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Image source: Health Canada

(FAIR WARNING….. this is a longer post…. ‘cause there’s plenty to say!)

“So……what do you think?”   

As soon as the newest iteration of Canada’s Dietary Guidelines (CDG) was released, I was bombarded with this breathless query.   

Not surprising.  I’ve been vocal about my mistrust in and displeasure with previous Food Guides. 

And for good reason as the past process of developing them was profoundly shaped by the food industry, armed with various ‘research’ and influencer initiatives and deep, deep pockets to spend on these activities. 

It really made the guide more of an agri-business and grocery marketing tool than something that promoted and protected the health of us, the people.

I should know – I was once one of those food marketing executive types who helped ensure that kindergarteners got colouring books that touted chocolate milk as a healthy choice and that doctors and dieticians were recruited as paid spokespersons for edible oil products (AKA margarine) in order to demonize butter. 

Not my proudest moments for sure.  But I’ve reformed and it appears, so has the Food Guide.

The 2019 guide has finally stepped into the new millennium and is a much more evidence-informed and consumer-friendly resource. 

And it’s grown a backbone too. 

Instead of the ‘all foods can fit’ perspective it soft-peddled for decades to appease the dairy and beef and sugar and various other marketing boards, it now tells us bluntly that added sugar, alcohol, ultra-processed foods, sweetened drinks, and eating specific numbers of servings of certain individual foods (like dairy or refined grains) are likely detrimental to good health. 

It also departs from merely focusing on what’s on the plate to stating that good nutritional outcomes need to start with some home cooking skills.  And with finding enjoyment at meal times by sharing mindful eating experiences that are culturally relevant.

In other words – the best approach is a holistic approach that takes into consideration a person’s capacity to navigate the shopping, planning, preparing and enjoying of food that fits their lifestyle and traditions.  No fads, nothing rad. 

So pretty much what I – and my colleagues in the holistic community – have been saying all these years even without this long-awaited document. 

Go figure.

But setting aside my mild annoyance that it’s taken the government this long to catch up with the very sensible whole foods/whole life approach that’s always working for my clients, I admit that I am cautiously optimistic that these new guidelines are going to make it easier for people to make better choices and that these choices are ‘waaaaay better than what was being suggested by our government before.

Now – there is no doubt that this guide still falls far from ideal and there are still areas of improvement needed. 

So before following it word for word ….. I want you to know that this is still too cookie-cutter for most people to benefit from, especially if you are trying to overcome any health conditions or learning to listen to your body and doing what’s right for it. 

For that, please consult with a nutrition expert – and preferably one who has a progressive view of the mind-body connection.

That said – we’ve taken some baby steps here and I want to give you my perspective on the topline good, bad and ugly of Canada’s 2019 Dietary Guide.

The Good:

1. Bye-bye servings, hello to The Plate

Finally – a simple way to understand portions versus the old idea of servings and serving sizes.  The new icon of a plate works so much better than the rainbow or pyramid from the past that stated specific servings.  It’s so much easier to visualize a plate and to imagine what the ratio of portions on that plate should look like than to figure out the relevance of numerical amounts. 

I can’t tell you how many clients I had walking into my office and saying they could never eat 5-10 portions of veggies a day…. without even understanding what that meant in terms of volume.  (BTW – a decent entrée salad and two pieces of fruit would likely get you pretty close!)

But starting with a plate makes good sense for teaching kids and adults alike to picture good health choices.

2. Think plant-strong and fill half your plate with vegetables and fruit.

Who can go wrong with this idea?  Veggies provide a wide variety of vitamins and minerals and fibre – which most North Americans lack.  You need the fibre to keep you pooping on track, your blood sugar balanced and to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.  And weight management – it’s nearly impossible to lose weight or maintain your weight in a healthy way if you aren’t getting a proper amount of fibre. 

This does not mean the government  – or me  – is demonizing meat or poultry or fish.  It just means we need to pay more attention to veggie and fruits as the star of your plate.

