Three years ago, when the federal government asked Canadians about their needs and expectations for their national food guide, I offered a wish list of changes in my column. Turns out, my wishes were granted this week when Health Canada revealed its overhauled Canada’s Food Guide.
This version has caught up with scientific evidence on diet and health. Here’s why.
Easy to understand. The guide’s dietary recommendations aren’t complicated. 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.
The picture on the front of the guide, a photograph of real food on a plate (not illustrated foods on a rainbow) is also effective. The message is pretty simple: Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruits, one-quarter with protein and one-quarter with whole grains.
Whole foods, not nutrients. The Food Guide now directs people to whole foods, and has done away with recommending a certain number of daily food-group servings to meet nutrient needs (e.g., calcium from dairy, iron from meat).
Eating the right foods instead of fussing over individual nutrients is the way to go, because if you base your diet on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, fish, lean meat, yogurt and so on, you’re going to be consuming plenty of nutrients.
Since 2007, nutrition research has taught us that it’s the overall pattern of our diet that matters when it comes to health.
No more focus on meat. The decision to replace nutrient-based food groups with groupings of foods (e.g., protein foods versus “Meat and Alternatives”) has removed the emphasis on meat.
Lean meat is included as one of the guide’s protein foods (along with fish, eggs, dairy, beans, lentils and nuts), but it’s no longer the main attraction. And that’s a good thing.
High intakes of red meat have been tied to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer. Eating more protein from plants compared to meat, on the other hand, has been associated with a lower risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease.
Downsizing the importance of meat in the diet also reflects findings from environmental research on optimal food choices.
Advice on highly processed foods. The revised guide recommends that we don’t eat processed or prepared foods and beverages on a regular basis, to avoid consuming too much added sugar, sodium and saturated fat.
That’s important advice since our increasing reliance on ready-to-eat, ready-to-drink and ready-to-heat highly processed foods has been correlated with higher obesity rates, metabolic syndrome and unhealthy blood-cholesterol levels.
Thanks to their high content of unhealthy fats, sugars, salt and other additives, highly processed foods are intensely palatable, which can make them habit-forming. Plus, they’re low in or lacking fibre, protective phytochemicals and vitamins and minerals that whole foods contain.
Includes advice on how to eat. Over the past several decades, the way we purchase and prepare foods has dramatically changed. We eat more meals away from home, we spend less time cooking and we eat too many processed, packaged foods.
The implications: unhealthy diets, missed opportunities for kids to gain cooking skills and knowledge, and the decline of family meals, which have been associated with nutritional and psychosocial benefits for children.
For the first time, Canada’s Food Guide strongly makes the important point that “healthy eating is more than the foods you eat.” It’s also about the context in which we eat.
Advice to “be mindful of your eating habits,” “cook more often,” “enjoy your food,” “eat meals with others,” “use food labels” and “be aware of food marketing” encourage food skills that support healthy eating.
Health Canada has committed to stay on top of the evidence to ensure that our food guidance is continually relevant. We shouldn’t have to wait another 12 years for an update.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.
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