Eat like a Brazilian

This year's Olympic host strikes gold with new dietary guidelines

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, July / August 2016

With the 2016 Olympic Games set for Brazil this summer, the host country’s leaders can be expected to shine a light on all the things this South American nation does well.

To that end, we will probably hear plenty in the weeks to come about the country’s vivacious culture, fine football teams, and fabulous street festivals.

Chances are we will also hear more about how Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, has become a leading exporter of many agricultural products, including soybeans, wheat, rice, cocoa, citrus, beef and sugarcane, not to mention its world-famous coffee.

What you probably won’t hear much about is that Brazil is also becoming known for something else in the world of food and nutrition: its dietary guidelines.

Launched in 2014, the Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population, has drawn rave reviews from dietitians the world over for its focus on processed foods and food behaviours.

In fact, if food guide development was an Olympic sport, Brazil would be a gold medal winner.

Indeed, many Canadian dietitians are wondering whether Canada should study the Brazilian approach as it seeks to revise its own national food guide.

Most people are aware that national food guides, like Canada’s, exist to help us choose a healthy diet. But what is a diet? Webster defines diet as “food and drink regularly provided or consumed.”

So let’s break that down. Food could be the fresh apple we pick off a tree, or it could be packaged apple slices served with caramel sauce. Drink could be tap water drunk from a glass in your kitchen or it could be a jumbo Slurpee served in a cardboard cup with a plastic lid and straw.

It would be easy to guess which would be the healthy choices, but that doesn’t mean we always make those choices. A food environment that caters to convenience, lack of cooking skill, eating alone and eating on the run has been the downfall of health to many across the globe.

It is in tackling this issue that the Brazilian dietary guidelines are breaking some new ground.

Most food guides, including Canada’s, do a decent job of telling you what you should and should not eat. But the Brazilian guide seems to expand the idea of what a food guide should be. Rather than simply compiling a list of dos and don’ts and focusing on the number and size of portions, the Brazilian guide seeks to provide readers with a philosophical approach to healthy eating. In other words, it doesn’t only focus on the “what” of healthy eating. It also tries to explain “how to make healthy eating a part of your daily life.”

For example, the Brazilian food guide offers up four recommendations and a golden rule that emphasize the importance of using natural and minimally processed food, limiting consumption of processed foods and avoiding ultra-processed food, as well as using less sugar, salt and fat.

Health professionals often advise the general public to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Shopping the perimeter leads consumers to where fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meat and fish are located.

If you avoid the centre aisles, you avoid ultra-processed foods like pop, chips and candy. Choosing fresh or frozen foods with minimal manipulation is usually the better and cheaper choice.

That doesn’t mean everything on the perimeter is fresh and minimally processed, or that everything in the centre is salty, sugary, fatty or over-processed. Take the fish or meat area of any supermarket. You can find lean meats there, whether fresh or frozen, but you can also find overly breaded chicken fingers and popcorn shrimp. In the bread area, you can find whole-grain breads in many shapes and sizes, as well as donuts, pies and cakes.

Let’s move on to the centre aisles, where you can find canned and dried lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans. These are examples of minimally processed foods and therefore a great choice.

But understanding the extent to which a food product is processed is the key, no matter where you are in the grocery store. As the Brazilian guide points out, diet is more than an intake of nutrients: it is about how foods are prepared into meals and how these meals are eaten. The trend in Brazil is towards a plant-based diet that is supportive of a socially and environmentally sustainable food system. Brazil’s government is making strides to support local farmers.

The rest of the Brazilian guidelines focus on eating behaviours. Brazil advises its citizens to eat regular meals slowly and joyfully. And when you eat, just eat – no television, no cell phone, no computer, and no eating while driving. Changing behaviours around food is difficult, but if you eat in places that are clean, comfortable and quiet, with no pressure to consume unlimited amounts of food and with the company of friends and family, you will be more attentive to your food choices.

Next, start cooking. If you have cooking skills, develop and share them, especially with children. Evidence suggests that children are receiving limited exposure to basic food skills within the home, which limits their ability to make healthful food choices into adulthood. Brazil has made changes in its education system to bring mandatory cooking back into the school system.

If you don’t know how to cook, get help! Ask family, friends, and colleagues for recipes, read books, check the Internet or take a cooking course. You can also get expert advice by calling the province’s Dial-a-Dietitian service (in Winnipeg, 204-788-8248, or toll free at 1-877-830-2892).  When you know how to cook, you can take charge of the ingredients to minimize those overly processed foods.

It will probably take a fairly long period of research and discussion for Canada to develop a new version of our food guide, but the Brazilian guide offers an interesting starting point for discussion. Meantime, there is no need for us to wait. As individuals, we can take a page out of the Brazilian guidelines and make the switch now to more home-cooked meals made with fresh and minimally processed ingredients.

Rosemary Szabadka is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Principles of healthy eating

Brazil’s dietary guidelines are based on five basic principles. They are:

Diet is more than intake of nutrients

Diet refers to intake of nutrients, and also to the foods that contain and provide nutrients. Diet also refers to how foods are combined and prepared in the form of meals, how these meals are eaten, and the cultural and social dimensions of food choices, food preparation and modes of eating, all of which affect health and well-being.

Dietary recommendations need to be tuned to their times

Dietary recommendations should respond to changes in food supplies and in patterns of population health and well-being.

Healthy diets derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems

Dietary recommendations need to take into account the impact of the means of production and distribution of food on social justice and environmental integrity.

Different sources of knowledge inform sound dietary advice

Diet has various dimensions and a complex relationship with population health and well-being. Therefore, the evidence required to construct recommendations on diet is generated from different sources of knowledge.

Dietary guidelines broaden autonomy in food choices

Access to reliable information on characteristics and determinants of healthy diets contributes toward people, families, and communities increasing their autonomy in making good food choices; it also contributes to leading them to demand compliance with the human right to adequate food.

Source: Dietary Guidelines for the Brazilian Population, Ministry of Health of Brazil

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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