3. The protein category explicitly includes plant and animal sources…and dairy no longer stands alone.

Now this is one of the better moves by the food guide developers.  It never made sense that dairy was its own stand-alone category. Except of course to the dairy lobby. 

From a holistic perspective, cow’s milk products can be both pro-inflammatory and a triggering allergen for many people.  It is a source of protein and can provide other nutrients like calcium, but unlike what the previous messaging has been – it is not a necessary food and many Canadians do much better when they limit or avoid it.  There are alternatives – nut and seed milks, fermented dairy like yogurt or kefir, and vegetable sources of calcium like nuts, seeds, sardines, salmon, and beans and lentils. 

Protein is really important but it doesn’t have to come from animals.  Even if you are an omnivore and have no intention of switching to vegetarianism or veganism, we seriously need to look at the idea of finding protein sources that tax the planet less.  And that means plants.  There’s a growing body of evidence that conventional meat production is responsible for about 30% of greenhouse gases and other environmental risks.   

What if we each just reduced our consumption a little bit?  Maybe taking up the challenge to have Meatless Monday is a good start?  Or at least focusing on that Plate proportion where protein becomes ¼ of your meal instead of the massive majority.   

These new guidelines recognize that people can eat differently from our parents’ generation when meat and two veg were the norm, and be healthier and more environmentally conscious.

4. Drink smart.

The acknowledgement that water is our best hydration tool – and a necessary one – makes my little nutritionist’s heart sing!  But even more so, the guide finally says we gotta rethink fruit juice and sugar-sweetened beverages because they are not health-promoting.  You don’t need to give your kids juice all the time.  You don’t need to have orange juice at breakfast every day. And you don’t even need to guzzle a giant go-cup of fresh pressed fruit juice from one of those hipster juiceries.  Fruit without fibre (which is what juice is) = no better than a glass of soda pop in terms of the amount of straight up sugar in it.

I feel differently about fresh vegetable juices and think that a green juice made up of celery, cucumber, leafy greens and a carrot or two and maybe even a few slices of apple is an excellent way to boost your nutrient intake. 

But make water your BFF, ok?

5. Who are the real nutrition villains according to the new guidelines?

Added sugar.  Aaaaaand maybe the food marketers themselves.  And I agree 100%.    

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set the healthy standard for added sugars at 25g a day – or about 6 teaspoons.  In total.  From all the foods you eat in a day (have a look at some labels and you’ll be shocked how fast that adds up!).

At last count, Canadians consumed between 20 teaspoons (women over age 71) and 41 teaspoons (teen boys).  It’s in everything – and it’s killing us.

Obesity, inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, acne, various types of cancer, unhealthy cholesterol levels, tooth decay…. the list goes on and on. 

And yet until now…. the government has never stepped up and told us to avoid it. I believe for fear of irritating the food industry – the processors, the retailers, the fast food companies and restauranteurs, the marketers.  You know, all the folks that count on us to get addicted to sugar so we lose control and just keep eating (yeah that’s a thing – check out Michael Moss’s investigative work  for the full scoop).

I think this is a huge step… and about time!

The other identified villain is alcohol.  That’s a big topic and one I am writing an e-book about.  So I’ll hold off my commentary about it here.   But stay tuned for a fuller discussion on alcohol and women’s health soon.

6. Eating should be fun – and social!

There is ample evidence that the emotions we carry about food have an impact on our overall health.  If we eat under stress, or in isolation, or without a calm and mindful perspective – it has an impact on how much we eat, how satisfied we feel, what we crave, how we are able to make healthful choices and how our hormone levels act and react.   

The social gathering of a meal is much more than just the food on the plate.  It symbolizes connection, intimacy, sharing and the very act of preparing and making time for a meal makes nourishment a priority.  So even if you ultimately eat it alone, the fact you’ve made space in your life to have and enjoy a meal, is a form of important self-care. 

