As a holistic nutritionist, I don’t believe in food guides, pyramids, or plates. Everyone is different, and a person’s diet should reflect that. That said, Canada’s Food Guide is being overhauled, and I think it is worth the time to talk about it.
Canada’s Food Guide and even the USDA MyPlate have had their share criticism. After all, there has been too much influence from the food industry, lobbyists, and politics, and not enough emphasis on up-to-date nutritional data. And, it’s about time things changed.
A new Canada’s Food Guide will be released sometime in 2018. It will be the first update since 2007. In June, Health Canada had posted a draft of the new food guide labeled “Guiding Principles.” These are broad guidelines that will help shape more specific advice once the final draft is released.
Let’s look at these guiding principles and analyze what all this proposed advice actually means.
Guiding Principle 1
The Foundation of Healthy Eating Is a Variety of Nutritious Foods and Beverages
- Regular intake of water
- Regular consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and protein-rich foods, especially plant-based protein sources
- Inclusion of unsaturated fat foods rather than saturated fat foods
What Does It Mean?
To help meet such recommendations, Health Canada suggests a shift toward more plant-based foods without excluding animal foods altogether. They recommend eating more fiber-rich foods and less red meat, including pork, beef, goat, and lamb. They also believe foods with mostly saturated fat like high-fat cheese, cream, and butter should be replaced with mostly unsaturated fat foods like avocado, seeds, and nuts.
There is also the recommendation of canned, fresh, and frozen vegetables and fruit, tofu, canned fish or legumes, plain milk, and fortified plant-based milks. They also recommend food and beverages that are pre-packaged for convenience, including pre-washed salad greens and pre-cut fruit.
Furthermore, they also recommend that foods are best obtained through gardening, trapping, hunting, harvesting, and fishing. Plain water is also suggested to reduce sugar intake.
Key Takeaway: Consume More Plant-Based Foods
I like how a more plant-based approach is being given consideration here. This emphasis on a more plant-based diet is long overdue. However, it is important to differentiate what a plant-based diet is, and should be considered.
Although grass-fed and chemical-free meat is part of my diet, I consider my diet very much plant-based with lots of whole foods, including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats like coconut or olive oil. It is about time Health Canada recognizes that regular consumption of anti-inflammatory plant-based foods is important, while at the same time focusing on regular intake of water. When practiced, regular consumption of water and plant-based foods are a solid foundation for health.
Research has been supporting a plant-based diet for years now. For instance, a study published in The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society in 2006 showed that in general, plant-based and vegetarian diets provide a relatively high amount of complex carbohydrates, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. While these diets can be healthy, it often takes some planning to get enough protein, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Research published in Nutrients in 2014 also shows that plant-based diets offer protection against obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart diseases, cardiovascular mortality, metabolic syndrome risk factors, and certain cancers.
Different variations of plant-based diets have included the vegan diet, vegetarian diet, raw food diet, macrobiotic diet, and the Mediterranean diet. But not every plant-based diet is vegan or vegetarian.
What is important, however, is the quality of the animal foods in the diet. Meats should be grass-fed, antibiotic- and steroid-free, and pasture-raised, while seafood should be wild and chemical-free. A Paleo diet focuses on such animal foods while being largely plant-based and avoiding processed foods.
Guiding Principle 2
Prepared or Processed Foods and Beverages High in Sugar, Sodium, or Saturated Fat Undermines Healthy Eating
- Avoidance of prepared or processed beverages high in sugar
- Limited intake of prepared or processed foods high in sugars, saturated fat, or sodium
What Does It Mean?
Health Canada is putting consumers first with this principle. According to Health Canada, at least half the sugar consumption comes from prepared or processed foods and beverages. This includes baked goods, soft drinks, breakfast cereals, fruit juice, and sweetened dairy products.
Over three-quarters of the sodium consumed by Canadians comes from restaurant-prepared foods or processed food. They also believe that the saturated fat intake is too high. At the same time, by avoiding beverages high in sugar, Canadians will reduce their sugar intake overall, which may protect oral health, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Key Takeaway: Consume Less Processed Food
This is another way of being told processed foods are bad. It is a good thing when Health Canada details the downfalls of a diet high in processed or packaged convenience food. This is huge! Added sugars are killing us, and man-made margarine isn’t any better.
Not all processed food is the same. You will want to avoid all soda, frozen dinners, potato chips, and store-bought cookies and cakes.
