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The headlines in nutrition news this year brought food controversies, conflicting study findings and some encouraging discoveries.

We welcomed the news that coffee and tea can help reduce diabetes risk, and were encouraged by the health benefits of vegetarian diets.

But along with the good came the less positive news. The threat of salmonella food poisoning left many people tossing out their favourite snacks. Obesity rates climbed, and our national diet score was less than stellar.

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As 2009 draws to a close, here's a look at the nutritional highs and lows through the year.

Peanut recall

Food-safety concerns hit headlines in January, when a U.S. salmonella outbreak was traced to the Peanut Corp. of America's processing plant in Georgia. The company's peanuts made their way into thousands of foods made by hundreds of companies, including many in Canada.

As the investigation continued, Canadians were warned to avoid more than 200 foods that might be contaminated, including certain brands of ice cream, cookies, candy, granola bars and energy bars.

The final count: more than 700 people became ill and nine died across the United States.

Calories, not content

Folks wanting to shed pounds got good news in February when researchers at Harvard School of Public Health concluded that as long as a diet reduces calories and is heart-healthy, it will help you lose weight no matter what the proportion of protein, carbohydrates and fat it contains.

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In the Pounds Lost study, 811 overweight or obese adults were assigned to one of four diets with different fat, protein and carbohydrate contents.

All diets used the same calorie-reduction goals and were low in saturated fat and high in fibre.

On average, all groups lost 13 pounds at six months and maintained a nine-pound loss at two years. All diets improved blood pressure, lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol and raised HDL (good) cholesterol.

The bottom line: To lose weight, focus on reducing calorie intake rather than fretting over a particular proportion of carbohydrate, protein or fat.

A nod to vegetarians

Anyone thinking that vegetarian diets were risky was told otherwise when the Dietitians of Canada and the American Dietetic Association issued a joint statement in June.

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After reviewing the most current science, the report concluded that a well-planned vegetarian diet is healthy for people of all ages, including infants, children, teenagers and pregnant women.

What's more, vegetarian diets were linked with better health, including leaner bodies, lower cholesterol levels, reduced risk of heart disease, and lower cancer rates.

Roughly 4 per cent of Canadian adults follow a vegetarian diet, a number that's expected to increase over the next decade.

Rising obesity

There was no sign of the obesity epidemic slowing this year. In June, Statistics Canada announced results from the 2008 Canadian Community Health Survey, which measured the body mass index of more than 35,000 Canadians. The news wasn't good.

In 2008, 51 per cent of Canadians are overweight or obese, the study found. Of those, 17 per cent are obese, up from 15 per cent in 2003.

Obesity rates climbed for both men and women - today, 18 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women are obese. The highest rate of obesity (22 per cent) was among 55- to 64-year-olds: 24 per cent of men and 21 per cent of women.

(Body mass index is calculated as your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in metres. For adults, a BMI of 25 or more signals overweight; 30 or more indicates obesity.)

Mediocre diet scores

When it comes to our food intake, it seems there's room for improvement for Canadians of all ages, especially when it comes to dark green and orange vegetables and fruits.

A Statistics Canada study released in August scored the food intake of 35,107 Canadians aged 2 and older to determine how well they followed Canada's Food Guide.

Our average score was 58.8 out of a possible 100 (a score below 50 was considered low, above 80 high, and between 50 and 80 middle-of -the-road).

One in six Canadians scored below 50, and less than 1 per cent achieved over 80. Children aged 2 to 8 were the healthiest eaters, scoring at least 65.

The food guide recommends that Canadians consume seven to 10 daily servings of vegetables and fruit combined (children should get four to six). Canadians of all ages are advised to eat at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day to increase their intake of folate and beta-carotene.

Salted to a fault

Sodium grabbed headlines in September when the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a health-advocacy group, published an online report suggesting that sodium kills more Canadians than any other chemical substance.

The report revealed wide variations in sodium among groups of similar foods sold in Canadian grocery stores and restaurants. For example, a large order of restaurant French fries tested ranged from a low of 100 milligrams to a high of 1,190 milligrams of sodium.

The variations found in 49 different food categories showed that companies could make foods with less salt if they chose to.

Benefits of a cuppa

The year ended on a positive note for coffee and tea drinkers. Earlier this month, a review of 18 studies concluded that drinking three to four cups of coffee a day - versus two or less - was linked with a 25-per-cent lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. The results were similar for tea and decaf.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is

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