The guide gets it right by suggesting that whenever possible, eating should be an event that is shared.

The Bad:

1. Myths and fats

I’m disappointed that the new guidelines continue to propagate the myth that fat is not important for health. 

Yes – hideously altered fats (like hydrogenated oils) from ultra-processed foods and rancid deep-fried nightmares that usually go hand-in-hand with refined carbohydrates, are a definite no-no. 

And I also advise caution around corn, canola, soybean oils  – because it’s tough to find these as non-GMO.  Olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, flax oil are all excellent unsaturated plant-based oils for various uses – and so eat them!  Our bodies need healthy fats to feel satiated, to feed out brains, to make our cell wall supple and so much more.

As far as animal (saturated) fats go, it’s beyond time we laid to rest the old myths that they cause heart disease and clogged arteries.  It’s bunk and hooey and I’m disappointed that the government didn’t delve far enough into the science and state once and for all that we’re all not going to keel over from eating butter, egg yolks and grass-fed beef.  Fat is not the enemy.  (I think we’ve already figured out that it’s probably Sugar and his sidekicks Refined Carbs and Soda Pop).

2. Lack of diversity on The Plate – even though its recognized that cultural and traditional ways are important

Hmmm…..the food guide creators say they took into consideration the cultural differences and traditions of Canadians.  But looking at the illustration of the Plate used in all the government materials …. those look like pretty homogenous veggies and fruits to me.  No bok choy, gai lan, rapini, bitter melon, cassava, jicama, okra, jackfruit, pumpkin, coconut, guava or Asian pear?  Not even a mushroom?

Okay – I get that some of these might not be readily available at local farmer’s markets and far-flung communities, but more than 20% of Canadians are foreign-born.  And these are their familiar foods.  It seems an unnecessary snub.  And a lost opportunity to expand all our palates and add much needed variety to our meals, especially when the expectation is that half our plate should be veggies and fruits.  Afterall, (wo)man cannot live on broccoli and apples alone! ?

3. Watching out for the wily ways of marketers – but how?

The guide warns not to be taken in by the slick and unrelenting marketing done by food companies.  Excellent point. 

But aside from reading the list of cautions on the government website…. exactly how are Canadians supposed to arm themselves and get educated about nutritional claims?  There are no more Home Ec classes in schools to get kids off on the right foot and very little room in the curriculum for this type of info on a broad scale.  As adults, we’re bombarded on billboards, in stores, on packaging, in social media, and through the use of celebrities to hawk the latest and greatest ‘healthier’ product or diet program.   

It’s exhausting just to find time to try to buy groceries, never mind figure out how to cook them.  Am I right?   So unless the government is going to put some restrictions on these companies for their claims (unlikely) or match them in the volume of their advertising and promotional budgets (very unlikely), we’re really left to our own devices to be savvy and stay in control of our own health.

Guess I’ll just have to keep writing about how to outwit and outplay and outlast Big Food and all those commercial diet companies and you’ll just have to keep reading and sharing what I write. 

Right?  ?

The Ugly:

1. What’s on our individual plate barely scratches the surface

As I said, the changes in perspective and some of the recommendations in this new guide has the potential to shift the health status of Canadians.  If they are implemented as policy decisions.

That’s a BIG if.  But a crucial one.

As much as the media coverage and some of the dieticians and medical professionals who have been quoted would have us believe, the role of the food guide is not to chaperone what the average Canadian chooses for dinner.  The real purpose is to set a tone that supports improvement to the overall Canadian food environment

That’s where the biggest impact will come – when we solve macro issues related to how to make good food accessible, ensure its benefits are understandable, and the places we eat it and are exposed to it are health-supportive. 

It’s pretty easy to see how to implement the new guidelines when we are literate, have financial resources, live in communities where food choices are plentiful and even have the capacity to work with a nutrition professional like me or one of my colleagues.   

