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From food environments to food marketing: the science behind diets

Expert panel informs what we “should, and could, and can do” about dieting
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When trying to find the silver bullet diet, a few questions may pop into one’s mind. “According to whom? To us? To science? What is science?” asked Jessica Mudry, an assistant professor in Professional Communication at Ryerson University. She spoke about diets at a Royal Canadian Institute of Science panel titled, “New Year, New You: The Science of Healthy Eating.” The event took place January 26 at the JJR MacLeod Auditorium at the University of Toronto, and touched on subjects ranging from diet fads to how they tie into mental health.

Resolutions about finally getting healthy easily become quite puzzling. “Monday, eggs are good for you; Tuesday, [eggs are] not so good for you,” she explained. To make things worse, she continued, “comprehensive diets are even more confounding,” due to how consumers receive mixed messages all the time on what diets constitute healthy eating.

Diet fads and what our food eats

Amy Botta, a postdoctoral nutritional researcher at York University, explained currently popular diets, namely the ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting, and veganism. She noted that such diets “have a place for certain pediatric conditions, but in terms of weight loss, the evidence is actually kind of mixed.”

Evidence is not only mixed, but lacking in quantity. Botta added that “we need a lot more research in order to be able to decide exactly what diets are appropriate.” Additionally, the vegan diet may decrease the overall risk for cardiovascular disease, but people who follow the diet have a 20 per cent risk increase in strokes, while also lacking many vital amino acids that are only obtainable through animal products.

It’s also important to consider what our food is eating. Farmed fish lack 75 per cent of the omega-3 fatty acids that are present in wild-caught fish due to the simple fact that farmed fish are fed corn, a food which gives them unhealthy amounts of the wrong fatty acids.

Botta argued that “it’s not just about understanding the diets; it’s understanding our food system, and… specifically what the inputs are into that.”

Population health and food policy

Our food environment is “the environment in which people make food choices,” as defined by Laura Vergeer, a PhD candidate at U of T’s Department of Nutritional Sciences who was at the panel. Food choices are influenced by nutrition facts tables and ingredients — two mandatory components of food packaging in Canada which aren’t always user-friendly, as Vergeer noted.

She highlighted countries with “good practice food environment policies,” such as front-of-package labelling for products that don’t meet certain nutritional standards and restricted marketing to children.

“These types of policies can prompt food companies to reformulate their products to make them healthier, so that they meet the criteria to be marketed to children, or so that they’re not required to display these front-of-pack symbols,” she said.

Although Canada has not yet successfully passed such regulations, Ontario has passed the Healthy Menu Choices Act for displaying calorie contents on the menus of fast-food chains, and by 2022 food products in Canada will not be able to contain artificially produced trans fats.

The “psychological-biological bind” of diets and eating disorders 

Lindsay Bodell, an assistant professor at Western University’s Department of Psychology, was also present at the panel, and discussed her research regarding dieting and its ties to mental illness.

Beyond social media pressures to lose weight and obtain certain body ideals, the complexity of eating disorders include psychological and biological components. Bodell’s research focuses on “what’s happening when someone’s losing weight” — which is known as a ‘weight -suppressed state’ — and its impact on eating disorders.

Drastic weight changes are associated with negative eating-related thoughts and behaviours. Within clinical samples, this is a predictor of poor response to medical treatment. Leptin, a hormone produced by fat tissues that provides feelings of satiety, is decreased during weight; this is then associated with binge-eating symptoms.

“Our psychology is saying we need to lose more weight, but then when we are losing weight, our biology is pushing us up in the other direction,” she said. “And now individuals are stuck in what we call this psychological-biological bind that’s really contributing to maintaining these disordered eating behaviours.”   

Amidst the unbalanced, chaotic life of a student, trying to eat a balanced diet can be difficult — but don’t fear. Meal prepping to set yourself up for the whole week and making sure to find time to enjoy your meals with others on a regular basis can make way for healthier and more enjoyable eating.