Agriculture and Nutrition

Good nutrition is vital for physical and mental health. The food we eat provides nutrients that support many biochemical processes within our bodies. These processes promote our overall wellbeing and help us resist diseases, such as diabetes and cardiovascular issues, thus contributing to longer life spans.

How does primary agriculture – raw foods, grown on farms – contribute to nutrition? Discover the benefits of nutritionally rich foods and dietary diversity in overcoming malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies.1 Modern diets in many parts of the world have seen an increase in processed and ultra-processed foods, while there have also been significant improvements in food safety, food distribution, and a wider variety of foods are available, including fresh fruits and vegetables. What policies in Canada support good nutrition? How can you get more involved with production processes, consumer choices, and the policies that regulate our food?

How can we talk about the nutritional components of the food we eat?

Macronutrients: carbohydratesA vital macronutrient in the human diet, serving as the body’s primary source of energy. Carbohydrates are crucial for brain function, serving as the main energy source for the brain and central nervous system. They provide fuel for muscles, which is especially important during physical activity. Additionally, carbohydrates play a role in sparing protein, minimizing the body’s use of protein as an energy source. Carbohydrates contribute to digestive health by providing essential fiber for maintaining regular bowel movements. They aid in blood sugar regulation, promote a sense of satiety, and serve as a vehicle for delivering essential nutrients, such as vitamins and minerals, found in various foods. Carbohydrates can be found in a wide range of foods, only some of which are listed here. Fibre is found in beans, whole grains, fruit, and lentils. Starch is found in beans, bread, pasta, vegetables. Sugars are found in fruit, juice, milk, and some vegetables. , fatsA macronutrient that helps your body grow and develop. Fats facilitate the absorption vitamins like A, D, E, and K. Fats are also integral to maintaining a healthy brain, regulating hormone production, and controlling inflammation. There are 3 different kinds of fat: (1) trans, (2) saturated, and (3) unsaturated. Trans fats can be found naturally in small amounts in some animal-based foods but are primarily formed through a process called hydrogenation, which turns liquid oils into solid fats for use in processed foods, like fried and baked goods, margarine, and certain snack products. Saturated fats are naturally occurring and found in various animal-based foods, including meat, poultry, dairy products, and some plant-based sources like coconut oil and palm oil. Unsaturated fats are considered heart-healthy fats due to their role in reducing cholesterol levels. These fats can be found in nuts, seeds, avocados, plant-based oils (e.g., olive, canola, and sunflower oils), fatty fish (e.g., salmon, trout), as well as soybeans and soy-based products like tofu. , and proteinsAn important macronutrient for maintaining overall health. Proteins play diverse roles in the body, aiding in tissue repair and growth, facilitating chemical reactions (enzyme function), contributing to hormone production, supporting the immune system, and enabling nutrient transportation, pH regulation, and muscle maintenance and function. Proteins are vital for maintaining healthy hair, skin, and nails, and they also play a role in appetite control. Similar to carbohydrates and fats, proteins serve as an energy source, providing calories. Common sources of protein-rich foods include dairy products, eggs, fish, legumes (e.g., beans, dried peas, lentils, soybeans), meat, poultry, as well as nuts and seeds. provide us with energy in the form of calories. Most of our energy should come from carbohydrates. Eliminating or seriously limiting any one of these groups of macronutrients from a diet isn’t healthy. Even cutting out fats could be harmful. Our bodies need fat to absorb certain vitamins.2

Micronutrients: vitamins and minerals are no less important than macronutrients, they’re just needed in lesser amounts. Micronutrients include vitamins such as C, D, and K, and minerals such as iron, magnesium, and calcium. While micronutrients don’t give us energy, they’re critical for many chemical reactions in our bodies, including extracting energy from food and creating new cells.3

What is the difference between vitamins and minerals? Where can we find them?

