COVER

THE DILEMMA OF DIETS

EXPERTS TEACH CANADIANS BETTER HABITS

NORA UNDERWOOD October 22 1990
COVER

THE DILEMMA OF DIETS

EXPERTS TEACH CANADIANS BETTER HABITS

NORA UNDERWOOD October 22 1990

THE DILEMMA OF DIETS

COVER

EXPERTS TEACH CANADIANS BETTER HABITS

As a nutritionist in Toronto's financial district, Barbie Casselman says that she hears a lot of stories about strange eating habits. But few could

top the confession from one overweight company president who told her that, when he goes to the movies, he likes to mix a couple of boxes of Smarties into a large box of buttered popcorn. After he had confessed, Casselman recalls, the executive looked at her and said, “Barbie, I didn’t get this way by eating normally.” Casselman said that her clients include some high-powered Bay Street executives and several major Canadian financial institutions who believe that sound eating habits can lead to better health and increased productivity. And across the country, increasingly health-conscious individuals are turning to nutritionists and food specialists for help with everything from controlling weight to fine-tuning an already balanced diet. According to many experts, the days are fast disappearing when people turned to nutrition specialists only when they wanted to lose excess or unwanted weight. Some experts say

that the fitness craze of the past decade has led to increased interest in food and nutrition. Now, many health-conscious Canadians are starting to incorporate dietary changes into their everyday lives. And nutrition experts add that the changes they recommend are relatively simple—and painless—to adopt: less dietary fat, more carbohydrates from bread and pasta and, above all, moderate helpings. Risks: Public interest in healthy eating habits has also been stimulated by scientific studies showing that a balanced and nutritious diet can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, two leading causes of death in Canada. “The profession is still kind of reeling from public acceptance,” said Sheila Murphy, a consulting nutritionist in Montreal. “Food and nutrition have a terrific impact on health in general. Ten years ago, if you had said cancer was related to nutrition, people would have said you were a quack.” Still, the increased knowledge has left many people confused about what exactly they should be eating. Murphy said that some of the people she has worked with had eliminated

such things as bread, potatoes and pasta in the belief that it would help keep their weight under control. In the midto late 1980s, during the height of the scare about high cholesterol and heart disease, others summarily dropped red meats—including beef, lamb and pork— from their diets. “People have made changes—but not always the right changes,” said Murphy. Nutrition experts now stress that a healthy diet can include all kinds of foods, including pastas, bread, red meats, dairy products and even calorie-laden creamy desserts, providing everything is consumed in moderation. Declared Frances Berkoff, a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and author of the 1989 book Power Eating “People are starting to see that moderation makes sense. There really shouldn’t be anything that people don’t eat.” The new interest in diet prompted Health and Welfare Canada to publish a 15-page booklet last year entitled Nutrition Recommendations: A Call for Action. The booklet contained ^ numerous suggestions aimed at improving eat-

ing habits and clearing up some of the confusion surrounding the notion of a balanced diet. Among the guidelines: 55 per cent of the Canadian diet should comprise carbohydrates, including breads, cereals and other grain products; it should include no more than 30 per cent fat (the national average intake is about 38 per cent); and the salt content of the diet, which currently averages three to four grams a day, should be reduced. Said federal Health Minister Perrin Beatty at the time of the report’s release: “There are no magic bullets. If you want to avoid cancer or heart disease, simply eating oat bran isn’t going to do that.”

Like many other nutritionists in private practice, Casselman said that she tries to develop a sensible diet for each client based on individual tastes and habits. And she stresses that she does not offer secret formulas or shortcuts to losing weight.

Unlike traditional nutritionists, who usually see a patient only once or twice, Casselman follows up her dietary advice with a monitoring system that is a mixture of encouragement and policing.

She weighs her clients twice a week, recommends that they keep a daily food diary, which she reviews with them, and encourages them when their good intentions temporarily slip and they fall into old habits.

Dietary experts who work with business executives or their companies say that they frequently receive inquiries about eating nutritional meals in restaurants. In addition to recommending that

clients order lighter sauces -

and request that salad dressing be served on the side, nutritionists advise people to avoid fatty foods in restaurant menus and eat smaller portions. Said Marilyn Rokosh, a dietitian who deals with clientele similar to Casselman’s at the King Ranch, an exclusive health spa 35 km north of Toronto: “If you downsize the portioning, you can get by on even the worst food in the world.”