On the other hand, minimally processed foods are often considered acceptable in a healthy diet. This includes things like nut butters, extra virgin olive oil, and frozen fruit and vegetables. When it comes to nut butters, look for products with nuts like almonds or cashews as the only ingredients.
Swearing off the ultra-processed foods can be quite the challenge. It helps to make gradual changes, such as adding vegetables as a side or serving water instead of juice or soda.
It is also a good idea to shop with a grocery list while shopping the produce section and meat department rather than the ultra-processed middle aisles. When you do venture into the aisles for some products, be sure to read the ingredient list, and avoid foods with more than five ingredients as a rule. Also, look out for added sugars, such as words ending in “ose” like fructose, sucrose, and dextrose.
Guiding Principle 3
Knowledge and Skills Needed to Support Healthy Eating and Navigate the Complex Food Environment
- Select nutritious foods when eating out or shopping
- Plan and prepare healthy snacks and meals
- Share meals with friends and family whenever possible
What Does It Mean?
The report from Health Canada recognizes that not enough people are making their meals from scratch. In other words, there are fewer people transforming basic and whole ingredients into a complete meal. This is because Canadians, like Americans, still rely on convenience foods. This is not always due to limited skills, as economic issues and time constraints are also issues.
Health Canada believes that planning and preparing healthy snacks and meals at home, while selecting nutritious foods at the grocery store can help support healthy eating. They believe that preparing and sharing food enhances enjoyment when in a social setting or around family or friends. So, having meals with others reinforces a positive attitude around food.
The proposed food guide draft even advises that people pay attention to feelings of fullness and hunger while eating slowly and avoiding distractions during mealtime.
Key Takeaway: Greater Emphasis on Cooking Meals
This guiding principle can certainly help tie everything together. Cooking is a learned skill, but it also doesn’t have to be complicated either. For instance, baking some chicken and steaming some vegetables can take less than an hour. As a result, you have a nutritious meal.
It all starts with building a foundation of what foods are healthy and how to cook with them. This helps improve foods choices while supporting life-long healthy eating habits.
Even children and adolescents can benefit from learning how to cook at a young age. Eating with friends and family is a great way to avoid mealtime distractions. This includes eating while watching television or driving.
The Proposed Food Guide’s Other Considerations
Health Canada’s food guide draft recognizes that healthy eating recommendations influence people. At the same time, these guidelines take into account factors such as uncontrollable determinants of health, cultural diversity, and the environment.
1. Determinants of Health
This consideration relates to various factors that influence a person’s ability to make healthy food choices. This includes a person’s access and availability to nutritious food, the ability to afford certain food, and whether their cultural, social, and physical environments possibly prevent access to certain foods. For instance, some Buddhists avoid meat and dairy products.
2. Cultural Diversity
Canada is rich and diverse with more than 200 different ethnic origins. As a result, Canada recognizes there are nutritious foods that reflect cultural preferences and food traditions that can also support healthy eating.
Asian and Indian cultures, in particular, are focused on plant-diets, while the average life expectancy in Japan is 84 years-old. It would definitely help to improve overall health to think a little like other cultures.
The proposed food guide also recognizes that the way food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed, including food waste. All of this can have environmental implications, including soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as water quality and availability. It is incredible that the value of food waste and loss in Canada was estimated around $31.0 billion for 2014.
Final Thoughts on Canada’s Food Guide
The proposed Canada’s Food Guide is making some big steps, and I think the U.S. should take note. The updated food guide hasn’t yet been finalized, but it appears the proposed changes are aiming for a nutrition-based approach and putting consumers first rather than appeasing the lobbyists and politics of the food industry.
A prime example of this is how dairy was downplayed within the proposed food guide. Although the food guide draft didn’t fully exclude dairy, you may have noticed that it wasn’t featured as prominent as it has been.
It is not a surprise since pasteurized milk has been found to increase the risk of cancers, bone fractures, and even death. The casein in dairy also increases the risk of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, heart disease, and type 1 diabetes.
Canada’s proposed food guide isn’t without its critics, especially those echoing the all-too-common blanket statement that milk products are a great source of calcium and protein. So, let’s wait until 2018 for the final draft of Canada’s Food Guide.
Until then, both Canada and the U.S. should follow the simple guideline that a healthy diet is considerably better when it is mostly homemade from whole foods that are chemical-free, minimally processed, and largely plant-based.
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