The revamped Canada’s Food Guide: Trending healthier, but is it enough?

Monday, July 31, 2017

If you grew up in a household where slices of enriched bread and butter were on offer at every meal, you can probably thank Canada’s Food Guide. For the first time in 10 years, Health Canada is in the midst of revamping the food guide through a review of existing research and a multi-phase public consultation process.

Overdue for an overhaul, the guide, intended as the foundational resource on healthy food choices for Canadians, encourages daily recommended eating quantities that are unattainable, and features a pictogram that groups a fresh fish and a sausage in the same category as equally good choices.

Our nation’s Food Guide has taken many forms in the past 75 years, but even the most recent 2007 version ignores current public health concerns of obesity and diet-related chronic illnesses, such as Type II diabetes, most prevalent in the low-income areas that our Community Food Centres (CFCs) and Good Food Organizations (GFOs) call home. The current version of the guide fails to reflect the diverse foods of our multicultural population and does not represent those choosing more environmentally friendly or restrictive health-based diets. Historically, the influence of the food industry has been overrepresented in Food Guides, putting economic interests ahead of public health.

For these and other reasons that many experts have voiced well, food literacy programs developed by CFCC and our partner organizations have avoided Canada’s Food Guide as a healthy eating resource. Instead, our programs are informed by international resources like the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate & Pyramid. While Canada’s Food Guide features what, and how much, to eat, these resources focus on diet quality and proportions rather than servings, and recognize the impact food can have—not just on our physical health, but on our social connectedness and the environments that sustain us.

Because we craved a made-in-Canada resource for our partner CFCs and member GFOs, we established our own Good Food Rules. Like a food guide for agencies, these are principles for food-based programs that factor in the impact of broken food systems and income insecurity on one's ability to access healthy food. The Good Food Rules help community members navigate our complicated food landscape, where the healthiest choices are not always the easiest to make—especially on a low income.

We also created a guide for the public called Good Food For You, which focuses on simplicity and balance in overall dietary and food habits. The guide consists of 10 simplified approaches to common sense, sustainable, healthier eating.

It’s time for a useful and respectful guide fit for a population dealing with the overfed and undernourished, rather than the underfed and malnourished. The summary of guiding principles and considerations released by the government in July are promising, with strategies and recommendations that are simple to integrate into individuals’ day-to-day eating patterns. It appears there will be less emphasis on meeting specific serving targets, and more emphasis on what to eat and how to eat it. The revamped guide will also touch on what not to eat, including lowering one’s overall intake of processed and prepared foods and reducing intake of unhealthy fats, sugar and salt.

The new guide will include recommendations for food skills and knowledge, including cooking from scratch, enjoying meals with others, and eating mindfully. Other emerging themes include environmental sustainability, animal welfare, cultural diversity, and alternative diets for vegetarians and vegans as well as those with food allergies and intolerances. The released principles allow for autonomy in the kitchen, and offer plenty of room for individuals to fulfill their own cultural and nutritional needs and beliefs around food.

Finally, a critical element that was left out of previous food guides revolves around how we eat. We work with our partners to harness the power of bringing people together around food. Meals are healthier when we cook them from scratch and use them as an opportunity to come together. We're excited to see more emphasis placed on the culture and climate of eating in the new Canada’s Food Guide.

You have until August 14 to have your voice heard through phase 2 of the Health Canada public consultation. For the health of your family, community and country, please have your say today.

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