We’re the fortunate ones.  You and me.  The ones who have taken steps to make nutrition a priority for ourselves and our families.  The ones who can afford to buy a wide variety of good quality foods, mostly organic, farm-fresh, non-GMO, and local.  The ones who know how to cook and invest the time to do so. 

Yep – it’s about privilege and for that I am humbled and grateful.  For I have it and I am it.   Privileged means not to be left wanting and not to have to skimp on healthy eats.  Not that I buy everything organic or gourmet and live a life of nutrition luxury.  But I do know that my family can afford to eat good food and that even though we no longer live in a major metropolis, we have easy access to it. 

To make true progress in this country and in the lives of all Canadians, we need to look deeper than just what the privileged can eat.  The whole system, the entire priority we put on food as a foundation to health and therefore productivity and therefore economic wellbeing, is out of whack. 

And yep – I am about to get on a soapbox, so fasten your seatbelts!

Here are some big, ugly questions that need to be addressed when we talk food, food policy and our collective healthy future:

  • What about people experiencing food insecurity – the working poor, the unemployed, new Canadians, seniors, those who are homeless?   Food bank reliance in Canada has never been higher.  But peek on the shelves of any food bank and you’re not going to see foods that match the new dietary recommendations.  You’re going to see the ultra-processed, sugar and sodium-laced packaged foods which contribute to chronic diseases that are killing us prematurely.  Diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, colorectal and breast cancer, and more.  I’m under no illusion that food banks are going to go away any time soon – but can we at least agree to stop donating crappy boxes of processed foods to them?  Give money so that Food Banks can buy fresh, local, real food.
  • And what about the government-funded institutions we rely on like hospitals, daycares, schools, long-term care facilities, correctional institutions and possibly even our military?  The vast majority of meals served in these places currently come nowhere close to being nutritionally sound.  Did you know that the average daily food budget for an inmate in the correctional system in Canada is $5.41?  Not per meal – per day!  And for a senior living in a long-term care facility it’s just over $9?  The military clocks in at a ‘generous’ $12.  Without a radical rethink, institutional nutrition will never meet the new standards set out in CDG and a whole swath of Canadians will continue down the path of malnutrition and disease.

    I am always amazed – no, make that appalled – at what is served to hospital patients in a place that is allegedly focused on helping someone to heal.  Ultra-processed junk like white bread, fruit juice, margarine, muffins, low fat milk and high sugar jello, canned fruits, powdered eggs.  The budget is meagre – around $8 a day.   But here’s the kicker: fully 50% of trays are left untouched.  Knowing the dreck that is on offer, can you blame patients for that?  The sad thing is that not only does all the that garbage go directly to landfill – but a report from 2010 documents this waste at $45 million, not counting the labour it took to produce and prepare the food itself and the cost of garbage disposal.  I’m guessing that number has gone up and not down since then.So when health ministries and hospitals start making excuses about how budgetary restraints hold them back from being able to provide more healthful options – I call bullsh#t.  You can do a lot with $45+ million to improve hospital food.  And don’t even get me started on the sh#tty, unhealthy food that is available for staff and visitors in the food courts!
  • How about Indigenous and remote communities?  Perhaps this is one of the greatest tragedies of all.  How can we possibly expect people living without the very basics of safe drinking water or affordable transport of food to be able to embrace the changes that the CDG is suggesting and improve their health? 

Big, ugly and yet so very worthy questions.  And there are surely many more. 

So…..what do I really think of the new guidelines?   

I think this document opens the door to embracing the sensible approach to what food writer and advocate Michael Pollan said years ago: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

But the jury is still out on whether these guidelines will kickstart a true revolution in health-focused food policy that serves all Canadians, especially those most vulnerable and least able to access the foods that will nourish them and the support they need to make better decisions.

Until then – I’ll just keep doing what I have been doing for the last 7 years……. taking the power of food as medicine seriously and spreading the good word! 

Are you with me?