The Canada’s Food Guide has been in the media lately. Headlines read “Canada’s “dated” food guide needs drastic overhaul”, “critics demand drastic changes now”, “The Canada’s Food Guide is Killing you!”. These sensationalized headlines have caught my attention, and I imagine they would have caught my attention even if I wasn’t in the dietetics profession. For any self-proclaimed ‘foodie’ or anyone interested in their health, I imagine that these headlines are alarming and confusing.
A lot of this backlash comes on the heels of recommendations made in March 2016 by the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. They released a report pushing for a national campaign to combat obesity and a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks and a direct call to immediately and completely revise Canada’s Food Guide, claiming that it needs to be more evidence-based and take a stronger stance against highly processed foods. Sounds reasonable right?
Canadians have generally followed the food guide – we eat more of the recommended foods like whole grains, and less of the foods we were told to limit like fats.
Over the last three decades, we’ve upped our fruit and vegetable intake while reducing fat and dairy – as per food guide recommendations. Canadians are relatively compliant with nutrition recommendations. But yet, despite this, we’re in the middle of an obesity epidemic. Two thirds of our adult population are considered obese or overweight, a number which has doubled in the few years since 1980. The food guide is obviously not producing the outcomes it has intended. This also demonstrates the potential of a revamped food guide to positively impact the health of Canadians. If we’ve followed it into ill-health, we can follow a newer version into our best health.
The Current Food Guide
The current food guide is broken into 4 food groups with a recommended number of ‘servings’ per group. Serving sizes vary depending on the food. This in itself is an issue for me and for many of the clients I’ve seen in my office. It’s so confusing. Nobody wants to measure everything they eat or count calories or servings at every meal. The recommended servings are based on the average Canadian in each age/sex category meeting micro and macronutrient recommendations. This itself is a flaw. Not every adult female has the same needs. This system ignores satiety cues and true hunger in an attempt to eat a specific number of servings of certain foods.
The current guide is way too processed carbohydrate heavy. It recommends adults consume 6-8 servings of grains per day, and that only half of these should be whole grains. Examples of foods in this group include bagels and cereal. Foods which can be highly processed and full of sugar and preservatives. Not exactly the picture of health. It also considered 100% fruit juice a serving a fruit and vegetables. Fruit juice doesn’t contain all the same nutrients and fiber, and contains way more sugar per serving then whole fruit.
So what changes would I make to a new food guide? How do I think Canadians should be eating? As a Registered Dietitian with a Masters of Public Health, I feel like I have a bit of knowledge on population health and nutrition.
In my opinion, an effective food guide needs to focus on a whole diet approach. It needs to focus on choosing fresh, whole foods that are limitedly processed. We need to stop being so afraid of fat that comes from meat, eggs, nuts, seeds and other natural foods. We need to cook more and rely less on pre-prepared foods. We need to simplify the ingredients we use and consume. But, like most things, this is easier said than done.
The first question is how do we make choosing the healthiest option the easiest option? Processed foods and fast foods are so easy to grab and go and can be less expensive for those on a fixed income. How do we change the environment around food to make sure that healthy foods are accessible and affordable for everyone? Living in the Northwest Territories, I’ve seen first-hand how expensive fresh fruits and vegetables can be, and how hard it came be for a family to afford a healthy diet.
The second question is what skills do people need to be able to cook for themselves and their families? What knowledge do people need to be able to make healthy choices at the grocery store where they are bombarded with flashy packaging and health claims like “fat free” “diet” “all natural”. It’s not enough to simply tell people what to eat. People need to be informed enough to make their own choices and need to have the skills to use the fresh food they are buying.
The third question is what place does the food industry have in all this? A new Canada’s Food Guide should be developed based on evidence-based research and not tainted by biased science developed by the food industry. I do think that we need to hold the food industry more accountable for the misleading messages they send the public about how ‘healthy’ a product is. We need to stop allowing them to advertise sugary processed foods to kids. We need to work with them to create products that make it easy for consumers to eat foods that nourish them. The food industry should be a partner only after the guide has been developed, and should not be a part of developing the recommendations.
Ultimately, I think the food guide recommendations are being given way too much thought. Instead of prescribing how Canadians should eat, we should be changing our food industry and food environments to be more conducive to choosing healthier options. Imagine walking into the grocery store and not cringing at the cost of fresh produce.
As a dietitian, I believe that there are 2 types of foods. Some foods nourish your body, and some foods nourish your soul. A healthy diet nourishes both without depriving either.