Canada's New Food Guide - What You Should Know

Eat Well. Live Well. With those bold words emblazoned across the top, the new Canada’s Food Guide is now a reality. After months of speculation about this important government document, Canada’s Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor just unveiled the new guide at a press conference in Montreal.

The new food guide is much wider in scope than the old, single-page rainbow food guide. It also offers an online suite of resources including actionable advice, videos and even recipes at www.Canada.ca/FoodGuide/.

In the Food Guide Snapshot – a high-level overview of not just what Canadians eat, but how they should eat – the old rainbow has been replaced with modern photography of real food. The two-page document starts with a simple picture of a plate, with the following advice:

Canada’s new food guide’s recommendations on healthy eating:

• Have plenty of vegetables and fruits (visually: half your plate)

• Eat protein foods (visually: a quarter of your plate)

• Choose whole-grain foods (visually: a quarter of your plate)

• Make water your drink of choice

The back of the document focuses on how we make food choices. It reminds Canadians to cook more often, eat meals with others, be mindful of their eating habits, and enjoy food. It also advises us to use food labels, be aware of food marketing, and limit foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat.

How Health Canada made the new dietary guidelines

The two-pager for consumers is paired with a lengthier resource called Canada’s Dietary Guidelines for Health Professionals and Policy Makers, which provides the evidence and rationale for their decisions. It’s based on thorough, info-packed evidence reviews, which are also available online. To prepare these documents, Health Canada examined over 100 systematic reviews on food topics, and notes that industry-commissioned reports were excluded from the review, in order to reduce any conflict of interest.

In fact, all of the media speculation that food companies, commodity groups and lobbying boards would be able to sneak in and add their voice to the food guide were unfounded. Health Canada stayed true to their original vision and did not meet with industry representatives to discuss the food guide. The final document is based on what they believe to be the most up-to-date nutrition science, not on the biased opinions of industry. It’s a win for Canadians.

What’s new in this food guide?

Emphasizing plant-based proteins

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As predicted, the guide emphasizes getting protein from plant-based sources such as beans, lentils and nuts, rather than always choosing animal-based foods such as milk, meat and poultry (which are still part of the guide, too, just in a reduced capacity). This is a huge departure from the four food groups many of us grew up with, which literally contained the words “milk” and “meat.” This factor will get lots of news coverage, and, likely, pushback from the meat and dairy industries. But it is presented as being better for the environment, and aligns nicely with the Planetary Health Diet.

Whole grains, not refined

Grain products used to include both refined and whole grain items, but now only whole grains are emphasized. The focus on filling one-quarter of your plate with whole grains will also get some pushback, both from groups that sell refined grain products (white bread, pasta, cereals and rice), but also from advocates who believe that grain-free or low-carb diets are a preferred dietary pattern.

Cut back on sugar — especially in your cup in the form of juice and pop

The guide is also very focused on reducing sugar intake, especially from beverages. Sugary beverages are the number one source of sugar in the Canadian diet. So, pop, sweetened milk and juice are de-emphasized, while water, milk, plant-based beverages, coffee and tea are encouraged. The Pepsi-and-Coke-funded Canadian Juice Council will not be pleased. And talking about beverages, alcohol is also noted as a beverage to cut back on, because of links to liver disease and some types of cancer.

Where’s the guidance on portion size?

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Part two of the guide will be rolled out later in 2019. It will outline the type and amount of food to eat daily. But that document is meant for health professionals and policy makers, not for consumers. It will be used to plan menus for daycares, schools, hospitals, retirement centres and long-term care homes.

The only guideline you need is the Food Guide Snapshot’s plate model, which shows portions of protein, whole grains, vegetables and fruit. Focus group research revealed that this was much easier to understand than portion sizes and number of daily servings anyway.

Overall, this guide is a great start in a conversation that was long overdue. One document still to come later in 2019 focuses on considerations for Indigenous peoples, who have a higher rate of types 2 diabetes and more food insecurity than other Canadians. The new conversation is just getting started.

Ruba Alqishawi