Vitamins are organic substances produced by plants or animals. They’re often called “essential” because they are not produced within the human body (except for vitamin D), yet they are required for normal bodily functions and good health. They must be obtained from external sources, primarily from food.4

Minerals are inorganic elements that originate in rocks, soil, or water. We absorb them indirectly through the consumption of plants or animals that have assimilated these minerals from soil and water. We eat rocks every day! For example, common table salt (sodium chloride) is derived from underground salt deposits and sea salt.5

Minerals and vitamins are often found together in primary agricultureFoods in their natural or minimally processed state, derived directly from soil and livestock, refer to the primary sector of agricultural production. This encompasses activities such as planting and harvesting crops, raising animals for meat or dairy products, and gathering natural products like fruits and vegetables. because they play complementary roles in the growth, health, and well-being of plants and animals, including humans. For instance, blueberries are a source of Vitamins B, B6, C and Minerals K, Ca, Mg, P, Fe, Mn, Cu.

Water also plays a fundamental role in a multitude of physiological functions that impact overall well-being. It plays a vital role in maintaining hydration, facilitating nutrient transport, aiding in digestion, regulating body temperature, lubricating joints, supporting detoxification, optimizing cognitive function, enhancing skin health, boosting energy levels, and promoting cellular health. Notably, many fruits, vegetables, and dairy products are rich sources of water. For example, tomatoes (94% water content), strawberries (90%), apples (84%), lettuce (90-95%), cabbage (92%), potatoes (80%), and milk (87-89%).

What is a balanced diet? And why is it important?

A balanced diet incorporates an appropriate mix of macronutrients and micronutrients essential for optimal health. Liebig’s law states that growth only occurs at the rate permitted by the most limiting factor, which means that if one nutrient is deficient, it can lead to health issues associated with that deficiency.

Extensive literature has shown that a non-balanced diet with mineral deficiencies leads to severe health problems. Conversely, excessive mineral intake can also negatively impact health. Mineral toxicity can disrupt the absorption and utilization of other minerals through various mechanisms in the body. A study conducted in Alberta showed that balancing vitamin BFor people who have gone through tough times, like the southern Alberta flood in 2013, those who took either B vitamins alone or a mix of different vitamins and minerals felt much better in just six weeks. Feelings of sadness, worry, and stress decreased by more than half. You can explore the study by Bonnie J. Kaplan, “A Randomized Trial of Nutrient Supplements…” published in Psychiatry Research (2015) for more details. levels in a diet reduces stress levels.

Source: Roussel et al. (2018)

If you’re interested in considering some controversial food categories that deliver important macronutrients, it’s worth considering beefThe unique profile of nutrients provided by beef are high-quality protein, B vitamins (B2, B3, B5, B6, B12), vitamin D, iron, zinc, phosphorus, selenium, potassium. This combination of nutrients makes beef a valuable source of nutrients for humans. Beef is also an important source of iron. This nutrient requirement is particularly pronounced among women and children, who face a higher risk of developing iron deficiencies. According to a study from 2017, if the United States eliminated all animal products, greenhouse gas emissions would only be reduced by 2.6% and would result in more overall calories consumed, increased carbohydrates, and more nutrient deficiencies. and canola oilEliminating fats entirely from our diet would have profound consequences for our health and well-being. Canola oil, derived from the seeds of the canola plant (a type of rapeseed), stands as one of the most widely produced and consumed vegetable oils in Canada. It is known for its heart-healthy fat profile, characterized by low saturated fat content and a high concentration of unsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. These unsaturated fats are considered beneficial for cardiovascular health and are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. . Eliminating primary agricultural products from our diets can have adverse health effects.

Dietary Trends: Primary Agriculture to Ultra-Processed Foods

The most substantial change in Canadian dietary patterns between the early 1900s and present day is the replacement of unprocessed or minimally processed foods for ready-to-consume, ultra-processed products.6 According to Statistics Canada, per capita sales of ultra-processed foods in 2016 were estimated at 275 kg per year in Canada, the fourth highest among 80 countries.7

The NOVA food classification system is widely used in nutrition and public health research to categorize food into four primary groups:

  1. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods: fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and lean meats, which undergo little or no processing and contain only a few ingredients.
  2. Processed culinary ingredients: typically extracted from unprocessed foods, ingredients such as oils, fats, sugars, and salt used in food preparation to enhance flavour or texture.
  3. Processed foods: foods that have undergone some processing, but still retain many of their original properties, such as canned vegetables, cheese, and freshly baked bread.
  4. Ultra-processed foods: highly processed foods that often contain multiple additives and bear little resemblance to their original sources. Sugary snacks, soft drinks, fast food, and many convenience items fit within this category.

