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Canada's Food Guide got a makeover...finally!

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

Many dietitians were embarrassed about Canada’s previous food guide. I once met a man in a health food store and it came up that I was an RD. He said he felt sorry for me and blatantly expressed that my education and the Food Guide were a joke.


I was quick to tell him that I (and many RDs) never used the guide, it was not mandatory to do so, and dietitians are taught to critically evaluate evidence on their own. I don’t remember what outlandish health theory he presented to me in response, but I decided it was not a battle worth fighting.


Most Canadians were not familiar with Canada's Food Guide, and even those who were didn't follow it. People usually know what they should be eating. The challenge is implementing that knowledge. Time restraints, budgeting, social life, stress & emotions can all get in the way of healthy eating.



Canada’s new Food Guide touches on some of these intricacies. It’s not perfect, and I’ll get to that. For now let’s look at what’s new, what’s the same and what was ditched!


What's Gone?


Say goodbye to those arbitrary food groups. Dairy is not only gone but somewhat discouraged. This is a huge deal. It's no secret the dairy industry influenced previous versions of Canada's food guide. Which brings us to change #2.


No more influence from food industry. They used have huge opportunities to give input on guidelines. I met an RD who was part of developing the 2007 guide and told me she was the only RD at the round table, while there were several food industry reps. This time they could only participate in public consultations like the rest of us.



No serving sizes. Screw all that counting and measuring. First of all, it was not a practical way to have people track their intake. Second of all, many argued that the old guide included way too much food. It was difficult to reach the recommended servings while maintaining one's weight.


Juice is gone. Dietitians rejoice! Juice is no longer equivalent to eating a piece of fruit. Because it never was. Instead it is encouraged to eat whole fruit (including its fiber) and drink water.


What's New?


The 2019 guide seems to be inspired by Brazil's food guide, which was ground breaking when it was released. Instead of just telling people WHAT to eat, it guides them about HOW, WHY and WHEN to eat. In other words, it focuses on overall eating patterns and behaviours instead of specific foods.


The new guide uses the plate model, which is exactly what I used in lieu of the old guide. It suggests 1/2 plate of fruit and vegetables, 1/4 plate of protein and 1/4 plate of starch.


It mentions the eating environment. It encourages eating with others, keeping processed foods out of reach, etc. Setting yourself up for healthy choices is half the battle, the half our old food guide ignored.


What I secretly hoped the new guide would look like

It gives basic instructions for mindful eating, such as paying attention to hunger cues, removing distractions, etc. Impulsive eating is common in North American culture, so I'm glad guidelines are now addressing it.


Processed foods are discouraged and highlighted as our largest source of sodium intake. This is a brilliant change. It surprises a lot of people how much sodium they get from food without ever using a salt shaker. It encourages meal planning and cooking to help reduce intake of processed foods. Check out where we get our sodium:


The guide makes consumers aware of how companies market food products to them, from social media to food packaging. Consumers are directed to the updated nutrition panels for reliable information about products, with pointers on how to read them.


One of my favourite changes is the focus on the environment. Tips are given to reducing food & packaging waste, start composting, and increase plant-based eating (which uses less resources). About time!


There is no mention of trans fats as they are now illegal in Canada.


Things Unchanged


Recommendations are still to limit saturated fats. There is a lot of controversy about whether saturated fats are actually bad for us. The keto diet and other diet trends encouraging coconut oil have people consuming it in large amounts. Canada is standing by its position that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, for now at least.


Criticisms


Fruits and vegetables are still lumped into the same group. It does help for simplicity sake, but half a plate of fruit vs. vegetables can provide very different nutrients and sugar content. Potatoes still count as a vegetable vs. a starch, which is debatable.


There are complaints that the food guide doesn't include enough culturally diverse foods. It's impossible to include foods from every culture in Canada, especially on a single photographed plate. There is a separate First Nations, Inuit and Métis food guide that highlights traditional foods for these groups (also getting a facelift soon). Hopefully sub-pages will be added to help fit other cuisines into the plate model.



There could be more guidance on where different foods belong on the plate, even for staple foods. Is corn a starch or a vegetable? Is avocado a fat, protein or fruit? How does cheese fit into healthy eating patterns? There is only a short list of examples of foods that belong on each plate section.


You have to be a little tech savvy. The basic guide may only be 2 pages, but even I got lost in the dozens of sub-pages expanding on the simple guidelines. I'm glad that information is there, but it can be a little tricky to find exactly what you're looking for.


A Welcome Change


Overall I am thrilled with this new food guide. I think it reflects what many dietitians were teaching clients in the first place. Achieving a healthy eating pattern is more practical and intuitive with the plate model. The links and resources cover more of the nuanced concepts of healthy eating.


While it's impossible to make a guide that perfectly meets the needs of 37 million people, this new guide is light-years ahead of its predecessor. It makes me proud to be a Canadian RD!

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