Oct. 28, 2021

Dietary inequities persist across Canada, dietician's research finds

Dana Olstad's study finds persistent gap in diet quality between low and high socio-economic status households
Dana Olstad
Dietary inequities persist for Canadian adults and children, according to two studies recently published by Dana Olstad.

Diet plays a critical role in maintaining cardiovascular health. Yet according to two recent studies published by Cumming School of Medicine researcher Dr. Dana Olstad, PhD, many Canadians, including children, have poor diets — especially those who live in households with lower incomes and education levels. 

Olstad wants to change that. Her goal is to improve diet quality for socio-economically disadvantaged Canadians, providing them with the chance for better long-term health outcomes. 

“It’s not right that people with lower income or education have poorer diet quality,” says Olstad. “All people should have the same access to the resources they need for a healthy diet.” 

Both the study on Canadian children, published in the Journal of Nutrition, and on adults, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, used Statistics Canada data gathered in 2004 and 2015, the only two times since the 1970s the agency has collected comprehensive data on nutrition. Both studies included large samples with representation from across the country. 

The studies are unique. According to Olstad, American researchers are the only others to have published studies analyzing trends in inequities in diet quality at a national level. 

For Olstad’s research, people’s diets were scored out of a possible 100 points on factors like the amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, added sugars and sodium that were consumed. 

Most Canadians have poor diets but there are inequities

Olstad and her team found the average diet quality of Canadian children and adults improved slightly —  from 52 to 57 points and 55 to 59 points, respectively, between 2004 and 2015. However, given that a score of 100 represents a high-quality diet, these scores show that most adults and children in Canada have poor diets.

Dana Olstad

Dana Olstad recently published two studies looking at dietary inequity in the Canadian population.

Britton Ledingham for the Libin Cardiovascular Institute

The gaps between the most and least disadvantaged households ranged from seven to 11 points in adults, and five to nine points for kids, when based on household education levels. 

Groups with lower socio-economic positions had quality scores in the low 50’s, while those in more advantaged homes had scores closer to 60. 

While the gaps between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged adults and children were mostly stable over time, there was some evidence that these gaps widened for Canadian men and kids between the ages of six and 11. 

Inequities need to be addressed

Olstad says the studies highlight the importance of addressing inequities in diet quality in Canada, as dietary inequities may lead to inequities in chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. She believes these inequities should be addressed by policy-makers. 

“What we are doing now is not working. We need more robust measures in place to ensure people have equitable access to advanced education, and sufficient income to purchase necessities such as housing, food and utilities.” 

Dana Olstad is a registered dietitian and assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences, an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, and member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine.