While it’s true that pretty much no one goes grocery shopping with Canada’s Food Guide in hand, that doesn’t mean the Guide doesn’t play an incredibly important role in our nation’s health. Touted by Health Canada as the second-most downloaded government document behind tax forms, it serves as our country’s nutritional backdrop. The Guide underlies the diet policies and programs in our publicly funded schools, hospitals, arenas and corporations; it is taught to our children, our future doctors, dietitians and other allied health professionals as gospel; and it is utilized by the food industry to advertise the health benefits of their products.
It is also well and fully broken.
The most recent scrutiny of the Guide has come with the publication of Alissa Hamilton’s book Got Milked?, in which she explores how dairy came to enjoy such a starring role in North America’s national dietary guidelines despite that role not having a robust evidence base to support it. Dairy is a great source of both calcium and protein, but by no means is it their only source, and unless you ask the dairy industry, there are plenty of other places to find both.
The Guide was broken from the get-go. At its core, our current Guide was designed to ensure that Canadians who followed it would meet their “nutrient” requirements. And while this may sound like a wise plan, the vast majority of what we understand to be true about the impact of diet on the prevention of chronic disease comes not from the consumption of sufficient quantities of specific “nutrients,” but rather from much broader food-based patterns of eating.
Encouraging dietary patterns designed to lead Canadians to get enough zinc, vitamin A, niacin and phosphorous (among others) as a means to protect public health may inadvertently steer Canadians away from those whole food consumption patterns that the evidence supports as being most healthful.
An overhyped focus on nutrients also plays into food industry hands, because in many instances companies are legally allowed to tout the presence or addition of specific nutrients on the fronts of their products’ packaging to imply the contents are healthful (no, the presence of whole grains and fibre in Froot Loops doesn’t excite me).
Also broken from the get-go was Health Canada’s direct inclusion of the food industry in the Guide’s creation.
Take, for instance, the 12-member Food Guide Advisory Committee who played an important role in shaping the Guide Canadians are still using today. Fully 25 per cent of the people on that integral committee were employed at the time by corporations whose primary interests would be affected by the Guide’s very recommendations.
Among the members were the nutrition education manager for the BC Dairy Foundation, the executive director of the Vegetable Oil Industry of Canada and the director of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Food & Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada, who represented the interests of corporations such as PepsiCo, Frito-Lay and Coca-Cola.
As to whether these individuals had any influence on the final product, you be the judge. The CFG recommends that every single Canadian consume between 2-3 glasses of milk and 2-3 tablespoons of unsaturated fat each and every day. As far as product manufacturers go, the CFG recommends Canadians only “limit” their consumption of non-naturally occurring trans-fat, despite the fact that the head of Health Canada’s own trans-fat task force noted “there is no safe amount of trans consumption,” and “the longer we wait, the more illness and in fact death will happen, so we know we have to get it out of our food supply.” Yet from an evidence-based perspective, I am aware of no compelling evidence that would lead me to believe we should all be drinking multiple glasses of milk per day, that vegetable oils should be supplying each of us with 15 per cent to 25 per cent of our total daily calories or that non-naturally occurring trans-fats shouldn’t be wholly avoided. If the aim of the Guide is to protect health and to reflect our best understanding of the impact of diet on chronic disease, then the Guide is failing miserably. Our Guide remains woefully phobic of saturated fats; almost wholly ignorant of sugar; strangely in love with dairy; insufficiently cautionary on processed meats, ultra-processed foods and eating out; and bizarrely supportive of the notion that juice and fruit are one in the same.
These positions, while hugely friendly to Canadian agriculture, product manufacturing and the Canadian restaurant industry, don’t serve our health’s best interests, and instead serve to further our country’s burden of diet and weight-related disease.
When our current Guide was released in 2007, the Canadian Medical Association called for it to be revised regularly – a policy that would be consistent with that of our neighbours to the south who by law revisit their national dietary guidelines every five years. And the Americans do so with good reason. The science of nutrition is a living, breathing, changing system of checks, balances, critiques and questions. Yet here in Canada our national dietary recommendations almost never change. But change they should. Recently both the World Health Organization and Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation fingered added sugars as a significant contributor to ill health and recommended strict limits be placed on their consumption. Dairy, while certainly a protein source with calcium, has not been found to confer any remarkable health benefits or risks, and as such Canadians need not be advised to go out of their way to ensure they consume or avoid it. Processed foods, more specifically ultra-processed foods, are more and more conclusively linked to unhealthy dietary patterns, and as such our current best evidence would suggest they be explicitly discouraged. And non-naturally occurring trans-fat – it never should have been on the menu even back in 2007.
Our next Food Guide, if we are ever to get one, needs to focus on the bigger picture. It needs to focus on our health rather than on nutrients and food industry and agricultural interests. Because regardless of the size of the industries that are stakeholders in the Guide’s recommendations, they pale in comparison with the impact diet-relatable and -responsive diseases have on Canada’s health-care expenditures. By definition, that sort of guide would be a whole foods-style guide, and one perhaps similar to the national dietary guidelines recently published by Brazil that enjoyed loud international acclaim.
It took Health Canada 15 years before it revised the 1992 Food Guide, and it has already been eight years since the launch of our 2007 version. Canadians deserve an evidence-based food guide. We deserved one back with the launch in 2007, and we still deserve one today. From my vantage point, however, I am unaware of any official energy, interest or plan to update our current non-evidence-based Guide any time soon.
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Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute – dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him @YoniFreedhoff. His latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work, is a national bestseller.Report Typo/Error
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