While adults have slowly reduced their intake of damaging fats and stepped up their fruit and vegetable consumption over the past two decades, researchers at the Conference Board of Canada found that children's eating habits have continually deteriorated over the same period.
Even among adults, dietary patterns haven't shifted enough to effectively ward off chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, the board said.
Study lead researcher Daniel Munro said the board came to its conclusions by analyzing statistical data on food choices compiled over the past 20 to 30 years by agencies such as Statistics Canada and Health Canada.
Analyzing those trends, Munro said, paints a comprehensive picture of a population that isn't doing what it could to protect itself from chronic conditions.
"It's not the individual ingredients or individual foods that matter," Munro said in a telephone interview from Ottawa. "It's the long-term dietary patterns that affect the risk of chronic disease."
Canadians have been heeding some of the lessons science has spent the past few decades trying to teach, Munro said.
The study found that adults have slowly been increasing the number of fruits and vegetables they consume each day, with about half of Canadian women and 40 per cent of men currently eating the recommended minimum of five servings for day. Munro said Canadians have also made progress on reducing the number of trans fats in the average diet.
The national dietary vice, he said, appears to be sodium. Canadians consume an average of 3,400 milligrams per day, well above the maximum recommended amount of 2,300. Canada's processed food feeds the issue by containing more salt than its brand equivalents in the U.S., the study found.
Canadians also have a weakness for sugar and a tendency to overestimate their physical activity levels, the study suggested, adding that 62 per cent of Canadians were considered overweight or obese by 2008.
Munro said these troubling trends were even more striking in the country's children, who don't appear to be benefiting from the limited wisdom their parents have acquired over the years.
A tenth of children between two and 17 are obese, Munro said, adding a quarter of the population is considered overweight.
The nutritional state of the adult population already puts the country's health system under considerable strain, Munro said. Treatments for cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes _ coupled with the impact on economic productivity _ cost upwards of $47 billion in 2011, he added.
Failure to address child eating habits, he said, will lead to a spike in chronic diseases that will place the health system under still more strain.
"Dietary patterns that are formed earlier in life tend to stick. So if we don't begin to address the dietary patterns of children now, then we will face an even greater burden of chronic disease later that will be much harder to change," Munro said.
"There is some expectation among some people that once the baby boomer generation gets through, that some of these age-related things that we see will decrease, but if dietary patterns of children are any indication, that might not be the case."
Munro called on schools to take a more active role in educating kids about nutrition, saying the over-saturated food market contains a bewildering variety of both healthy and unhealthy options that pose challenges even for adults.
The study also made other recommendations to tackle the more widespread nutritional issues facing the wider population. Government initiatives should raise awareness about the dangers of an unbalanced diet and put pressure on industry to reformulate their products to contain fewer harmful ingredients, Munro said.
For the obese, the Conference Board is recommending that resources be made available at the primary care level in order to make it easier for people to overcome the stigma of seeking treatment for their weight.