back to Dr Freedhoff.

Dr Freedhoff went on to discuss saturated fats, and that recent meta-studies that have clearly demonstrated that saturated fats are not unhealthy (no one measures if something is actually healthy). The danger, he demonstrates is in TRANS FATS, which are still considered a ‘food’ in the Canada Food Guide.  The Australian food guide still (indirectly) warns against consumption of saturated fats.  The USA food plate groups trans fats and saturated fats into the same category, recommending people ‘cut back’ on both.  Clearly none of these three food guides has the health facts right, according to research presented by Dr Freedhoff.

But then.. did I hear correctly?  Dr Freedhoff mentioned ‘lard’ in his list of ‘bad fats’.  I immediately grabbed my smartphone to see if lard contains trans fats – the fat that is clearly unhealthy.  Wiki, for example says: “Unlike many margarines and vegetable shortenings, unhydrogenated lard contains no trans fat.” A minor quibble maybe.  But as near as I can see, lard is healthier than margarines, and vegetable oils – if they are hydrogenated.

Dr Freedhoff asked why the food guide recommends high consumption of milk, as does the USA food plate.  He has no proof, but points out that a high ranking dairy executive was on the Food Guide panel.

Dr Freedhoff founded the Bariatric Medical Institute, a weight management clinic, and writes a blog called “Weighty Matters”.  So I was not surprised that he had a lot to say about calories. Unfortunately, his numbers simply don’t add up – as often happens with calorie counters.  Dr Freedhoff clearly understands that isolating ‘nutrients’ does not make sense when analyzing healthiness of foods, but misses the point that ‘isolating calories’ makes no sense when analyzing the obesity caused by foods.

He clearly demonstrated that we are consuming many more calories than a few short years ago.  And, as a result, he stated, we have more problems with obesity.  I suspect he is right so far.  But then I looked around the room.  I could not see a single person who was obese.  Maybe there was one there…. but I couldn’t see one.  And there were lots of people of both genders and all different ages.  What’s up with that?  Was it just a coincidence that everyone else is eating a lot more calories, but not those who came to the presentation?  Surely if calories matter, in the way he demonstrated, EVERYONE who eats more than the recommended calories would gradually become obese.  But that doesn’t happen.  Clearly we don’t understand calories, and Dr Freedhoff is not the right person to ask for answers.

The Question and Answer section was interesting.  One question clearly hilited, to me, the difference between a food guide goal of ‘prevent illness’ and a food guide goal of ‘improve healthiness’.  When an audience member asked about organic foods, Dr Freedhoff could only respond – they don’t seem to have any better ‘illness prevention’ qualities.  But he appeared to not have any understanding of the question ‘are they healthier’ – without reference to ‘illness’. To his credit, he did state clearly that ‘processed juice without pulp’ is much ‘unhealthier’ than juice created from fresh oranges – including pulp.  But an understanding of ‘unhealthiness’ is very different from an understanding of healthiness.

We need a science of healthiness – healthicine.  Until we study healthiness with the diligence and discipline that we apply to the studies of illness, we will continue to be confused, not only about ‘what is healthier’, but also to be confused about the difference between ‘healthiness’ and ‘illness prevention’.

When we study healthicine w will still be confused, but I believe we will be confused at a higher level, and about more important things.

to your health,















About Tracy Kolenchuk

Founder of Author of two books about healthicine; Healthicine: The Arts and Sciences of Health and Healthiness Healthicine: Introduction to Healthicine
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