Canada is revising its Food Guide Guide in preparation for release in early 2018. The Milk and Alternatives and Meat and Alternatives groups have been entirely eliminated and instead replaced by guiding principles for healthy eating based on the most recent peer-reviewed evidence.
I’ve seen many articles purporting that this new guide is encouraging Canadians to adopt a vegan diet. This is not exactly true, though it is true that milk and meat now belong to a general protein group that is made up largely of plant-based sources of protein.
This is definitely big news! Never in the history of the Canadian Food Guide has Health Canada steered Canadians towards choosing plant-based foods above all else, even touting their health and environmental benefits. Plant-based proteins are given precedence over traditional forms of protein such as meat, seafood, and dairy, and this has not come without its fair share of critics.
The best part is that you have a say in all this. Canada has opened up their draft guide to feedback and suggestions from the public, and it’s imperative we let them know that we want the focus on plant-based foods to stay put. I’ll outline how you can contribute later in this post, so keep reading to find out.
The proposed food guide has been divided into three guiding principles.
Guiding Principle 1: A variety of nutritious foods and beverages are the foundation for healthy eating.
Who could argue with this? The guiding principle goes on to elaborate that Canadians should have a regular intake of nutritious fruits, vegetables, grains, and protein – especially plant-based sources of protein. Legumes, nuts and seeds, and soy proteins take precedent over animal-based sources of protein. The guide also encourages a regular intake of water and eating foods that are low in saturated fat. It steers Canadians away from red meat and processed meat and encourages them to choose fibre-rich foods, and foods obtained through harvesting, hunting, trapping, or fishing.
The Take Home Message – Choose Plant-Based Foods
Guiding Principle 2: Processed or prepared foods high in sodium, sugars, or saturated fat undermine healthy eating.
Health Canada recommends limiting intake of foods and beverages high in sodium, sugars, and saturated fats. Included in this group are soft-drinks, fruit juices, and energy drinks. Avoiding such foods will protect oral health, and decrease Canadians’ risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. The guide suggests recommends consulting the Nutrition Facts label on packaged foods to help identify levels of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat by using the % Daily Value numbers as a reference.
The Take-Home Message – Choose Whole Foods
Guiding Principle 3: Knowledge and skills are needed to navigate the complex food environment and support healthy eating.
This section recommends that Canadians select healthy foods when shopping or eating out, prepare home-cooked meals with family and friends, and plan and prepare healthy meals in advance. Building a foundation of knowledge to supplement food choices is encouraged. Health Canada believes that preparing healthy meals together will help reinforce positive eating habits and aid in the development of a healthy relationship with food. The guide also suggests adopting mindful eating practices such as savouring every bite of food, and avoiding distractions while eating.
The Take-Home Message – Adopt Healthy Eating Habits
“Diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact.”
The three guiding principles of the food guide culminate in Considerations including Determinants of Health, Cultural Diversity, and Environment. Health Canada recognizes that socioeconomic status affects Canadians’ ability to make healthy food choices, and that food choices also differ culturally. The proposed healthy eating recommendations aim to improve the health of the whole country, and has thus considered the needs of various sub-groups to avoid unfair and avoidable differences in health status. Particular attention is placed on the effect our food choices have on the environment, touching briefly on greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, species extinction, and decrease in water quality. But in a first for a food guide, Health Canada places emphasis on the environmental benefits of choosing healthy eating, acknowledging that, “diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact.”
There’s Still More Work to be Done
While Canada’s proposed food guide is leaps and bounds ahead of its current iteration, there is much room for improvement of or elaboration on some points which are only briefly explored. Certain recommendations seem to purposely skirt what are presumably delicate issues, providing some tidbits of information while excluding others.
What Constitutes Healthy Food?
