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Nutrition

Honourable Senators, government intervention in personal nutrition and food choices has been the subject of heated debate for years. I strongly disagree that the government should dictate what we put in our mouths. Canadians have a responsibility to choose what they eat, and they must take initiative to educate themselves on the health consequences that go along with their choices.

Rather than imposing regulations, our government has been working very closely with the food and beverage industry to voluntarily reduce such additives as trans fats, salt and sugar. To assist consumers in making informed food choices, our government made nutrition labelling for most prepackaged foods mandatory in 2007, and our government has gone much further in educating Canadians to make healthier lifestyle decisions.

Today, the Health Canada website goes beyond Canada's Food Guide. There are details of the ingredients in most foods, including fast foods and brand-name prepared foods. It is extremely simple to determine levels of all fats, salt, sugar and calories. There are recommended daily calorie guides, as well as portion sizes. There are user-friendly interactive tools to assist in calculating nutrients, designing menus and tracking consumption.

The industry has followed suit. Almost all fast food restaurants publish nutrition charts on their websites for the menu choices they offer. Grocery shelves stock numerous products that are lower in fat, lower in sodium, lower in sugar and lower in calories. Still, there is the elephant in the room — or should I say on the plate: portion size — one that we can control.

Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital recently reviewed 40 published studies on whether sugar is one of the culprits in the obesity epidemic. They found that sugar had no effect on weight compared with diets that provided the same calories from other carbohydrates. So what is the culprit? Surprise, surprise! We are back to the elephant! It is portion size. It is as simple as the amount of calories we eat. Over-consumption is the guilty party.

The portion size for salad is a small plate, not a huge bowl soaked in fat-filled toppings and dressing. A portion of protein is four ounces — not a 12-ounce steak, half a chicken or a triple burger with cheese and bacon. Potatoes are not bad for you, but when the potato weighs as much as an entire squash, it poses a problem. What about those gigantic muffins that probably contain two meals' worth of calories and an entire day's recommended consumption of sugar, fat and carbohydrates? You get the idea.

The damaging effects of poor nutrition, supersized portions and lack of exercise are everywhere — in ads, on websites, in health-related articles and in books and magazines. I agree the government should educate, recommend and provide helpful tools, but it should never assume responsibility for behaviour. Canadians must take their lives into their own hands when it comes to their health and the health of their families.