The “New” Canada’s Food Guide – A Brief History and What Is Missing – Part Two

It is not the sweetness that we find rewarding, it is the reward chemicals that we find rewarding and we learn that sweet things cause a release of these reward chemicals. The same applies to things that are high in fat and sugar. While these foods serve a survival function given that they promote body fat storage, this is not the reason why we eat them. We seek them out because they cause a massive release of reward chemicals and not because we enjoy them directly. These reward chemicals serve as the motivation to take specific actions, actions that played a role in ensuring that our ancestors survived while those who did not seek out high calorie food did not.

This is the second part of this post. If you have not already read or listened to The “New” Canada’s Food Guide – A Brief History and What Is Missing Part One, check it out as this one is simply a continuation of that post

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The next version of the guide was released in 2007 as Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide and it did contain most of the information that wasn’t included in the 1992 guide. The number of servings of grain products was reduced in general. However, the guide serving recommendations are broken-out by age and gender. This change gave the guide more prescriptive power that reflected the specific and changing needs of each gender throughout the course of their life. In general, males burn more calories and, as a result, their need for vitamins and minerals is slightly higher.

This guide is also more detailed, 6 pages vs. 2, and includes a lot more online features. It is clear that it is an attempt to create something that is more useful and that will appeal to a much wider audience. It includes more information about exercise, both in terms of frequency and intensity, along with the potential outcomes you might experience as a result of engaging in an exercise program.

The 2007 guide represents the first real steps towards “mindful” eating. For example, it invites people to limit certain foods that are high calories, sugar and fat, along with limiting trans-fat. It asks people to “read the label” in order to become aware of what is in the food they are selecting to eat. While these are important steps in the right direction, they are too late for a lot of people given the poor advice that was provided 15 years before. People had free reign for a decade and a half to eat too many servings of grain products and would now find themselves in a less than ideal place as a result of it. Worse still would be the lasting consequence on any of the children who had been subjected to this bad advice – primarily higher levels of body fat and the deeply stored incorrect wisdom inside their brain caused by 15 years of conditioning.

Here’s the problem, while human beings are genetically coded to find certain things rewarding, they are born without any knowledge of just what there things are. Over time they learn how to trigger the reward chemicals and with enough practice and exposure they will develop the exact behaviors needed to release these chemicals. However, if they never get exposed to the things that cause the release or if their exposure is limited or conditional, they will never cultivate the level of refinement that is required to develop compulsive overeating.

It important to step out of this conversation at this point to consider why human beings find sweet things to be enjoyable and why they find fat and sweet combination irresistible. At first thought the answer seems obvious, we like sweet things because they are sweet and we seek out and over-eat food that are high in fat and sugar because they are high in calories. But these explanation are not accurate, or at least, they are incomplete. We enjoy sweet things because our brains release reward chemicals in response to consuming them and with enough practice, we learn that we will release reward chemicals in response to eating sweet things. It is not the sweetness that we find rewarding, it is the reward chemicals that we find rewarding and we learn that sweet things cause a release of these reward chemicals. The same applies to things that are high in fat and sugar. While these foods serve a survival function given that they promote body fat storage, this is not the reason why we eat them. We seek them out because they cause a massive release of reward chemicals and not because we enjoy them directly. These reward chemicals serve as the motivation to take specific actions, actions that played a role in ensuring that our ancestors survived while those who did not seek out high calorie food did not.

Let this sink in.

Now consider the fact that drugs like cocaine and amphetamine do exactly the same thing. When we consume these types of drugs, our brain responds by releasing the same reward chemicals that are released when we eat sugar and sugar and fat combinations.

Now we move on to the 2019 version of Canada’s Food Guide. This version is very different from any that came before it in that it makes no recommendation about number of servings. It is, in fact, a guide in the purest sense of the word. While each of the previous versions doled out recommendation about how much food a person should eat, 5-10 servings of vegetables and fruit in the 1992 guide for example, this version does not. The quantities approach that was taken by all that came before has been replaced with a qualitative method that satisfies a need to educate. For this reason it is better and worse.

It continues to build upon the mindful eating approach that was launched in 2007 and encourages people to prepare more of the meals and to eat with other people more often. It invites people to consider the experience of eating in terms of pace, fullness of flavors, smells, and textures, the amount of chewing a food requires, and their motivation or reasons for eating, etc. All are important considerations in generating any level of awareness about ones eating habits and behavior. However it doesn’t ask people to reflect on how the food made them feel, which is arguably the most important aspect of mindful eating. For example, if someone eats 4 cookies after eating a large dinner and upon reflection realizes that they were not actually hungry for the cookies and did not find eating them to be satiating, it may raise the questions about the function of the cookies and the person’s relationship with ending a meal with something that is excessively sweet. Once asked, it isn’t a very big step from there to realizing that a lot of their food choices have nothing to do with immediate necessity and everything to do with preparing for a time when the food supply is cut off.