The food guide frequently references healthy food and stresses the importance of making healthy food choices, but it does little to outline what exactly constitutes healthy food. The Considerations section of the guide encourages Canadians to make healthy food choices when shopping and eating out, and it also suggests building a foundation of nutritional knowledge to support making healthy food choices. But where is this knowledge meant to come from if not from Canada’s Food Guide? Many Canadians rely on their government’s food guide for information on adequate nutrition, yet this information is sorely lacking. There is a history of consumers being led astray with regard to healthy food options; programs like the now discontinued Health Check seal created by the Heart and Stroke and Foundation endorsed packaged foods high in sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. If Canadians are expected to make healthy food choices, then the Food Guide should offer definitive information on what is healthy and what is not.
What Does Mindful Eating Mean?
In Guiding Principle 3, Canadians are encouraged to practice mindful eating, whereby each bite is savoured, distractions are avoided, and particular attention should be paid to feelings of hunger and fulness. But this is only the beginning of what it means to eat mindfully. As touched upon in the last section of the guide, to eat mindfully is also to consider all aspects of the food being consumed. It is about considering the farmer who grew the produce, the animal who died to provide a meal, the impact our food choices have on the environment. The way we currently eat is not sustainable and is definitely not conducive to extending the longevity of our planet, and that’s something we definitely need to be mindful of.
What Else About Plant-Based Diets?
The new Food Guide tells us, finally, that a plant-based diet places a significantly lower strain on the environment than its animal-based counterpart. But why is this the case? To better inform Canadians, the guide should make clear the impact of factory farming on the environment and highlight the fact that byproducts of factory farms have a larger influence on environmental degradation than does the burning of fossil fuels. With regard to water consumption, a 2012 study assessing the water footprint of animal products found that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value. This same article suggests that promoting a dietary shift away from animal products is an inevitable component in the environmental policy of governments, and we can see the first glimmer of this in this proposed food guide. But the guide also neglects to thoroughly enlighten the population on the health benefits of a plant-based diet when compared to omnivorous diets, especially those including red meat. Red meat has been shown to increase the likelihood of developing coronary artery disease as well as colorectal cancer, and as mentioned before, processed meats have been proven to cause cancer. The World Health Organization and the International Association for Cancer Research has classified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen, along with asbestos and tobacco. Neglecting to inform the public in this regard is like neglecting to tell consumers that cigarettes cause cancer. Frankly, it’s extremely irresponsible.
When Farmers Fight Back
A change to the Food Guide as revolutionary as steering Canadians towards plant-based, whole foods is bound to engender its fair share of backlash. Unlike the USDA, the body responsible for creating the food guide for Americans, Health Canada has chosen to elevate the health of Canadians above the interests of the food industry. In my post on protein I outlined how the USDA is responsible for facilitating the success of the agricultural industry while at the same time telling Americans what foods are healthy, which is an obviously inherent conflict of interest. Health Canada most certainly has affiliations with the food industry, and it has inevitably upset some of its partners by promoting a shift toward plant-based foods. In an interview for 680 news, a dietician for the Dairy Farmers of Canada expressed her disapproval of the revisions to the food guide and the removal of the Dairy and Alternatives Group: “Lumping all these protein foods together in the same group…is a disservice to Canadians because it will not help them consume a balanced diet that contains all the essential nutrients they need, especially bone health nutrients.” There is little evidence to support this claim (and curiously, studies that do support it were conducted by researchers with affiliations to the dairy industry), and much evidence to the contrary, including one 2014 study that found increased milk intake to be associated with an increase in mortality and bone fracture.
Let Your Voice Be Heard!
It’s important to remember that this food guide is just in its draft phase. It is entirely possible that Health Canada will succumb to pressures from the meat and dairy industries and shift the focus away from plant-based foods or even reinstate the meat and dairy food groups, regardless of countless sources of evidence. We don’t want this to happen! So please, please, visit the Food Guide Consultation and let Health Canada know that you support its focus on plant-based foods, and that you want to see more about the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. Click here! You can do it! Submissions have been extended until August 14th, 2017.
Thank you for reading, and let us hope that a plant-based diet becomes mainstream!