Previewing Canada’s new food guide

The other day I saw a news article about the ‘new’ Canada’s Food Guide and it definitely piqued my interest. I’m a public policy nerd and a nutrition nerd so this topic is right up my ally. The Guide is currently in draft form and is expected to be finalized later this year. The document is produced by the Federal Government’s Health Canada organization, was first adopted in the 1940s, and was last updated in 2007. It has long come under fire for being unbalanced and promoting unhealthy food and dubious links to various industries. The guide has actually been criticized for enabling obesity by a federal government senate report because it encouraged consumption of high-sugar foods such as fruit juices. The updates to the Guide are supposed to reflect a more “evidence-based approach” rooted in nutritional and medical science. Additionally, the government consulted with over 26,000 Canadians including small focus groups and larger briefing sessions with health and industry organizations. Until we see the full guide, and its companion site and documents, it will be tough to fully understand its recommendations and whether they align with my personal ‘keto’ lifestyle.

What to expect
But what do we know so far? What can we expect from the new Canada’s Food Guide with respect to government guidance for healthy eating?

First, it seems there has been more input and consideration of more groups of citizens than ever before. Health Canada is trying to address past criticism and include a diverse range of Canadians in their consultations and recommendations. This includes many different ethnic backgrounds, geographic and market availability, and socioeconomic groups.
It’s also of interest to note that Health Canada agreed not to meet in private with food industry or business reps when consulting with this guide re-vamp. This is a huge step in the right direction in my opinion. Public policy has shifted to engagement or consultation models in recent years, as well as needing to be transparent in development and operation. The government has not made an exception to these new principles when preparing the new food guide.

Second, there’s more to the food guide than just making recommendations for what foods to consume and what to avoid. The guide and it’s accompanying website and literature provide resources for meal planning, shopping for food, reading food labels, tips for eating at restaurants, etc. These are all valuable tools and good skills for everyone to develop regardless of whether or not you agree with the guide’s food nutritional recommendations. The guide will also touch on making good food choices for non-nutritional benefits such as reducing food waste, accessibility, and how food choices impact the environment. These are also important things to consider.

Finally, there’s the ‘meat’ (so to speak) of the guide which outlines nutritional guidelines, and speaks to which foods you should and should not consume. The guide starts with three guiding principles, of which the top two are about guiding what to eat: 1) Foods and beverages to encourage; 2) Foods and beverages to limit or avoid; 3) Knowledge and skills (such as planning, cooking, and preparation).

Nutritional recommendations
So far, the buzz about the new guide seems to circle around changes in recommendations for meat and dairy products. Specifically, shade is thrown on red meat which has the beef industry worried. Plant-based protein, and fruits and vegetables in general, are the shining stars of the guide. Non-saturated fats will be championed, including promoting consumption of avocados, nuts, and seeds, instead of saturated fats as found in butter, cheese, whole milk dairy products, meat, and coconut oil. An opinion piece by a group of physicians and dietitians was published by the Calgary Herald which essentially summed up conventional widespread health and nutrition expectations that eating less animal products and more plant products will be good for everyone’s health. An piece via CBC News presented the counter argument continuing with the old guide’s failings of promoting a low-fat, high carbohydrate foods will not help anyone.

My preliminary opinions
All I can say at this point in time is that I’m inclined to think the new guide doesn’t go far enough to provide recommendations to help Canadians stay healthy, and prevent or deal with metabolic diseases. I’m all for recommendations to eat less processed foods and cook at home with responsibly-sourced and sustainable food. And the consultations, and choice to try to avoid industry and political influence, are noble efforts in the right direction. As an individual, you can chose whether you wish to eat according to the food guide but it’s important to consider the guide’s impact as a piece of policy throughout the country. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions will take their cue from the guide and only offer what it recommends to the most vulnerable in our society. Government recommendations impact industry, products we can buy, and our society itself. These guidelines will be part of the foundation information taught to future generations of children, and those training in medicine and nutrition. And as we’ve seen, science and evidence is developing rapidly regarding nutrition but the wheels of government tend to move slowly. Nutrition is like a moving target but since we’re unlikely to get a new food and nutrition guide anytime soon I hope they hit closer to the that target this time around.

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