Ultra-processed foods are typically energy-dense; high in sugars, unhealthy fats, and salt; and often lack essential nutrients. The consumption of ultra-processed foods is related to an increase in chronic diseases such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and metabolic syndrome, as well as obesity, which have amounted to a public health crisis in Canada. The cost to treat such diseases is now an intolerable burden on Canada’s health services.8 Many of the health symptoms we’re experiencing today can be attributed to malnutrition and nutrient deprivation.

Canadian Policymaking for Nutrition

Canada’s first food guide was published in July 1942, during the Second World War.9 At the time, it was released as the Official Food Rules, in response to a perceived wartime nutrition crisis. There was growing concern that Canadian soldiers, industrial workers, and mothers were not receiving adequate nutrition, and that this deficiency was negatively impacting the war effort. The Official Food Rules were developed as a tool to educate Canadians on proper nutrition, with the goal of ensuring they were in optimal physical condition to contribute effectively to the war effort.10 A model of protective foodsThe original food rules gave very specific advice about what to eat: how many pieces of bread, what kinds of vegetables, how many eggs, etc. It wasn’t a guide to all the foods you’re supposed to eat. It was written as a guide to food selection. The idea was that there are certain protective foods that are particularly nutritious and that all Canadians should be eating, so that once we eat those foods, we can eat whatever we want on top of that. The foods listed in the Rules were considered to be “health-protective.”.14 considered particularly nutritious, was the concept behind the rules. Throughout its evolution, the Canadian Food Guide steadfastly upheld its original purpose: to promote nutritional health by guiding food selection. It continues to be used to educate the public on healthy eating habits, manage healthcare budgets to reduce the cost of diet-related health issues, and influence government support for certain types of food and standards of food production.

Source: Lapum et al. (n.d.)

Health Canada is the federal department responsible for national public health. The department oversees the regulation of food safety, nutrition, and food labeling. Nutrition labelling is found on most packaged foods in Canada. This includes a nutrition facts table with information about serving size, number of calories in the serving size, and the amount of 12 nutrients expressed in units like grams (g) and per serving size percent daily values (% DVs). Packaged food products are also required to have an ingredient list and may include optional nutrition claims. Nutrition labelling is often found on processed foods rather than whole foods, which raises the question of whether this practice might obscure the inherent nutritional value of whole foods.For example, while half of the breakfast cereals found for sale in Toronto supermarkets had front-of-package references to fibre, such references were absent from 51 percent of canned and dry beans, 95 percent of nuts and seeds, and 96 percent of frozen and canned fruits and vegetables – all foods that are excellent natural sources of fibre.11

Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture

A paradigm shift could inform Canadian policymaking in the future. An approach to nutrition-sensitive agricultureNutrition-sensitive actions or policies target the underlying factors, systems and institutions that affect nutrition status and outcomes, such as education, agriculture, social protection, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), infectious disease control and reproductive health. (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2022). Agriculture is nutrition-sensitive when it addresses the underlying causes of malnutrition and seeks to maximize agriculture’s contribution to nutrition. focuses attention on farming practices and soil health that impact the nutritional content of food. The microbial loop, explored in One HealthOne Health is an integrated and unifying approach that aims to sustainably balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and ecosystems. (World Health Organization, Dec.2021)., is illustrated below.12 There are synergies and trade-offs related to dietary improvements and food production. Human, animal and environmental health is linked by a microbial loop that mediates the exchange of resources, chemicals, beneficial microorganisms, and pathogens.

Source: Singh et al. (2023)

Soil acts as a major source of microorganisms for plant, human and animal microbiomes. For example, soil microbiomes contribute to the gut microbiome of humans indirectly via the consumption of plant and animal microbiomes. Human activities, such as land and farming management practices and waste decomposition, in turn impact soil, plant and animal microbiomes.13

In summary, it is important to prioritize whole foods as the foundation of a balanced diet. By choosing primary agricultural products, we are opting to improve nutrient density, which contributes significantly to overall health and mental wellbeing.