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A Fresh Take on Canada’s Food Guide
How to Use it and What You Need to Know
Simple, colourful and clean may be how people describe Canada’s new one-pager food guide. The revamped healthy eating recommendations released in January reflects Health Canada’s newest take on how modern Canadians should be eating – integrating mindfulness, focusing on home-cooked meals, and the social aspects of eating with others.
The guide also underscores the importance of using food labels, limiting sodium, sugars and saturated fats, and being aware of food marketing messages. The simplicity of the guide makes it user-friendly for many Canadians, but it’s also not for everyone. Here’s my review of the newest guidelines.
Proportion vs. Portions
Gone are the days of the four food groups! Let’s be honest, we have all probably struggled at some point estimating portion sizes, let alone knowing how many servings we have consumed. The new food guide is simple: vegetables and fruits make up most of the meal (about 50%), while protein foods and whole grain foods make up for one quarter each (about 25%). The plate is much more relatable and easier to understand. It may also be a more realistic and attainable goal for Canadians. Among the pros, this tool is also great because it can be adapted to other serving objects like bowls and food containers of varying sizes and shapes – if you keep average proportions the same, of course. However, with the number of servings gone there could be a tendency for people to overeat. For all we know, we could be going for our sixth helping, thinking it would be healthy as long as we keep the proportions right. The challenge lies in knowing when to eat when we are hungry and knowing when to stop when we are full.
A dietitian can help you develop these intuitive eating practices that work for you while ensuring that you meet your nutritional requirements safely and effectively.
The current guide encourages more plant-based foods, particularly when it comes to proteins. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains and plant-based proteins can provide adequate nutrition needed for good health when integrated into the diet properly. With Health Canada’s attempts to encourage more Canadians to eat vegetables and fruits, it does feel as if a vegetarian or vegan diet is the newest focus of the health agenda, and perhaps the new gold standard of what constitutes as healthy. Some have even critiqued its environmental or ethical underpinnings. Regardless, eating more plants is not a bad idea but the concern lies in people’s ability to get enough diverse plant sources of proteins, vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron, zinc and iodine. Often, individuals on vegetarian or vegan diets are recommended to include fortified foods and supplementations to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
The new food guide takes a very different approach to healthy eating and it’s not just the food. There is greater emphasis on the where, when, why and the how components of eating. It almost seems as if the food guide is reminding us all to slow down in our ever-changing, fast-paced society. Developing mindfulness, learning cooking and meal planning skills, celebrating food culture and traditions, and eating meals with others can really help us all to live better, enjoy life, and live in the moment. Sociocultural factors impact our food practices everyday. By bringing these components to the spotlight, we can connect better not only with our food, but with the people and communities that surround us.
Cost of Healthy Eating
With the rising cost of food, many Canadians will find it challenging to eat healthy following Canada’s newest guide. Many foods displayed on the plate appear to be fresh and minimally processed. Canadians are encouraged to “limit highly processed foods” and eat them “less often and in small amounts.” With the rising costs of groceries, this kind of messaging can be very conflicting – should families choose more expensive foods that are healthy (and feed fewer people) or feed more people with cheaper, processed foods?
This year, spending on groceries across all food categories is anticipated to rise between 1.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent compared to last year – that’s approximately $411 more per household. The cost of vegetables accounts for most of the increase and with growing demand for vegetables, it is likely that produce will rise more than 4-6 per cent. With an estimated 800,000 Canadians regularly relying on food banks, following healthy recommendations is a real socio-economic struggle and perhaps not the most feasible form of guidance for eating well. The food guide does little to address the issue of food insecurity.
The good intentions of the guide to direct Canadians to eat more plant-based foods and drink more water can be a challenge for those who live with serious medical conditions, that require customized nutritional guidance. Some among them are those with eating disorders, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome / disease, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, AIDS, and cancer.
Even very young children and the elderly need special consideration. As such, the guide should only be used as a reference for the general population of healthy adults. Speak to a dietitian, naturopath or your family doctor to ensure you are on the right track.
Today, 1 in 5 people in Canada are foreign-born and over 200 ethnic origins call this nation their home. With that said, the current food guide doesn’t reflect food diversity and culture. For example, many Canadians do not eat on plates – some use banana leaves, hands, bowls and other eating utensils. The oversimplification of the guide has resulted in the elimination of a lot of cultural and traditional foods, which may make some Canadians feel left out.
Canada’s food guide has taken a major leap in its health promotion and healthy eating strategy. The rapid growth of food consumerism, the information age, especially the accessibility of mobile technologies, has shifted Canadians’ dietary practices away from the home.
The general message to eat well and live well using mindful approaches is well-intended and aims to guide Canadians to living better through informed food choices and eating practices.
The food guide should be used with other resources and healthcare providers. Dietitians are well-positioned to be leaders in this area. They are qualified health professionals that can help provide Canadians with tailored guidance and support to eat well and live well.
Rosanna Lee is a registered dietitian / nutritionist with the College of Dietitians of Ontario. She currently practices in private and at multiple medical clinics in the Greater Toronto Area (Lifemark Bathurst and St. Clair, Long Branch Walk-in Clinic, Get Well Clinic) and works closely with the Chinese community. Get in touch with Rosanna today to kick-start your health and wellness journey! Email at: [email protected].