Canada’s Food Guide makeover isn’t perfect, but it was long overdue

food

So long, 2007. I’ve long stopped reading Twilight, wearing low rise bootcut jeans, and streaking my hair pink. Now, Canada’s Food Guide has also gotten over that era.

On Tuesday, the federal government released a teaser of the new Canadian food guide in the first update since 2007. It’s one quite different than the four food group rainbow that has actually been the symbol of healthy eating for four decades.

Instead of poorly represented “food groups” heavily influenced by food marketers and flawed servings sizes, the new guide focuses on looser guidelines based on whole foods and variety. The image of this guiding light towards healthy eating? A plate.

IMAGE FROM HEALTH CANADA • ILLUSTRATIONS BY TRISH MCALASTER

It’s not perfect

I have a couple “beefs” with the guide. For example, it vilifies saturated fat and emphasizes leaner meats and lower fat dairy products, probably thanks to a lot of conflicting research you may be aware of.

Of course saturated fat has a place in a healthy diet for those who like to eat things like beef and cheese. That said, it’s also good if people don’t solely rely on these foods to fill their plates.

If there’s one fat we should be calling out, it’s trans fat (Cheetohs are great, but they aren’t necessary). I didn’t see this called out anywhere in the guide, which almost makes me wonder if it’s a typo…

The topic of food security also seems to be skimmed over and some people are asking how they can expect to afford this “diet”. There are definitely ways to do so, but when you’re making big changes to your eating habits on a low income, it can take a lot of preparation and research–especially in the beginning.

The good news is that apparently there will be a document released later this year that focuses on considerations for Indigenous peoples, who have a higher rate of types 2 diabetes and more food insecurity than other Canadians.

It’s not possible to make a “perfect” universal food guide, because diet isn’t one size fits all. It’s deeply personal.

But the purpose of the guide is to outline basic recommendations for a healthy diet to the general population. For those who don’t know where to start, it’s a great conversation starter and something to strive for.

So long, 4 food groups

While the latest version was most recently tweaked in 2007, the four food groups have remained pretty much the same since 1977. You can probably recite the groups after growing up with them drilled into your brain: Milk and milk products, meat and alternatives, grain products, and fruits (including fruit juices) and vegetables.

It’s hardly a secret that the old version was heavily influenced by food marketers, specifically the dairy industry, fruit juice companies, and cereal producers.

The 2019 guide seems to be more independent. Perhaps there was still some behind the scenes shenagins (perhaps by grain producers), but it focusses on a wiser, more reasonable balance, in general.

The guide now breaks your “plate” into three main sections: whole fruits and/or vegetables, whole grain choices, and proteins, which include beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, meats and poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products. It covers a wider variety of choices to hopefully satisfy most diets. Ie: you don’t NEED milk but, if you like it, have it.

Proportion vs. Portion

Once upon a time, the guide gave recommendations to eat a specific number of serving sizes across each of the groups and information about what made up a serving size for each type of food.

There were several issues with this. First, it was complicated. People were either throwing those guidelines out the window anyway or they were following them like a religious leader.

Second, portions are different for every body and they vary day to day. Some people want to shed weight, others are trying to gain weight. Some people are extremely active, others have desk jobs. Our hunger levels sway based on our activities, our hormones, our genes, emotions, and our rising moon (maybe not that one?). Portions did not belong in this general guide.

There will be a version coming out for doctors, nursing homes, and the like, but for the general population, general proportions do the trick. It offers a simple visualization that could help people load their plates a little more mindfully: about half your plate with fruits/veggies, a quarter with other carbs, and a quarter with protein. You may sway from this based on your fitness/health goals or preferences and that’s fine.

If you value your health, include a variety of foods in your day to day meals and eat a lot of plants because they’re good for you, okay? Get over it. Oh yeah, and it emphasizes water, which is crucial to your health and survival, ya know? Drink it. Drink more.

Calling out things to limit

One of the best things about the updated guide is that it finally names certain foods that should be limited, including “processed and prepared foods that are high in sodium, free sugars, and saturated fats”. (Again, I don’t agree with the last one and believe it should read trans fats instead.)

A few days ago, fruit juice was grouped in with whole fruits and vegetables – now it’s hanging out with soda pop in the sugary drinks section. This serves as an important reminder that, no, that juice box isn’t just like eating an apple.

It also calls out alcohol, hidden sugar in processed food, and exposure to food marketing.

Before you freak out and ask “But what about joy?!” – it doesn’t say to eliminate them from your diet. And you shouldn’t. It channels a mindset that sees these things as treats – minor additions to a whole foods diet. So have a juice box, but also have a real apple. Drink a bottle of wine this weekend, eat a cookie after dinner (I know I do that one almost daily). That is fine. Encouraged in my books, because completely restrciting yourself usually only leads to worse outcomes like junk food relapse.

Hint: these things all taste even better when they are “treats”.

Keep it simple

Finally, there’s an update to the guide that makes me especially happy – the section on eating habits. They may seem obvious, but in reality, these things tend to slip away in day to day life for many people.

  • Be mindful of your eating habits
    • Take time to eat
    • Notice when you are hungry and when you are full
  • Cook more often
    • Plan what you eat
    • Involve others in planning and preparing meals and eat with others
    • Culture and food tradition can be a part of healthy eating
    • Enjoy your food E

“It doesn’t need to be complicated folks,” Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor told The Globe and Mail. “It just needs to be nutritious, and, might I dare say, fun.” Yes, girl.

It’s true – eating “well” doesn’t have to be a complicated process. That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard sometimes. Our world today can make certain whole foods expensive and our busy lives don’t exactly make it easy to prepare an organic feast every evening. But you don’t have to. You don’t need to only buy organic grass-fed, rainbow-massaged beef or make your own almond milk from scratch. By putting just a little more planning and thought into your meals, you’ll find endless options for a diet full of variety. And I think this new guide offers a great starting resource.

Unfortunately, fresh whole foods can be difficult to obtain for certain populations, such as the small communities in Northern Canada. My hope is that this new less industry-based food guide is a sign further improvements are coming for those in economically or geographically difficult places.

Just remember that knowledge is power. Know that food marketer’s job is to sell you food, not to make you healthy. Stash a few easy and nutritious meals and snack ideas up your sleeve. Prep some of your week’s food if you need to. Be mindful and aware of nutrition basics. Eat lots of plants. Also eat dessert.

It may be an adjustment, but learning new habits while also giving yourself freedom to enjoy food can be life-changing.

Want a hand implementing new habits in your busy schedule? I can help

I’d love to help you come up with a plan. Check out my meal planning page for more info.

Extra resource: Check out a full history of Canada’s Food Guide here.

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