Our national food guide, in long need of repair, is finally getting an overhaul. It needs a lot more than a tune-up to catch up with scientific evidence on diet and health and what – and how – Canadians eat.
Today, six out of 10 Canadian adults are overweight or obese, as are one-third of kids. According to Health Canada, four out of five Canadians are at risk for developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, leading causes of death which are largely preventable by making positive lifestyle choices, such as eating a healthy diet.
Yet Canada's Food Guide, last updated in 2007, has been ineffective at stemming the rise in obesity and diet-related health issues, the very things it was designed to do.
Our opinions count, which is why after Health Minister Jane Philpott announced the plan last week, the government also asked Canadians to weigh in online.
Wearing my dietitian hat, I logged on and offered my two cents.
I certainly don't have all the answers as to what an ideal food guide should look like. But based on current evidence connecting food and nutrition to personal and planetary health, here's a page from my wish list.
Keep it simple
The current food guide was designed to help people meet daily requirements for vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. That's why a 40-year-old woman, for example, is advised to eat seven to eight daily servings of fruit and vegetables, six to seven grain products, two milk and alternatives and two meat and alternatives.
To figure out how much food that is, you need to look at the examples listed for one serving – e.g., one-half cup of broccoli, 30 grams of cold cereal, one-half cup of cooked pasta, 2.5 ounces of chicken, 175 millilitres of yogurt, 1.5 ounces of cheese. Then, you can divvy up your food-guide servings into meals and snacks.
In my opinion, the food guide is cumbersome to put into practice. It seems more like a tool developed for dietitians, not for the mom trying to feed her family healthy food.
I'd like to see a food guide that directs people to whole foods rather than nutrients. The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, for instance, does a good job of this. Foods to "base every meal on," such as fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and herbs and spices, are highlighted at the base of the pyramid. Meat and sweets, sitting on the top, are to be eaten "less often."
Remove the focus on meat
Yes, meat is an exceptional source of protein.
So are poultry, fish, legumes, tofu, eggs, nuts and seeds, foods also listed in the "Meat and Alternatives" food group.
But meat shouldn't be viewed as comparable – or superior – to these foods.
Red meat is implicated in colorectal cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, not to mention the fact that beef production puts a huge strain on the environment.
The name "Meat and Alternatives" doesn't reflect our current understanding of the impact of red meat on human health and the environment. It's time for the food guide to downsize its importance in our diet.
If Health Canada designs the next guide around nutrient-based food groups again, this food group should be renamed to "Protein Foods" (as is the case for the U.S. food guide, MyPlate).
Highlight calcium-rich foods, not milk
Most dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, a mineral that's vital to health. No argument there.
But milk isn't the only food that delivers calcium. So do edamame, tofu, pinto beans, almond butter, tahini, many cooked leafy green vegetables, blackstrap molasses and fortified plant beverages.
If a calcium-rich food group is deemed important, expand it beyond dairy.
Doing so could help Canadians do a better job at meeting daily calcium requirements. (According to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey, many of our diets fall short on calcium, despite the food guide's consistent promotion of dairy.)
I'd also remove the advice to "have two cups of milk every day." The evidence is weak, at best, that doing so prevents bone fractures.
Give clear advice on processed foods
Brazil's Ministry of Health got it right when, in 2014, it issued new dietary guidelines. The country's golden rules for healthy eating: "Always prefer natural or minimally processed foods" and "avoid ultraprocessed foods."
Our next food guide needs to include a strong message about avoiding highly processed foods to help Canadians consume less added sugars, trans fat, saturated fat, sodium, artificial flavours and colours, and fewer calories.
Advise us on how to eat
The food guide should also address the context in which we eat. One of Brazil's 10 Steps to a Healthy Diet is to "eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and in company."
Recommending that Canadians eat at home as often as possible, with family and friends, would encourage people to eat home-cooked meals made from whole and minimally processed foods.
Eating in this way also provides an opportunity for parents to pass on cooking skills to their children.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto