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Canada creates a simpler, more science-based ‘Food Guide’

The Canadian experts who put together the Food Guide reportedly refused to include any research funded by the food industry in their assessment of the current evidence regarding nutrition.

Although the Canadian plate, left, looks a lot like the U.S. one, right, it’s much better.
Government of Canada/USDA

This week, Canada released its newest Food Guide  — its version of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans — and, for the most part, it’s getting great reviews.

Comparing Canada’s Food Guide to the 2016 update of the Dietary Guidelines is an interesting exercise, particularly because the U.S. will be updating its guidelines again in 2020. The political squabbling about that project is already well underway.

Press accounts certainly make it sound as if creating dietary guidelines is much less contentious north of the 49th parallel.

“In the U.S., expert advisors recommended cutting back on red and processed meats,” explains ConscienHealth, a U.S-based group that advocates for the evidence-based prevention and treatment of obesity. “Meat producers howled in protest. So the final guidelines omitted any specific guidance on the subject. Warring factions are bracing for another round of conflict in the 2020 guidelines.”

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“For the Canadian Food Guide,” the group adds, “the result was more clear-cut. ‘Choose protein foods that come from plants more often,’ it says. In fact, meat and dairy are no longer represented as distinct food groups here. The groups on the plate are simply proteins, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.”

The Canadian experts who put together the Food Guide reportedly refused to include any research funded by the food industry in their assessment of the current evidence regarding nutrition.

And Canada’s politicians backed them up in that decision.

“It was my role as health minister to meet with all stakeholders,” said Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, “but in no way did my meetings influence the individuals creating Canada’s Food Guide.”

Similar imagery

Like the current U.S. guidelines, Canada’s new Food Guide uses a dinner plate to visualize its recommendations for consumers.

But, as Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, points out on her Food Politics blog, although the Canadian plate looks a lot like the U.S. one, it’s much better.

“Even though it retains the annoying “Protein” section (we don’t eat proteins; we eat foods containing protein and lots of other nutrients), it drops the dairy requirement,” she writes.

And “even better, it comes with mostly useful suggestions,” she adds.

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Those suggestions, however, don’t talk about the number of servings we should have from each section of the plate or even about the specific foods we should eat. The suggestions focus instead on how we can develop a healthier relationship with food.

“Healthy eating is about more than just eating certain types and amounts of food,” the guidelines stress. “In all cultures, food is an integral part of social interactions and celebrations. Eating together can help to reinforce positive eating habits.”

Key recommendations

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and an obesity expert, summarizes the new guide’s main recommendations on his Weighty Matters blog:

  • Regularly consume vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and “protein foods“, where protein foods include everything from legumes, to nuts, to dairy, to meat, and where the guide suggests you consume plant-based proteins more often.
  • When you can, consume unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats (with the guide explicitly noting that there’s no need to get caught up in the total fat content of your diet).
  • Make water your beverage of choice (with the guide explicitly mentioning that 100% fruit juice and sugar-sweetened milk are beverages that should be minimized).
  • Limit your consumption of processed foods and beverages that contribute excess sodium, free sugars, and/or saturated fat (the new guide recommends less than 2300mg/day of sodium and less than 10% of total daily energy intake from free sugars and saturated fats respectively).
  • Limit your consumption of alcohol.
  • Plan your meals, cook more often, enjoy your food (here guide is speaking to consideration of culture and food traditions), and eat with others.
  • Use food labels.
  • Be aware that food marketing can influence your choices (and here I’d have preferred if they used the word “beware” which is clearly what they’re getting at).

“The guide’s dietary recommendations aren’t complicated,” writes Leslie Beck, a Canadian dietician in an opinion piece for Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Eat a variety of healthy foods each day. Have plenty of fruits and vegetables. Eat protein foods. Choose whole-grain foods. Make water your drink of choice.”

Let’s hope our 2020 guidelines will be as clear.

FMI: You can explore Canada’s new Food Guide on that government’s website.