Canada’s Food Guide has never been solely about nutrition. Since its inception as “Canada’s Official Food Rules” in 1942, the competing priorities of policy makers and industry lobbyists, along with scientists’ evolving views, have influenced how the government has advised Canadians on making the “right” food choices.
The first version was developed during the Second World War, with a view to increasing the population’s strength for military service while coping with food rationing. It advised eating more when possible; consuming at least one serving of potatoes and multiple slices of bread every day (“with butter,” the 1944 version advised); and guzzling milk.
Our understanding of how to eat well has changed since then, as has the guide. It has gone through multiple iterations, the last of which was released 12 years ago. Many experts complained that the old guide didn’t entirely line up with science even when it was written, and that, with the passage of time, the gap had only grown.
Previous versions of the guide have also been accused of justifying the marketing to children of such products as fruit juices and chocolate milk. As well, Health Canada had been the subject of lobbying on behalf of producers of dairy, beef and juice, among others.
The new version, released this week, is remarkable in its apparent resistance to such pressures. Health Canada held public consultations open to all and committed that it would not meet privately with industry groups. The resulting document hews closely to the overarching principles Health Canada set out for the revamp of the food guide in 2017.
It differs from previous iterations that limited the advice to narrower dietary information, and instead acknowledges the importance of developing a positive relationship with food; cooking as often as possible; listening to signals from the body regarding hunger and satiety; and remaining vigilant against the wiles of pervasive marketing. It also eschews the previous guide’s hard-to-follow instructions about serving sizes, focusing instead on proportions.
The messages are clear. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Avoid processed foods with added sodium, sugars or saturated fats. Eat whole grains. Do not rely too heavily on meat and dairy as sources of protein and seek out plant-based sources of protein when possible. Avoid sugary beverages. If you’re thirsty, drink water.
The guide also identifies alcohol as “a leading global health concern,” with long-term consumption associated with several types of cancer, hypertension and liver disease.
All in all, it’s advice that is easy to understand and remember, based on solid scientific evidence.
The science of nutrition is always changing, and doctors and nutritionists have complained in the past that the guide was not flexible enough to adjust for new evidence as it emerged. This time, Health Canada has stated that the food guide should be a living document. That is a big shift. It’s crucial that the government lives up to this commitment, which will be necessary to keep the guide relevant.
Health Canada illustrated its new guide with the image of a plate, half of it piled with vegetables and fruits, one quarter with a variety of whole grains and another quarter with protein sources such as beef, chicken, eggs, nuts and beans.
In previous versions of the guide, going all the way back to 1977, what’s now known as the protein food group was made up of two groups, “milk and milk products” and “meat and alternatives.” Milk and meat used to be the recommended, default proteins; the plant-based alternatives were off by themselves in a corner. Not anymore. That’s a cultural change, but one based on science.
A guide that clearly and simply illustrates advisable food habits, based on the best contemporary dietary knowledge, was long overdue. None but the most austere eaters will live up to the guide’s goal at every meal; it is, rather, a balance to strive for. The new guidelines have the flexibility to be adapted to a range of diets, cultures, tastes and cuisines.
The new guide’s biggest influence may be in the nation’s schools – from kindergarten to university. It will force administrators to think hard about what needs to be removed from the menu and what needs to be added if school boards are to avoid accusations of dietary child abuse. Pay attention, vending machines filled with soft drinks and cafeterias specializing in reheated processed foods: Canada’s Food Guide is putting you on notice.