IMAGE: COURTESY OF HEALTH CANADA • ILLUSTRATIONS BY TRISH McALASTER
The federal government has dramatically overhauled its iconic Canada’s Food Guide, introducing this week a new, simplified approach that encourages plant-based eating and reduces the emphasis on meat and dairy.
For the past four decades, Health Canada has instructed Canadians that a healthy diet consists of specific servings across “four food groups,” set against a rainbow background. But the new guide, unveiled on Tuesday morning, not only does away with the four groups; it eliminates serving numbers and sizes altogether. It also replaces the “rainbow” with a new icon: A plate.
Here are the some of the biggest changes from the new food guide.
No more ‘four food groups’
The four food groups had, until this week, remained more or less unchanged since they had their debut in the 1977 Canada’s Food Guide. Those groups consisted of milk and milk products; meat and alternatives; grain products; and fruits and vegetables.
The new guide, revealed by Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor on Tuesday, reduces those groups to three. The message in that change is clear: Eat more plants, and less meat and dairy. As such, the remaining groups are: fruits and vegetables; whole grains; and proteins – a new umbrella category that combines both dairy and meat, along with plant-based proteins such as tofu and chickpeas. Even within the “protein” category, meat and dairy is de-emphasized. “Among protein foods, consume plant-based more often,” the new guide says. “The regular intake of plant-based foods – vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and plant-based proteins – can have positive effects on health,” including lower risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and type 2 diabetes.
This shift away from meats and dairy sparked fierce opposition from the respective industries. In 2017, The Globe reported that the meat industry and other government departments were lobbying Health Canada to soften its approach. And earlier this month, Tom Lynch-Staunton, a representative for the Alberta Beef Producers, told The Globe it would be “dangerous” to equate meat with plant-based proteins.
A statement from the Dairy Farmers of Canada on Tuesday said the new guide “does not reflect the most recent and mounting scientific evidence available.” Previous statements from the organization had warned that the move would be “detrimental to the long-term health of future generations” in addition to having a negative impact on local dairy farmers.
A less prescriptive approach
The new guide is distilled into one strikingly simple image: a plate of food filled with roughly half fruits and vegetables, and the remaining half divided into whole grains and proteins. The image is meant to convey a simple message, according to Health Canada: Eat a diet made up of roughly half fruits and vegetables, and half of the remaining two categories.
Gone are the specific recommendations to eat a specific number of serving sizes across each of the groups. Gone too is information about what makes up a serving size for different types of food. “What we heard from Canadians and stakeholders [on the previous guide] was that it was very difficult, and a bit too complicated to use,” said Hasan Hutchinson, director general of the Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion in Health Canada.
The new approach, he said, “is not about portions, per se, but about proportions.” By following the “half fruits and vegetables” rule, he said, the department hopes to make the guide “real and actionable in your everyday life.” He added that more specifics may be added later, though likely geared toward health professionals or for institutions who need guidance in developing meal plans and diets.
The instruction encouraging Canadians to make water their “beverage of choice” is meant to fulfill two purposes: to promote hydration, and also to limit the consumption of sugary or alcoholic beverages. “In 2015,” the guide says, “sugary drinks were the main sources of total sugars in the diets of Canadians, with children and adolescents having the highest average daily intake.”
And while previous versions of Canada’s Food Guide had recommended 100-per-cent fruit juice as a healthy option equivalent to a serving of fruit, the new version reverses this – despite heavy lobbying from the beverage industry, as reported by The Globe. The new guide labels 100-per-cent fruit juice as a “sugary drink” associated with dental decay, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The new guide also introduces new warnings against alcohol consumption. Alcohol, the guide says, “contributes a lot of calories to the diet with little to no nutritive value.” Alcohol intake is also linked with increased risk of certain types of cancer, including liver and oesophageal.
Eat fewer processed foods
While Canada’s Food Guides in the past have been preoccupied with what foods to eat, the new version also includes specific warnings about what not to eat – namely, processed and prepared foods that are high in sodium, free sugars and saturated fats.
“In recent years, the availability and consumption of highly processed products has increased significantly," the guide says. This shift has been linked with rises in obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain types of cancer.
Examples of these processed foods listed in the guide include muffins, hot dogs, frozen pizza, chocolate and soda. “Prepared foods,” meanwhile, refer to restaurant or similar ready-to-eat meals that are typically high in sodium, sugar and saturated fats.
A new emphasis on food behaviours
Taking its cue from the widely acclaimed Brazilian approach, the new Canadian guide also includes instruction on behaviours associated with healthy eating patterns: “Be mindful of your eating habits;” “cook more often;” “enjoy your food;” and “eat meals with others.”
A statement from the Community Food Centres Canada described this guidance as “a critical step forward is the inclusion of advice not only on what we eat but how we eat – cooking more at home, enjoying food, and eating with others – which, taken together, encourage a more communal and healthful approach to eating.”
The Canadian Medical Association, too, applauded the “overall direction" of the new guide. “The CMA," CMA president Dr. Gigi Osler said in a statement, "is particularly supportive of the evidence-based review and extensive consultation process used to draft the new Guide, to ensure it was founded on unbiased research.”