Thanks for the opportunity to testify today.
In my role as the director of health policy and advocacy at Heart and Stroke, my team and I have had the pleasure of engaging with many of you at this committee one-on-one on the subject of Canada's healthy eating strategy. We appreciate the ongoing commitment to enhance Canada's food environment.
We also applaud Health Canada's recent step to eliminate industrial trans fats in our food supply. Heart and Stroke is proud to have co-chaired the trans fat task force and to have worked with government and other partners to make this health policy a reality. This was an important step because trans fat levels are still high among certain vulnerable populations, including our children, in the food they consume. In foods such as processed baked goods and restaurant foods, levels are still high.
On the study of Canada's food guide, the committee is hearing from some of our partners on this subject. Our common agreement is that the healthy eating strategy and particularly the soon to be revised Canada food guide provide an unprecedented opportunity to make meaningful changes to our food environment and to support Canadians to make healthy choices.
In building on the comments made by my colleagues, my testimony today will focus on the following key components: the nutrition status of Canadians and the relationship between nutrition and chronic diseases; the importance of robust revisions to Canada's food guide; and, as well, Heart and Stroke's specific recommendations for the food guide.
Nutrition is a key impetus for our work at Heart and Stroke. We know that up to 80% of heart disease and stroke can be prevented by adopting healthy behaviours, including a healthy diet. While the causes are numerous, poor diet, excess caloric intake, and inadequate access to important nutrients are leading factors driving chronic disease and obesity.
The situation is not ideal in Canada. Currently, more than 60% of adult Canadians and more than 30% of children and youth are overweight or obese. Approximately 70% of Canadians age 18 years and above and youth 12 to 17 years of age did not eat the recommended servings of vegetables and fruits in 2016.
Also very worrisome, ultra-processed food consumption is on the rise. Almost 50% of Canadians' energy intake comes from ultra-processed foods. It's even higher, 60%, for kids nine to 13 years of age. This was highlighted in a report that the Heart and Stroke commissioned through the University of Montreal just last week.
What concerns Heart and Stroke in the context of today's discussion is that this could be the first generation of kids to have a shorter lifespan than that of their parents as a result of premature death related to chronic disease, including obesity.
The annual cost of diet-related disease is $26 billion annually, and unhealthy diets are the number one risk for death in Canada in 2016. Without public policy intervention, the situation will only get worse.
Whether you or your caucuses agree or disagree with how the food guide should be revised, we can all agree that in the last 10 years since the release of the last food guide, social behaviours and consumption habits have changed, technology and information access have evolved, and scientific evidence related to nutrition has also progressed, all of which necessitate a re-examination and revision of how Health Canada is advising Canadians to consume foods and beverages.
Canada's food guide was once a central resource for Heart and Stroke, both for the development of policy papers and for the creation of consumer resources. However, in the last few years, we have increasingly moved away from utilizing and referencing the food guide due to inconsistencies between the food guide and Heart and Stroke's messages on healthy eating. We hope that will be resolved with the revision of the food guide.
Heart and Stroke is supportive of and in agreement with many of the key principles proposed by Health Canada during the consultation phases for the food guide. Broadly speaking, we support the consumption of whole real foods, mostly plant-based foods, but certainly not at the exclusion of a moderate amount of some animal proteins, which can certainly be part of a healthy diet. Here, we're talking about fish, eggs, lean meat, low-fat milk, unsweetened milk, etc. We also support the proposals to limit or avoid highly processed and ready-made foods and beverages high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat, and to avoid all sugary drinks, because these are certainly not part of a healthy diet. Let me elaborate on some of the specifics.
With respect to dairy, Heart and Stroke recommends that the food guide should contain a statement about including lower fat unsweetened milk, milk alternatives, and yogourt as part of your diet. We see value in ensuring that dairy products be identified for their efficient delivery of calcium and vitamin D. For example, we think whole milk should be encouraged for children one to two years of age who are not being breastfed. Furthermore, we recommend the continued monitoring of emerging evidence on the impact of high-fat dairy products on cardiovascular health.
With respect to saturated fat, Heart and Stroke agrees that the government should promote the consumption of foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat, instead of foods that contain mostly saturated fat. Research clearly indicates that saturated fats raise the risk of heart disease and stroke, whereas the replacement of these saturated fats with other types of healthy fats decreases the risk of these conditions. Our advice to Canadians is that the best way to avoid unhealthy saturated fats is to avoid consuming highly processed foods. There is emerging evidence that it's not just the fat itself but the type of food that the fat is found in that can affect heart health. If Canadians are eating a balanced amount of whole real foods, cooking from scratch, and avoiding highly processed food, then they will likely have managed any risk posed by saturated fats.
With respect to beverages, Heart and Stroke agrees with satisfying our thirst with water and plain milk. Safe, clean water should be readily available to all Canadians. Heart and Stroke firmly believes that sugary drinks of any sort, including 100% fruit juice, should not be included in dietary recommendations to Canadians. They should not be considered alternatives to fruit. Sugary drinks have little to no health benefits but many health risks. The 100% fruit juice is metabolized in virtually the same way other sugary drinks are, and juice can have the same amount of or up to 33% more sugar than soda pop does. Canadians should eat their fruit, not drink it. We know that excess sugar consumption is associated with adverse health effects.
With respect to food preparation and ultra-processed foods, Heart and Stroke agrees that Canadians should be advised to limit their intake of highly processed or ready-made prepared foods. Ultra-processed foods are a major source of saturated fat, and are also high in calories, sodium, sugar, and sometimes trans fats. These all raise the risk for heart disease and stroke. Therefore, Heart and Stroke believes, it's important to have a clear definition of “processed foods”, since many foundational foods are minimally processed, such as frozen and canned unsweetened and unsalted fruits and vegetables. We need to advise Canadians that these are good foods to eat. It's important for the consumer to clearly understand which foods to limit.
With respect to food knowledge, Canadians need support and education on planning and preparing healthy meals and snacks, and we hope that the revised food guide will do this. Additionally, having the food literacy skills to make healthy selections requires a good understanding of how to read and understand nutrition facts tables. We also support the federal government's efforts to institute front-of-package labelling that provides interpretive, simple, highly visible, and easy-to-understand information about the risks of products high in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. Evidence from other jurisdictions indicates that front-of-package labelling is a necessary step toward making it easier for Canadians to eat healthy food.
Finally, with respect to determinants of health, cultural diversity, and the environment, Heart and Stroke believes it is essential that any new or revised directive on eating habits in Canada take into account access to and availability of nutrition and food in a culturally appropriate manner. This includes acknowledging the importance of food sovereignty and reflecting cultural preferences and food traditions. As Health Canada works to develop the indigenous food guide, which, it is our understanding, will be tailored to include traditional and country foods, and will be translated into a host of indigenous languages, we strongly urge that the department work towards releasing both food guides simultaneously if possible. We also recommend that this committee hear from indigenous-led organizations about the progress of that document. Furthermore, in terms of the overall process, we also encourage Health Canada to publicly articulate their proposed schedule for releasing the various components of the revised food guide, and to ensure that the tools for Canadian consumers and the direction for health professionals be released concurrently.
To conclude, consistent with our participation in the consultative process, Heart and Stroke supports the healthy eating strategy, including a robust updated food guide, front-of-package nutrition labelling, trans fat regulations, and restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids in Canada. This strategy will help to reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes in Canada.
Thank you very much for taking the time to listen to our input today. I welcome your questions.