Productive: The growing interest in healthy diets also has caught the attention of some of Canada’s largest companies, who see good nutrition as a way of improving employee productivity. Casselman said that the TorontoDominion Bank’s medical consultant has referred several of the institution’s senior executives to her for dietary counselling, and other bank employees have followed. For her part, Murphy has instructed employees at the National Film Board in Montreal and the explosives division of chemical manufacturer CIL Inc. on basic nutritional trends. She said that she has also worked with employees of Montrealbased Canadelle Inc., manufacturers of the Wonderbra line of women’s undergarments.

Murphy added that she has attended regional meetings in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver to teach sales staff how to eat nutritionally while travelling on business. As well, she helps to plan menus at several corporate cafeterias. Said Murphy: “Employers realize that nutrition is directly related to how people feel, and that has a lot to do with how productive they are.”

Chefs and dietitians who run cooking schools report that they have seen a huge increase over the past decade in the numbers of people who want to learn how to make healthy, interesting food at home. Bonnie Stem, who founded a cooking school in a Toronto storefront in 1973, initially taught only 200 students per

year. Now, her school attracts 1,500 people annually. Stem, who gives lessons in preparing international gourmet dishes, said that she has witnessed a dramatic change in public attitudes towards food over the past 17 years. “In 1973, people were more rigid. They had to follow recipes,” said Stem. “In the 1980s, people were crazy about their appearance—crazy about keeping their weight and cholesterol under control. They got to be afraid of their food—of their meat and their desserts.” Now, Stem added, “people are keeping calm about their eating. They’re cutting down on the fat, but they’re not terrified anymore.”

Some nutritionists contend that dietary trends can be shaped by social issues. Vancouver nutritionist Vasanto Crawford said that increasing public concern with the environment and animal welfare has made vegetarianism much more popular in recent years. Although there are no firm statistics on the number of practising vegetarians in Canada, a 1988 restaurant guide published by the Illinoisbased Vegetarian Times magazine listed more than 1,000 vegetarian restaurants in Canada

and the United States. By comparison, the guide listed only 350 in 1978. Said Crawford: “Our thinking is really changing. I really think we’re expanding our food horizons.”

Gourmet: And Crawford has been able to take advantage of the changing attitudes towards diet. In 1982, she started offering a series of vegetarian cooking classes twice a year. Initially, she attracted only about 30 students. Now, she offers four different courses that draw over 700 students per year. Crawford said that she teaches the fundamentals of vegetarianism, how to make fast-food vegetable dishes, gourmet vegetarianism and Oriental vegetarianism.

As more people turn towards vegetarianism, others are going even further in their pursuit of nutritious food. One trend to emerge in the late 1970s was macrobiotic cooking, which shuns excessively processed or packaged food and avoids the use of meat, dairy products and sugar. In North America, that school of cooking, which draws on Oriental traditions, started in Massachusetts and California and spread through the United States and into Canada. Halifax chef Muriel Vibert, who teaches macrobiotic cooking classes, said that the principal ingredients are whole grains such as millet, vegetables, beans and seaweed. The food—which proponents say promotes overall spiritual, physical and mental health—is steamed, boiled, baked or pressurecooked, but only occasionally fried, in order to minimize the fat content. Vibert said that

her former employer Beulah

Murphy, who owns a restaurant called Mrs. Murphy’s Kitchen, added macrobiotic dishes to the regular luncheon menu five years ago. She said that a third of the 75 to 100 customers served during an average lunch hour ordered the macrobiotic specials. Said Vibert: “It’s a very simple way to cook, but that’s why it’s difficult for people.”

Regardless of what type of nutritional advice they are offering, food experts agree that their clients are far more knowledgeable than people once were about diets. And they say that most clients understand clearly the connection between a good diet and good health. But they add that, with a majority of the Canadian population still overweight—and therefore not eating right—there is still a long way to go. “The goal of food professionals,” says Stem, “is to make people not take it all so seriously— to make people love their food and not be afraid of it.” It is an idea whose time has surely arrived.

NORA UNDERWOOD with

BRENDA DALGLISH