The centrepiece of Canada’s Food Guide used to be a largely incomprehensible rainbow graphic telling us how many portions to eat from each of the four major food groups. It’s been replaced with a much easier-to-digest image of a plate of food that is half fruits and veggies, and almost half nuts, grains and legumes.
The new, improved guide has even dispensed with the meaningless notion of “portion” altogether, opting to urge people instead to pay attention to the proportion of foods they eat – again, heavy on the fruits and veggies, light on the meat, cheese.
The document also tells us our “beverage of choice” should be water – not milk, juice or beer. In fact, it has some pretty strong words about avoiding sugary drinks (including pop, sports drinks and chocolate milk) and alcohol.
And Health Canada has grown a backbone and distanced itself from industry by excising some dubious advice that was clearly designed to mollify industry, such as the recommendation to drink two glasses of milk a day and consume at least two tablespoons of canola oil every day.
All in all, it’s an excellent upgrade to the iconic Food Guide.
But the Food Guide doesn’t much matter to the average consumer, and it never has – but that’s okay. It’s not a diet or a weight-loss plan.
What it’s supposed to do – and does relatively well now – is describe a pattern of healthy eating for individuals and set a standard for institutions and policy-makers.
Most of the dietary advice people really need can be summed up in the seven words of author Michael Pollan’s manifesto: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
But the meat – or maybe that should be tofu? – of the guide is the 62-page document entitled Canada’s Dietary Guidelines for Health Professionals and Policy-Makers.
If the rules-makers in hospitals, schools, community centres and other public institutions (and thoughtful private ones) followed the guidelines, we would have a more supportive environment for healthy eating.
Practically, that means getting chocolate milk out of schools, pop machines out of community centres, wieners off the menu of nursing homes, and the orgy of cakes and cookies out of meeting rooms. But that’s not going to happen simply by publishing glossy brochures and creating an interactive website.
Healthy eating, as it is proposed in Canada’s Food Guide, is a privilege of wealth. The symbolic fruity/nutty/grainy plate is actually out of reach for many who struggle with poverty, food insecurity and health illiteracy.
A Food Guide is an essential part of but not a substitute for a food strategy.
It does nothing to address the fact that one in six children in Canada are affected by food insecurity, or that this country ranks 37th of 41 in access to nutritious food, according to UNICEF.
The reason Canada got a Food Guide in the first place (in 1942) was that malnourishment was widespread to the point that it was difficult to recruit soldiers to fight in the Second World War.
The original Food Guide (actually called the Official Food Rules) was designed to get people to eat more and to respect wartime rationing. We got food groups because those categories of food were rationed, not because they were essential for good nutrition.
Today, our fancy new Food Guide skirts around some important political and social realities. We have as much malnutrition today as 70 years ago, but today it is as much about eating too much as too little.
The rationing of food that exists today is largely the result of economic inequality: People on low incomes can only afford or access the highly processed foods that don’t appear on the pretty plate.
Initially, the global issue driving food policy was feeding the war machine. Today, climate change is the most urgent and overwhelming policy challenge in the world. That means creating a sustainable food system – one that, among other things, creates far fewer carbon emissions and results in much less food waste – has to be a priority.
The Food Guide does not address these issues directly; rather, it urges Canadians to eat less meat, dairy and processed foods, all of which are energy-intensive to produce.
There is nothing wrong, per se, about the healthy plate that is now the symbol of Canada’s Food Guide.
But it will only be impactful if we realize that setting the table around that plate is equally, if not more, important for our individual and collective health.