Canada's New Food Guide: Thoughts and Perspectives from a Subject Matter Expert

As many of you are aware, Health Canada released a new Food Guide this week. This update (three years in the making!) was much needed after over 10 years of using the Rainbow graphic and four food groups - not to mention the fact that many countries update their food guides every 3-5 years. Social media was buzzing with the launch of the Guide with subject matter experts, commodity groups, and consumers sharing their take of the new recommendations (#CanadasFoodGuide).

As someone with three degrees in Human Health and Nutrition (including a PhD) and a unique interdisciplinary career working closely with the agri-food sector, I feel I have a unique and constructive perspective to share that is evidence-based from farm to fork and practical for consumers. Plus, I have had many friends, family, and colleagues asking me for my interpretation!

So here are my thoughts.

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A Step in the Right Direction

There is no doubt that the new Food Guide is a huge step in the right direction, encouraging more fruit and vegetable consumption by Canadians and reducing processed foods and high sugar foods. The Guide is much less prescriptive, removing explicit serving sizes and food groups and opting for a more wholesome, whole food diet. The visual appeal that is friendly and simple will make it easier to understand while modernizing the look and feel of the Food Guide. Importantly, the Guide is increasingly evidence-based in that there are known health benefits associated with the consumption of more fruits and vegetables. As well, the resources, web pages, and supporting material are easy to use, clear, concise, and designed well.

Of particular note are the healthy eating behaviour concepts which include food skills and literacy, informed choices, eating and preparing more food at home, among others. These considerations are celebrated in the new Guide and speak to the complexity of food habits and behaviours.

So What is Missing?

However, the release of the Guide was not without its critics who are concerned about various recommendations. This is not surprising considering the complex nature of food and health, especially at a population level.

Current Consumption (or lack thereof) of Fruits and Vegetables

Not only do Canadians consume low amounts of fruits and vegetables (and have historically failed to meet guidelines), but fruits and vegetables are also the most common food wasted among Canadian households. Canadians already waste about 170kgs of food per capita per year (said another way, 63% of food that is thrown away could have been eaten). Of the food wasted, about 45% is fruit and vegetables (by weight). Globally, fruits and vegetables account for about 28% of total emissions from food waste. This results in unnecessary and harmful greenhouse gas emissions, fertilizer usage, and wasted energy, water, and land. We don't need to purchase more plant-based foods only to have them rot in the fridge. What we need are educated consumers who know how to purchase, prepare, and eat fruits and vegetables properly. I am skeptical this will change simply due to the new Food Guide and its recommendations.

The Food Guide and Canada’s Agriculture Sector

There are also deep concerns that the Food Guide has swung too far away from our agriculture sector, which is an economic driver in this country. The sector already employs 2.1 million Canadians and accounts for 6.7 percent of GDP. Specifically, meat and dairy are cast too far away from the lime light, tossed aside like an afterthought. There is a small section of the full recommendations that is based on the misperception that animal agriculture is unsustainable for the environment and that a plant-based diet is better for the planet. While it’s true there needs to be a proper balance in your diet of plant and animal products, the impacts of animal production on the environment are much more complicated and studies often lack the understanding to properly account for all of the factors at play. In addition, global statistics and practices should not be confused with Canadian-specific information. Our sector has verified, high standards and practices to ensure safe and sustainable food is produced on our farms. For example, Manitoba beef farmers are working with Bird Studies Canada to help maintain the biodiversity and natural grasslands of the prairies. This benefits both the cattle, who graze on the grasslands, and the native bird species who struggle to thrive when the land is used for crops such as corn, wheat, soy, or are removed from agriculture altogether. In addition, much of the land used for animal agriculture is unsuitable for growing fruits and vegetables. Research and reality support BOTH plants and animal products in our diet and as part of our food system.

Think about your environmental ecosystem context and how food production in the area that [you] live in fits into the bigger picture
— Dr. Artuso

Continuing on the topic of sustainability, of the three references Health Canada used to support their plant-based focus for environmental sustainability, one “found that adherence to several well-characterized dietary patterns, including vegetarian (with variations) diets, dietary guidelines–related diets, Mediterranean-style diets, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, and other sustainable diet scenarios, promotes greater health and has a less negative impact on the environment than current average dietary intakes.” Health Canada appears to have cherry-picked the part of these findings that best supported their messaging for a plant-based diet, and neglect to mention that the DASH and Mediterranean diets include animal agriculture and are beneficial for BOTH the planet and human health.

Canadian farm families work hard to produce safe and sustainable food, producing more food with less inputs, all while reducing their environmental impact and we should be proud to support them. It’s complicated and not one solution or asterisk will fix it. This article does a great job of explaining the great work that has been done and the innovative techniques and technologies that could continue to help and support agriculture globally in being more sustainable.

I am not advocating for a meat-centred diet or that meat and/or dairy need their own food group. However, beyond sustainability, there is lots of scientific evidence that supports the health benefits of eating meat (including red meat, pork, fish, and chicken) and dairy products (link 1, link 2, link 3). The DASH diet, which includes dairy, continues to be one of the best diets for human health. These foods are nutrient dense and affordable, making them a convenient and cost-effective way to get nutrients and contribute to a healthy diet. This nutrient dense diet is especially important for children and adolescents because this life stage is associated with  a high demand for nutrients and calories to support growth and development. A glass of milk would be perfectly suitable once or twice a day for these populations; however, the Food Guide chooses to only showcase water. Where meat and dairy are mentioned, they specifically focus on low fat dairy products. Again, research shows the benefits of regular or high-fat dairy options for cardiovascular health, stroke, diabetes, obesity, etc. In fact, Health Canada’s own 2015 evidence review shows that, when it comes to reducing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer, the evidence for milk products is as strong, if not stronger, than it is for vegetables, fruit, whole grain, and plant-based protein foods. Also, low fat dairy options are sugar-laden for flavour, which is an area of concern. For example, some single-serve yogurts can contain up to 15 grams of sugar.

Affordability, Accessibility, & Education

With a Food Guide focusing on fruits and vegetables, major criticism of the new recommendations are related to accessibility and affordability. Rising vegetable prices are especially concerning for vulnerable groups — such as northern communities and children — who may already face other barriers to consuming sufficient vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Health Canada has responded to these criticisms by stating that they considered this in their recommendations and have included frozen, canned, and dried produce in the new Food Guide. So, it would appear that while the photo depicts most fresh produce and ingredients, families who cannot afford these products but are trying to meet guidelines can “settle” for frozen or canned alternatives. There are only 2 pages in the full guide (62 pages long) that relate to these concerns and after discussing them, their only solution is that these factors need a comprehensive approach to address them.

Lastly, while the Food Guide provides tips and tricks and can be used as an education tool, a plant-based diet takes a high degree of planning and adequate comprehension to do it properly and safely. The majority of Canadians would not have this level of understanding which can put them at risk for poor diets. Depending on the shifts in diets based on the new Guide, education and food literacy will be crucial for long-term health benefits and success.

Let’s take a page from the Canadian Beef Farmers and their approach to the new Food Guide. Eat what works for you, everything in moderation, and don’t feel guilty.

What are your thoughts on the new Food Guide?

Megan Racey