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Tracking Nutrition Trends survey shows Canadians making positive dietary changes

Registered Dietitian and Spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, Kate Comeau poses in this undated handout photo. More Canadians say they're implementing changes to improve their eating habits, but reading labels continues to present some difficulties, according to a new study. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Gilles Comeau

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Registered Dietitian and Spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada, Kate Comeau poses in this undated handout photo. More Canadians say they're implementing changes to improve their eating habits, but reading labels continues to present some difficulties, according to a new study. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Gilles Comeau

TORONTO - More Canadians think they're doing well when it comes to nutrition, according to a new study.

Tracking Nutrition Trends 2013 found that almost 80 per cent of Canadians consider their eating habits and health to be good to excellent, slightly higher than the results found in the previous survey in 2008. Despite this claim, fewer than two-thirds of Canadians report they're eating breakfast, though it was slightly higher at 63 per cent in 2013 versus 58 per cent in 2008.

"I think we can take that and say there's room for improvement, there's room for action and there's a need to communicate what are the simple solutions that Canadians can put into place," said Kate Comeau, registered dietitian and a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada.

The survey, which provides insight into Canadians' self-perceived nutrition knowledge and behaviours surrounding diet and food choice, was released Wednesday by the Canadian Foundation for Dietetic Research and Dietitians of Canada. It was conducted online last July of 2,004 adults across Canada.

Canadians seem to be embracing the idea that adopting good eating habits and lifestyle can contribute to better health, Comeau said. The survey found 92 per cent of Canadians had done something to improve or change their eating or drinking habits over the past year, with the top three being eating more fruits or vegetables, reducing salt/sodium and reducing sugar.

"I think that the message about sugar and sodium, those are two that have been coming out fairly often in the media and I think people are listening. They're simple things that people can be doing to continue on that path, things like satisfying your thirst with water to reduce your sugar intake," she said by phone from Montreal.

"Sometimes we feel as dietitians that that message is getting tired and people must be thinking we're broken records always talking about vegetables and fruits, but it really is so important and such a great thing that people can do for their overall health and it doesn't need to be complicated," Comeau added.

She suggests peeling, washing and chopping and roasting or grilling vegetables on the weekend so they're ready to include in meals during the week. Use up vegetables in a soup that can be heated in cold weather, a chilled soup like gazpacho in summer or pasta sauce.

A majority of Canadians (82 per cent) considered themselves very or somewhat knowledgeable about food and nutrition, yet the survey suggests their source of information might not always be the most credible. About half reported using the Internet, friends, relatives or colleagues, or magazines, and though they ranked their family physician (94 per cent) or dietitians (88 per cent) as the most credible sources, only 50 per cent and 21 per cent respectively said they received information from those sources.

"I think it's great people are using those easy-to-access sources of information and maybe that's a sign that dietitians and doctors need to keep working on being accessible, but when I think about young Canadians using the Internet for nutrition information there's really three red flags that I would point out," said Comeau.

"I would look for whether or not recommendations are given for a quick or miracle solution to a health problem, if the recommendations are based on personal stories instead of scientific evidence and if claims sound too good to be true or a single solution that would cure multiple problems."

The survey, which has been done eight times since 1989, showed 91 per cent of Canadians said taste is the No. 1 influence for food. "I thought it was important to think about ways to boost flavour without necessarily adding in the sugar, salt and fat that makes food so delicious," said Comeau, suggesting using fresh herbs, spice blends, lemon or lime juice and balsamic vinegar.

Comeau said it was encouraging that two-thirds were getting information from food product labels, consistent with the 2008 study. But also consistent with the previous study, less than half of Canadians used the information on food packages to determine how much of the product they or their family should eat.

"It's a great source of information and is readily available, but there is a certain amount of education and understanding that needs to happen to be able to use that information. ... Is it that the serving size didn't make sense to them because it was in grams? Are we doing enough with food labelling to help Canadians understand what's there?"

Canadians also looked at specific ingredients and nutrient levels when choosing products. "One of them was whether their food was a source of whole grains and I just thought it was important to point out that when we're choosing bread we're looking at the ingredient list as well, not just the front of the package. We want to look for whole-grain flour as the first ingredient because a source of whole grain doesn't always mean the product is 100 per cent whole grain."

The survey also showed two-thirds of Canadians use supplements, with vitamin D (32 per cent) and multi-vitamins (30 per cent) the most popular.

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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