It might be finally happening! Don’t you agree that the official eating guidelines for Canada should reflect what we actually know about the effects of diet upon health? Well it looks like “the times they are a changin’“.
The time has come to update Canada’s Food Guide. It has been ten years since the last one came out and our knowledge about nutrition has changed appreciably since 2007. When the last edition of Canada’s Food Guide was published it was criticized for allowing corporate food interests such as dairy, eggs and meat to exert their agenda on the final product, an influence that certainly was not unbiased (2). The 2007 guide was based on four food groups – Vegetables and Fruit; Grain Products; Milk and Alternatives; Meat and Alternatives. Two of these groups, meat and dairy are linked beyond a shadow of a doubt with cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and cancer. Further the present food guide does not differentiate between processed and non-processed food or simple and complex carbohydrates. The proposed new guide could be a drastic departure from previous editions. It appears that it will not include any food-specific groups and that dairy and meat as categories may no longer exist.
The health of Canadians is suffering. Over 60% of our population is overweight and 4 out of 5 citizens are at risk for heart disease. It is obvious that changes are needed. Accordingly Health Canada is planning the new food guide based on the wealth of evidence we now have regarding diet and health. Input from the public as well as the eating habits of Canadians have also been part of the process. Refreshingly, reports commissioned by the food industry and studies sponsored by them are excluded from consideration.
To accomplish their goal, Health Canada began by carrying out an “Evidence Review Cycle for Dietary Guidance” which looked at documentation collected from 2006 to 2015 regarding food and health. They plan to continue to monitor the most recent evidence on the relationship between what Canadians eat and the state of their health through study of high-quality, peer-reviewed literature published by leading scientific organizations and governmental agencies.
Here are the sources of the evidence being used to create the new Canada’s Food Guide (1);
U.S. Institute of Medicine Dietary Reference Intakes reports (such as updated Dietary Reference Intakes for calcium and vitamin D)
High-quality reports on food and health from federal agencies (such as U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee reports) and leading scientific organizations (such as the World Cancer Research Fund) as well as Health Canada health claims assessments
Recent systematic reviews of the research on selected food topics
Data on the dietary intakes of Canadians (Canadian Community Health Survey 2004, nutrition focus)
Data on the nutritional status of Canadians (Canadian Health Measures Surveys)
Reports on the health status of Canadians
Results of the “Assessment of the Use of Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide”. This included results of the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey Rapid Response module, which collected responses from 9700 Canadians on their awareness and use of the Food Guide.
Here are the proposed new recommendations for the 2018 version of Canada’s Food Guide; (3)
Focus on plant-based foods with regular intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and protein rich foods, especially plant-based sources of proteins. (Plant-based proteins are listed ahead of the animal-based sources.)
Eat less red meat, cream, high-fat cheeses and butter. Replace these with foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados. (The guidelines for the new food guide state “Inclusion of foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat, instead of foods that contain mostly saturated fat.”)
Plain water should be the beverage of choice. Avoid processed or prepared beverages high in sugars.
Limit processed and prepared foods and those high in sodium, saturated fat and sugar.
Plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks from scratch. Avoid convenience foods.
Share meals with family and friends.
Be more mindful about food. Take time to relax and savour your food. Learn about where it comes from and how it is prepared.
An additional bonus of this new food guide is that it will be good for our planet. The guidelines acknowledge that our food system is inextricably linked to the environment. Food production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, soil degradation, decrease in water quality and wildlife loss. Diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with less environmental impact. (3,4,5,6,7)
It can be easy to ignore government guidelines such as Canada’s Food Guide. However, according to the National Post, Canada’s Food Guide has been a very popular document over the years, with more than 1.7 million print copies and 230,000 downloads of the 2007 version (9). Whatever the influence on the general public, the food guide will definitely have a direct impact on food served in institutions including hospitals, school and universities. A new evidence-based food guide will also make it easier for health professionals, such as doctors and dieticians, and organizations, such as hospitals, to provide the most up-to-date and science-based information on diet to their patients.
The food industry of course is vigorously lobbying against these new guidelines. During the planning of previous food guides the various food interests were included directly in the process, working out guidelines in special one-on-one meetings with Health Canada. This time around they were allowed only the same opportunity as the general public to present their comments on the proposed guide (8).
The Director of Nutrition and Research with Dairy Farmers of Canada, Isabelle Neiderer, is worried that the proposed new guide could lump all protein into a single group, causing consumers to think that all protein is alike. Her view is that dairy products contain nutrients vital to human health such as calcium and potassium that are more difficult to find in other protein-rich foods. Another concern of hers is the threat to the jobs of the 220,000 people employed in the dairy industry. The Canadian Meat Council fears that the new protein guidelines will take away any emphasis on meat protein. Jackie Crichton, the council’s Director of Regulatory Affairs wonders what the impact on health would be if people started to eat less meat protein. By now even people in the food industry should be aware that, contrary to being the best source of protein, animal-based protein is problematic at best and that eating less meat and avoiding dairy products and eggs would be a giant step in the direction of a healthier population (8). Health Canada has stated that its goal at this point is to discourage people from eating meat and other foods high in saturated fat such as butter, cheese and eggs, not to stop consumption of these foods altogether.
The 2018 Canada’s Food Guide might well be a shining example for other governments around the world to follow. There is now an abundance of peer-reviewed scientific studies from around the world making it crystal clear that if people convert to healthier, more plant-based ways of eating, millions of lives would be saved. The proof, as is sometimes said, is in the pudding. The 2018 version of Canada’s food guide has not yet been released. We must be patient until then to find out if the lofty ideals of these guidelines remain or become diluted by short-sighted and self-protective interests.
2 Collier, Roger. Calls for a better food guide. CMAJ November 18, 2014; 186 (17)
4 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee 2015: Scientific report of the DGAC: Advisory report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture. (2016).
5 Aleksandrowicz, L., Green, R., Joy, E. J.M., Smith, P., Haines, A. The Impacts of Dietary Change on Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Land Use, Water Use and Health: A Systematic Review. PLOS ONE. 2016;11(11): e0165797.
6 Nelson, M. E., Hamm, M. W., Hu, F. B., Abrams, S. A., Griffin, T. S. Alignment of Healthy Dietary Patterns and Environmental Sustainability: A Systematic Review. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal, 2016; 7(6), 1005-1025.
7 Payne, C. L., Scarborough, P., Cobiac, L. Do low-carbon-emission diets lead to higher nutritional quality and positive health outcomes? A systematic review of the literature. Public Health Nutrition 2016; 19(14): 2654-2661.