With 32 published papers and a successfully defended thesis under her belt, Christen Rachul is the first-ever doctoral candidate to graduate from Carleton’s Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies.
On June 10, Rachul receives the first PhD of its kind at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Convocation ceremony, as well as a Senate Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement at the doctoral level. She joined the program in its inaugural year, 2012, and enjoyed a very busy four years.
“I didn’t entirely know what I was getting into,” she says. “But it was a great process. When I asked: ‘How is this going to work?’ they would ask me: ‘Well, what do you want to do?’”
The Edmonton native earned an MA in applied language studies from Carleton in 2008 and soon joined the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute as a research associate. With the creation of the new PhD program, Rachul returned to Ottawa to continue her research in health law and language studies that focused on Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide (CFG).
The guidelines developed by Health Canada outline nutritional information to help Canadians thwart obesity and chronic disease. According to Rachul’s findings, however, the out-dated document is in need of a complete overhaul.
“They tried to create this document for all Canadians, but it’s just so inaccessible for most people,” she says. “It looks at nutrients and health in ways that a lay person simply doesn’t think when they think about food.”
Now almost a decade old, the last update to CFG was in 2007. Rachul’s studies find that the guide does not necessarily help people understand which foods are good or bad for them. According to Health Canada, the familiar four-coloured rainbow of food groups is the most downloaded government document after tax forms. But that doesn’t mean its diagrams and measurements couldn’t better reflect the way Canadians cook.
For many years, Rachul studied how media coverage in health science affects public perceptions and even health policy.
“We don’t have to start doing more research, we have to pull from what’s already out there,” she says. “Jean-Claude Moubarac from the University of Montréal has been doing some really interesting research from a more social perspective. He studies how people participate in food practices.”
Moubarac’s research was integral in the 2014 update of Brazil’s Food Guide. Instead of grouping foods into the nutrients they offer, Brazil’s Ministry of Health rules out highly processed foods and recommends limited consumption of oils, salt and sugar. By explaining how ultra-processed foods can lead to chronic disease, the South American guide also encourages developing and sharing cooking skills.
A report released in March 2016 by a standing Senate committee has also called for a complete revision of the CFG. If Health Canada needs consultation beyond the Senate’s Obesity in Canada report or Brazil’s Food Guide, the federal agency need not look further than Rachul.
Now an authority on what the CFG contains and how it could be improved, Rachul hopes to eventually present her findings directly to Health Canada.
“The ongoing question is how to disseminate important knowledge without compromising scientific integrity,” she says. “I’m sympathetic with everyone who has to complete that process because it’s never going to be easy, but it’s extremely important to pursue.”