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Goodbye dairy, hello coffee: Why did Harvard create a healthy eating guide?

Nutrition experts at Harvard released their "Healthy Eating Plate" on Wednesday, a food guide that recommends holding off on dairy as a main source of calcium, slams the common potato, but also pushes tea and coffee.

In reminding Americans to drink water, the Harvard experts also suggest tea or coffee – with little or no sugar, mind you – a point that may surprise Canadians whose children may have just endured their first caffeine ban at school this year.

At its core, the guide promotes a "plant-based diet rich in vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and healthy proteins" to lower the risks of both weight gain and chronic disease.

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From the Harvard School of Public Health website: "Fill half your plate with produce – colorful vegetables, the more varied the better, and fruits. Save a quarter of your plate for whole grains. A healthy source of protein, such as fish, poultry, beans, or nuts, can make up the rest. The glass bottle is a reminder to use healthy oils, like olive and canola, in cooking, on salad, and at the table."

"Potatoes and French Fries don't count" as vegetables, wise guy. The Harvard experts point out that potatoes teem with rapidly digested starch, the stuff that spikes and then drops your blood sugar like sweets do.

The guide recommends staying active and limiting sugary drinks, but stopped short of suggesting daily caloric intake, pointing out that changes from person to person.

The Harvard experts also took the opportunity to diss MyPlate, the food guide issued recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that replaced the decades' old pyramid concept.

Speaking strictly in terms of aesthetics, Harvard's plate looks remarkably like the USDA's plate, with colourful food groups sectioned off on a circle.

But Harvard's plate recommends more healthy protein (fish, beans and nuts versus red and processed meats), specifies that grains should be whole grains and adds healthy oils alongside the meal. It also cuts out the dairy quotient entirely. Dairy, meanwhile, appears as the beverage accompanying the USDA's plate; Harvard suggests water, tea or coffee instead.

"While calcium and dairy can lower the risk of osteoporosis and colon cancer, high intake can increase the risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer. Plus, dairy products can be high in saturated fat as well as retinol (vitamin A), which at high levels can paradoxically weaken bones," says the Harvard School of Public Health.

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The school recommends collards, bok choy, fortified soy milk, baked beans and supplements that contain both calcium and vitamin D as better sources of calcium.

The Harvard researchers argue theirs is a scientific guide not tainted by industry ties: "Unfortunately, like the earlier U.S. Department of Agriculture Pyramids, MyPlate mixes science with the influence of powerful agricultural interests, which is not the recipe for healthy eating," one of the experts said in a release.

Canada's Food Guide was last revised in 2007. Although it too suggested plenty of greens, beans and healthy oils, the guide received criticism for its suggestion that just half of the grains Canadians eat a day be whole grains, odd given the dearth of nutritional benefits in refined grain products. Critics also complained that Canada's guide endorsed cheese in a dairy-based food group called "milk and alternatives."

What do you make of Harvard's take on the food guide?

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