The guide is better and worse for the same reason. It’s better because it tells people how to eat and how to approach their food and worse because it doesn’t tell them what or how much of it to eat. It starts off with the assumption that people will do the right thing if they know what that is, and then sets off to tell them what the right thing is. While this is a noble goal, it is based on a mostly false assumption. Most people already have a very good idea what they should and shouldn’t be eating. Almost everyone knows that vegetables are better for you than cookies or chips will choose the cookies or chips over the vegetables. Sure, there are some outlier who do not know the difference between these types of food and will, upon receiving the education that the 2019 guide offers, stop eating cookies and chips and start eating vegetables, and there are people who choose to eat more vegetables while avoiding the other things, but most people are not outliers. Most people have a very good idea and still choose to eat too much of the things they shouldn’t and not enough of the things they should. The guide does not address the fact that knowledge is not sufficient because gaining it does not consistently or predictably change behavior.

The 2019 guide is a step in the right direction in terms of shifting the focus onto food as a thing that is more than just a source of nutrition and energy. The efforts to point out that it is also a source of many different experiences is helpful. While this has always been the case, it didn’t really need to be said before because people spend more time preparing food and eating meals with other people. 50 years ago, a nightly family meal was the norm, with the adults preparing it and the children cleaning up afterwards. Going out for a meal was rare because it was expensive and there wasn’t as much money being earned. Adequate amounts of high quality and highly nutritious food were available. These foods were effectively straight from the farm to the store and did not go through much processing. Things spoiled quickly so people bought only as much as they needed and they had relationships with the people who sold them the food. There was a community aspect to the entire food chain because things were smaller in scale with many local suppliers.

This is not how it is today. My local grocery market just finished renovating the store to add 4 different meal replacement sections to the front portion of the store and these tend to be much busier than the produce section. In fact, many of the people who “shop” at the store only make use of the first 15 meters. While this initially reduced the flow of people though the rest of the store and made the check-out lines run faster, they have reduced the number of cashiers in response to the decrease flow so it now actually takes longer to checkout. It is clear that the changes have increased profits because they charge a premium on the meal replacement items and these sections are always busy; I’m sure that it is only a matter of time before they begin to remove the other sections of the store to replace them with more profitable offerings. I’m not suggesting that the food is bad, it is very tasty. They use high quality ingredients, their recipes are good and it is well prepared. But it isn’t the same experience as selecting the raw ingredients for a meal, buying them, and bringing everything home to prepare. The premiums you are paying for are the convenience of having someone else prepare the meal and the time saving the service provides. So, depending upon the value of your time, it may actually work out to be cheaper to buy it from them as opposed to taking the old-school route.

It doesn’t matter how accurate the information is in the 2019 Canada food guide, a lack of knowledge is not the reason why people choose to eat in a way that does not serve their best long term interests. This occurs because we now have the choice to eat effectively or to eat conveniently. And this brings us to the final thing that needs to be discussed.

Remember that we have the genetic programming to seek out, consume and over-eat high calorie foods in an effort to store energy. Now consider what else we might be programmed to do / not do in order to ensure that there is energy for use later. If you spend the time to consider the possible answers to this statement you’ll notice the irony. If you didn’t take the time and spend the mental effort to generate the answers, you’ve actually modeled the answer perfectly. We are genetically programmed to avoid spending energy doing things that are unnecessary. This includes but is not limited to choosing to avoid thinking about things that do not pose an immediate survival threat and to avoid doing things that will cause us to take physical and mental action whenever possible. Human beings are not lazy per say, we are just not motivated to burn off energy for no reason. When faced with the choice of taking action or not taking action, we’ll favor doing nothing, and when we are faced with two possible actions, we’ll tend to choose the one that has us spend the least amount of energy.

The narrative truth is the human beings are programmed to seek out and consume as much energy as they can and to do this as efficiently as possible with the goal of storing energy for use at some point in the future when food is not available. When we walk into a store, possibly hungry, and are faced with the choice between buying a ready-made meal or buying the items we need to make a meal at home, our programmed desire to save energy will probably kick in and have us standing in line to pick up our meal replacement, one that is larger than what we need and contains more sugar and fat than is necessary. And we’ll go home and eat the entire thing and feel good physically because our brains will release the reward chemicals that come from a good gorge.

Knowing that eating too much will make us gain weight will not change our nature because it IS out nature. Getting fat IS the goal. The genes that would have coded for a different outcome did not get passed along because those who had them died during one of the thousands of famines that hammered our ancestors throughout history.

As well intentioned as the 2019 version of Canada’s Food Guide is, it cannot do very much to overcome millions of years of evolution and “selective breeding” that food scarcity shaped. At best, and it seems like it hit the mark, it can encourage people to take a moment before eating something to consider their motivations for doing what they are about to do. And to maybe, in a moment of mindfulness, make a different choice, one that will ensure a better future, even though it causes the brain to rebel and trigger the negatives emotions associated with the historic and antiquated concern about an impending famine. Will-power and mindful effort towards doing something other than the automatic, something that doesn’t feel as good, but is a step towards full nourishment and sustaining a dietary energy balance.

While it doesn’t come out right and say it, being healthy isn’t natural. It may be somewhat automatic for younger people but it is something that we grow out of as we age. What is natural for us is to sit as still as we can and stuff down our throats as much as we possibly can. This is where the guide comes-up short, and this is understandable because it’s a hard fact to wrap your head around. The fact that it doesn’t even try is what I find so problematic. When this is paired with the fact that guide has a history of offering up bad advice or stating things that are completely wrong, my skeptical nature comes out to play.

Here’s my thinking about the topic of advising an entire population on how to eat:

The Food Guide is doing its intended job at a better than average level. By knocking on the door of mindfulness, it is suggesting that there might be a lot more going on than just what we have been paying attention to.

Crappy food advice and education and going along with the demands of the food industry has created a situation in which only those with money and free time or those who do not have enough money get to remain lean and healthy looking – those with money and free time get to buy the best food and spend time working out / exercising to create a false famine while those who do not have enough money loss weight simply because they are enduring a real famine. The poor do not have a voice and are effectively ignored; which is a shame because the strategy of remaining hungry for longer periods of time is very effective. A voice is given to those in power, the very people who have both money and time, and they get to do the very things that are needed to actually be healthy. Then they get onto their high horse and judge the rest of us for being lazy, which we are, and for overeating, which we do. We are fat and unhealthy because we make bad choices while they are lean that healthy because they make good ones. Surely if we weren’t so flawed we’d say no to the junk food, yes to the vegetables and be moving around more.

But this is nonsense. We are not flawed. We are perfect. We over eat and under-move because our genes motivate us to over-eat and under-move. We don’t think much about it and when we do, we don’t really know why we ate two servings of dessert and didn’t feel like getting onto the rowing machine for a 2000m workout. The fact is eating shittie food is rewarding because our brain rewards it. Burning off extra calories isn’t immediately rewarding and it takes the body a while to learn how to notice that it can feel good. The only thing that we have going for us, when it comes to eating more healthfully and exercising an appropriate amount, is the vision to see it happen and the willpower to do it. But until we understand and realize that eating right and moving more are not a part of our code, we’ll continue to wonder what is wrong with us when we don’t find it easy to live better.

It isn’t easy because it is hard. It burns energy that our body does not want to burn, we have to eat things that offer no immediate release of reward chemicals while avoid eating the things DO cause the instant release of these chemicals. It is suffering and sacrifice and there is almost nothing we can do to have it be anything but that. However, it is only suffering and sacrifice, it is not pain or death. We go without a little reward and overtime we teach our brains how to reward other actions. Asparagus or broccoli will never cause the release of dopamine but the thoughts we have after eating them can cause the release. Walking 10000 steps in a day is not the most effective way to cause the body to release reward chemicals, but the knowing that you walked 10000 steps can become a reason for releasing them.

Mindfulness is the tool we can use to identify and understand the problem and it is the tool we will use to the quickly create the new processes that are needed to actually make living better something that feels better. With sufficient training and practice, you can teach your brain to reward the very things that right now feel like suffering and sacrifice and you can become a person who is chemically motivated to eat right and move more.

Your nature is only your nature when you allow it to remain so. When you pay attention to it and take an active role in shaping who you are, what you do and the choices you make, you will create a new nature. The old one will remain, it’s been shaped over millions of years, but there is plenty of room in your brain to create a second way of operating. It takes effort and practice, but fortunately not the millions of years that the unmoving overeating baselines took. Use your brain, pay attention, be curious and accept the cost and spend the energy, and you are bound to be successful.

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