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The Food Guide draft appears to move from an existing four food groups down to three: vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and a new protein foods group.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Canada’s Food Guide is poised to reduce its emphasis on meat and dairy in a healthy diet and instead recommend consuming more plants and plant-based protein, according to a draft circulated for public feedback.

Health Canada intends to finalize and release the new version of its influential guide in the coming months, but a report containing details of a draft version suggests a significant departure from the current guide, last updated in 2007. Most notably, the draft appears to move from an existing four food groups down to three: “vegetables and fruits,” “whole grains,” and a new “protein foods” group.

The existing “meat and alternatives” and “milk and milk products” categories, in turn, appear set to be eliminated – a decision already proving to be contentious – and instead combined under “proteins." Gone too appear to be the recommendations to consume two daily servings from each of those former groups.

The proposed changes are consistent with Health Canada’s previous statements on its intentions. “The majority of Canadians don’t eat enough vegetables, fruits and whole grains,” the department said of its “guiding principles” in 2017. “What is needed is a shift toward a high proportion of plant-based foods, without necessarily excluding animal foods altogether.” A Health Canada spokesperson said Tuesday that the details in the report do not represent a complete draft, and that the guide will likely still see changes before it is released.

“The final version of the Food Guide will look different, and will reflect feedback not just from the report, but also input from stakeholders, experts and the public," spokesperson Geoffroy Legault-Thivierge said.

Instead of the current iconic “rainbow” pattern, the draft report shows three groups organized in a grid-like design. Under the heading “protein” are images of tofu, chickpeas, peanut butter, milk, fish and a pork chop. Under “whole grains” are rice, bread, quinoa and pasta. And under “vegetables and fruit” (the largest of the groups) is a variety of fresh, frozen and canned produce. No longer depicted as a “fruit and vegetable” is fruit juice, despite heavy lobbying from the beverage industry.

The draft also appears to move away from prescribing specific servings and portions. This is consistent with new guides released in recent years around the world, most notably the Brazil guidelines, which many health advocates have pointed to as the world leader. That plan is based on a list of simple suggestions, such as “limit consumption of processed foods” and “make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet.”

The proposed changes will likely be met with fierce opposition. The food guide is a reference point for doctors and nutritionists, and used by public institutions such as hospitals and cafeterias in shaping meal plans. Health Canada promised to avoid meeting with industry while developing the new guide. Still, The Globe has reported on intense lobbying – often directed at other government departments – over the past few years by the meat, dairy and processed food and beverage industries.

Isabelle Neiderer, the director of nutrition and research at Dairy Farmers of Canada, said in an interview that she has concerns with the proposal for a single “protein” group. Milk products, she said, contain nutrients that average Canadians are often lacking, such as calcium. “Putting all those foods together in one food group sends the wrong message that these foods are interchangeable,” she said.

A representative for the Alberta Beef Producers, too, expressed concerns about grouping together meat with plant-based proteins. “That can be dangerous, especially if people think that they’re getting the same nutrient equivalency when they eat a serving, of, say, black beans, as beef," Tom Lynch-Staunton said.

But health advocates say the proposals are sound. “This is very much in line with the kinds of recommendations dietitians have been making,” said Kate Comeau, a spokesperson for the Dietitians of Canada.

“An emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lentils and chickpeas – these are foods we’ve been recommending for years and we know Canadians are not necessarily consuming enough of.”

She applauded the draft’s inclusion not only of guidance on what to eat, but how. The draft prominently features advice such as “cook more often” and “eat meals with others.” These recommendations help people develop healthy habits, Ms. Comeau said.

Manuel Arango, director of health policy and advocacy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, also voiced his approval. “This is an evidence-based approach,” he said. The previous guide – with different serving sizes for different foods, and specific advice on how many of those servings to eat – was difficult for most people to understand, he said.

“The approach of ‘eat more of this,’ is much easier for consumers to interpret and act upon,” he said. “And that helps guide behaviour change.”

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