U of A based initiative has released food guidelines aiming to improve the health of Canadians

A project based at the University of Alberta, Housing for Health, has released food and beverage guidelines. The Healthier Food and Beverage Guidelines for Public Events is one of their several initiatives aiming to improve the health of Canadians.

Dr. Karen Lee, the director for Housing for Health, is an associate professor in the department of medicine at the U of A. Dr. Lee and Shanique Killingbeck, Housing for Health project partnership coordinator, provided insight into the motives and future goals of these guidelines. Dr. Lee said that communities are not necessarily designed for people to stay socially connected.

“We don’t have policies for all neighborhoods having play spaces. We don’t necessarily have access to bike lanes, to transit, and sometimes even to sidewalks,” Dr. Lee said.

In Canada, the leading causes of death and disability are a group of diseases called non-communicable diseases (NCDs). They include poor mental health, chronic heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Some key protective factors against NCDs are not smoking, drinking in moderation, eating healthy, exercising regularly, and being regularly social. While there are policies in place such as smoke-free building laws and tobacco acts, the key protective factors against NCDs are less addressed in government policies, Dr. Lee said.

At the request of Health Canada, Lee wrote the five Housing for Health Guidelines after working 12 years for the New York City Department of Health. There, she created a number of processes where they built partnerships with different departments such as the housing sector, designers, parks and recreation, transportation, and others to improve the buildings and streets to make them healthier.

Lee said the Housing for Health project aims to address NCDs with physical activity, healthy eating, and social connection.

“In New York, we did this and in less than one decade, thinking about home neighborhood settings and daycare settings, we were able to improve life expectancy and childhood obesity.”

One important aspect of healthy living is diet. The Housing for Health project drafted a set of guidelines partnered with Alberta Health Services dieticians and Alberta Parks and Recreation. The partnership helped to promote healthy living and to distribute these guidelines.

Lee said that the goal is to make it “easier to be healthy.”

“Being less exposed to unhealthy foods and beverages would do so… our aim is to make [public events] so that it is easier for people to make healthier choices.”

The project is funded by a Public Health Agency of Canada grant to the Division of Preventive Medicine at the U of A.

In addition to the Healthier Food and Beverage Guidelines for Public Events, there is a set of Healthy Community Guidelines set to be released in 2023. These guidelines will address all five aspects at the neighborhood, site, building, and community levels.

Housing for Health is currently doing literature reviews on different strategies for these new guidelines for community members such as students who are interested in making their neighborhood healthier. They are a broad set of guidelines, with a baseline to provide healthier opportunities overall, with the removal of unhealthy options.

Pilot studies in Canada are currently underway within three developments in Edmonton, Whitecourt, and Leduc. The project hopes to demonstrate that regardless of the community, they can improve the environment of the neighborhoods to improve health. This is done through GPS devices and surveys that measure up to a year later if participant’s health and well-being has improved, compared to existing development control sites.

Students interested in healthy communities can also check out a book by Dr. Lee called Fit Cities. Interested grad students from any faculty can also check out MED 585, a three-credit course offered and completed within one week during February reading week each year.

“Interested students can reach out to us and participate in helping with developing and planning these initiatives,” Lee said.

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