Niki Bezzant: Food and the meaning of life

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A  woman prepares ‘acaraje’ at a fair in Rio de Janeiro. New guidelines in Brazil emphasise the social aspects of healthy eating. Photo / AP
A woman prepares ‘acaraje’ at a fair in Rio de Janeiro. New guidelines in Brazil emphasise the social aspects of healthy eating. Photo / AP

Governments around the world routinely come up with guidelines to help people eat more healthily.

The US released its much-anticipated Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently. As you might imagine, some forceful lobbying preceded them.

A watered-down version of the recommendations produced by the scientific advisory committee charged with the task has been released, roundly criticised by many experts. There are generally acknowledged good updates.

In line with recent WHO guidelines there's a recommendation to limit added sugar. There's new advice on fat; an emphasis on saturated rather than total fat, and a removal of the cholesterol intake recommendation.

But the guidelines are getting flak for being vague - "choose a variety of nutrient-dense foods", for example, rather than emphasising foods.

"Reduce sodium intake" doesn't mean much unless you know what foods contain.

The original recommendations also emphasised that a plant-based diet is healthier; not just for people but the planet.

The sustainability aspect has been left out completely, a move seen by critics as politically motivated. These guidelines are unlikely to do much to help the world's fattest nation.

As it happens, New Zealand has new healthy eating guidelines, too. These were released with very little fanfare late last year by the Ministry of Health.

Ours are slightly friendlier than the Americans', although they don't mention sustainability, either. They are food-based, which is good, and easy to understand for the most part. First on the list is to eat "plenty of vegetables and fruit".

There's also an emphasis on foods that are "whole" and less processed - a great guideline on which we could all probably use a bit more education. We've also adopted the WHO guideline on added sugar, to keep it below 10 per cent of total energy intake, or 5 per cent for more benefit.

Added sugar means not only the white stuff but also fruit juice, honey and syrups. Percentage of total energy means nothing to most of us, of course. What we need to know is that 5 per cent is about 6tsp daily for adults, or 3tsp for kids.

It's fair to say our guidelines are sensible, and relatively useful. It's interesting though to look around the world at more radical approaches.

Brazil's guidelines also take into account the social and cultural aspects of eating.

They include advice to use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation and to limit ready-to-consume food and drink. And that's the end of the "what to eat" advice. The rest is about mindfulness, cooking and sharing. For example: "Eat regular meals, paying attention" and "Eat in company whenever possible".

My favourites are those encouraging cooking: "Develop, practice, share and enjoy your skills in food preparation and cooking" and "Plan your time to give meals and eating proper time and space".

The case could easily be made that really focusing on these sorts of things could have a real impact on a nation's health.

- Herald on Sunday

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