Canadians should pay attention to the overall quality of their diet instead of just focusing on saturated fats or other individual nutrients, the Heart and Stroke Foundation now recommends.

Saturated fat intake is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, which are the leading cause of death in Canada, responsible for 27 per cent of all deaths, according to Statistics Canada.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation convened a panel of experts to review the evidence on saturated fat and give straightforward advice.  The group released its new position statement on Thursday.

"Don't just cut the fat, cut the crap," said Christine Le Grand, a specialist with the Heart and Stroke Foundation in Ottawa. "Avoid all highly processed foods."

Food Inflation 20110308

The Heart and Stroke Foundation says Canadians should eat more fruit and vegetables and avoid highly processed foods. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

It's a different way of looking at diet, Le Grand said, based on the quality of fat we're eating, not just the quantity.

Heart and Stroke urges Canadians to go back to basics:

  • Cook from scratch at home as much as possible with whole ingredients.
  • Teach children and young people how to cook, including through home economics classes in school.
  • Pay attention to portion sizes.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet with a variety of natural and whole foods.
  • Eat fewer highly processed foods such as sugary drinks, sweets, salty snacks and processed meats with many ingredients, additives and preservatives.

It's the saturated fat found in fried and highly processed foods that's of concern, the charity said.

The group would also like people to promote and encourage food policies that create a healthier environment, such as a ban on advertising food and beverages to children and urging stores to no longer place unhealthy options at eye level or at checkouts to encourage people to choose healthier options.

About 60 per cent of adults in Canada don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. "There's nowhere to go but up. There's nowhere to go but improve our diets," she said.

Avoid half of what we're eating

The position statement notes that between 1938 and 2011, the share of Canadians' food budget that was spent on natural and minimally processed foods fell from 34.3 per cent to 25.6 per cent. At the same time, the share that was spent on more processed foods rose from 28.7 per cent to 61.7 per cent.

Jean-Claude Moubarac is a researcher in the nutrition department at the University of Montreal. Last year, he published a study cited by Heart and Stroke on consumption trends in Canada from 1938 to 2011 for "ultra-processed foods." These are nutritionally unbalanced foods high in sugar, fat and salt manufactured in a way to promote over-consumption and are associated with weight gain and high blood pressure, he said.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include soft drinks, packaged fruit juices, cookies, ice cream, salty snacks, ready meals and bottled sauces — industrially transformed foods that Moubarac said haven't really been taken into account in nutritional research.

"Our estimation is that Canadians on average are consuming 50 per cent of their daily calories from ultra-processed," Moubarac said.  "Half of what we eat is made of stuff we should be avoiding."

Like the Heart and Stroke Foundation,  Moubarac encourages people to cook at home from scratch.

"When you cook at home, the purpose is to nourish. When you use ultra-processed product, the purpose is really to have a product you can sell."

Le Grand hopes industries will be challenged to reformulate products.