Reducing chronic health risks: it’s in what you eat!

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Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier


Pontiac Perspective by Peter Gauthier

Canadians are living longer, but are not enjoying a better life. Chronic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, respiratory diseases and diabetes account for 65% of deaths in Canada. And, not surprisingly, Canada ranks among the worst of OECD countries for adult obesity rates. Moreover, four out of five adults have at least one modifiable risk factor for chronic disease; for 80% of adults, a lifestyle change can improve the quality of their life.
But what changes should one make to improve their quality of life? The list is
fairly obvious: no smoking, proper exercise, moderate consumption of alcohol, and
proper diet.  This last item, proper diet, may be the most difficult. While grocery stores supply food at reasonable prices, the quality of that food, especially processed foods, means that Canadians have developed unhealthy eating habits.
Processed foods provide easy, fast meals that are tasty, but not healthy. Manufacturers add salt, fats and sugar to their products to gain a longer shelf-life and a quick response from our taste buds. Unfortunately, these additives also have adverse health effects.  Consider sodium; too much can result in high blood pressure and heart and kidney disease. Excess sodium has been linked to increased risk of osteoporosis, stomach cancer and severity of asthma. With these issues in mind, note that Canadians eat about 3,400 mg of sodium each day – more than double the amount we need. Actually, health studies have determined that 1,000 to 1,500 mg per day is adequate for good health and the maximum intake should never exceed 2,300 mg per day.
Why is there such a difference between actual sodium intake and recommended
levels?  The answer is simple. Most countries have recognized the need for proper sodium intake levels and have passed legislation requiring food processors to ensure safe levels of sodium additives. Not so for Canada; we have recommendations, but no means of enforcing them. Major food processors reply that they need the higher sodium levels for commercial purposes – longer shelf life and consumer taste. This may be good for their financial statements, but are terrible for our health system. Our hospitals are over crowded, our health costs are increasing. Reducing chronic health risks is essential.
Perhaps the tobacco industry could provide an example. Cigarette packages must display a prominent warning message. Could we not have a similar system for processed food?  Every package or tin of food that has excess sodium will be required to display a “Warning – consumption of this product may be hazardous to your health” message.  Faced with this requirement, food processing companies may start acting with more concern for the health effects of their products or be prepared to accept government legislation.