Blog Behavioral/Mental Health

Changing from the inside out & from the bottom up: How nutritional guidelines can empower & educate consumers while motivating industry change

Written by Diana Parra Perez, PhD, MPH, assistant professor at the Brown School 

At publishing, Professor Perez was assistant professor of physical therapy at the School of Medicine

“Garbage disguised as food triumphs: this industry conquers the palates of the world and reduces the traditions of the local cuisine to shreds. The customs of good food that come from afar, have, in some countries, thousands of years of refinement and diversity, and it is a collective inheritance that is in some way in the furnaces of all and not only on the table of the rich.

These traditions, these signs of cultural identity, these festivals of life, are overwhelmed by the introduction of unique chemical knowledge: the globalization of the hamburger, the dictatorship of fast food. The plasticization of food on a global scale, the work of McDonald’s, Burger King and other factories, violates the right to self-determination of cooking: a sacred right, because the mouth, is one of the doors of the soul.”

– Eduardo Galeano, The Empire of Consumption

Evidence about the harmful effects of ultra-processed products (UPP) is growing and accumulating. Various studies have found a high consumption of these types of products to be correlated with a higher prevalence of overweight, obesity, metabolic disorders, cancer, increased gestational weight gain and neonatal body fat.

Ultra-processed products are defined as substances derived from foods by baking, frying, extruding, moulding, re-shaping, hydrogenation, and hydrolysis. They generally include a large number of additives such as preservatives, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colorants, flavours, and processing aids, but little or no whole food. They may be fortified with micronutrients. The aim is to create durable, convenient, and palatable ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat food products suitable to be consumed as snacks or to replace freshly prepared food-based dishes and meals.

A recent industry poll in Brazil found that consumers are increasingly seeing UPP as harmful and less desirable to their health. This finding suggests that the narrative around nutrition in Brazil is changing since the publication of their new dietary guidelines back in 2014 and it could be promoting positive change in the food industry to produce, develop, and promote healthier products. I had the opportunity to spend one year in Brazil during my postdoctoral studies in 2014, working along side the team responsible for developing the new dietary guidelines at the University of Sao Paulo, under the leadership of Professor Carlos Monteiro.

The dietary guidelines of Brazil have been described as one of the best nutritional guidelines in the world and many countries in Latin America, including Uruguay, are following suit developing new dietary guidelines using the Brazilian model. The message of the guidelines is simple and easy to grasp, the number one golden rule is to always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and to develop culinary skills to prepare and cook your own meals as much as possible. The guidelines also place emphasis not only on what you eat, but also on how you eat it, in what type of environments, and with whom, and what is the environmental impact of the foods you are choosing to buy and consume.

Here are the ten steps to healthy diets based on the Brazilian Guidelines:

  1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet. Natural or minimally processed foods, in great variety, and mainly of plant origin, are the basis for diets that are nutritionally balanced, delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.
  2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary preparations.
  3. Limit consumption of processed foods. Processed foods include foods manufactured with the addition of salt or sugar or other substances of culinary use to unprocessed or minimally processed foods, such as canned food and simple breads and cheese. In small amounts, processed foods can be used as ingredients in dishes and meals based on natural or minimally processed foods.
  4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed foods. Because of their ingredients, ultra-processed foods such as salty, fatty packaged snacks, soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, and instant noodles, are nutritionally unbalanced. As a result of their formulation and presentation, they tend to be consumed in excess, and displace natural or minimally processed foods.
  5. Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company.
  6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods. Shop in supermarkets and municipal and farmers markets, or buy directly from producers or other places, that sell varieties of natural or minimally processed foods. Prefer vegetables and fruits that are locally grown in season. Whenever possible, buy organic and agro-ecological based foods, preferably directly from the producers.
  7. Develop, exercise, and share cooking skills.
  8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life.
  9. When eating out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals.
  10. Be critical of food advertising and marketing. The purpose of advertising is to increase product sales, and not to inform or educate people.

Read more information about the Brazilian dietary guidelines. Read Dietary Guidelines from Uruguay here.