Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a webinar on Canada’s newly unveiled food guide, in which Health Canada provided a bit more background about the food guide development as well as future directions for its development, and took questions from the audience. I’d like to share some of the highlights that struck me with you:

While developing the food guide:

  1. There were no meetings with industry representatives during the revision process. This might seem like a no-brainer if you are trying to put health first, but it’s actually the first time a country has done this.
  2. Especially in nutrition science, the personal preferences of the author may bias and impact the resulting recommendations. This means, for example, that vegans tend to recommend a vegan diet, omnivores, tend to recommend eating meat, and so on. The spokesperson explained that the recommendations were based on scientific research irrespective of personal preferences. But when pressed to disclose the personal lifestyles of the folk who worked on the guidelines, it turns out that they had a whole range of lifestyle habits – omnivores, vegetarians, people with dietary restrictions for health or personal reasons, and flexitarians. He hadn’t seen any vegans around the office, but that doesn’t mean that no vegans on the team. I think this is particularly noteworthy because it means that the new food guide has NOT been designed by a bunch of vegetarians or vegans, but rather that the the direction of the new food guide – which promotes plant-based proteins and cuts down on meats, milk and dairy – is actually being honest in putting the best interests of human health first, and not a case of vegetarians or vegans getting more elbow room.
  3. In the latest dietary survey, sugary drinks (including juice and flavored milk – not just soft drinks and energy drinks) were singled out as the highest source of sugars in the modern Canadian child’s diet. And that for children!! Okay. Let me control myself there before I rant. The food guide recommends cutting down on sugar and names water as the beverage of preference. This is being directly addressed by the food guide recommendations, and an example on how the latest dietary survey results are incorporated in the food guide.

Some of the most important changes in this food guide are:

  1. Messaging has shifted away from quantity messages (e.g. serving size and number of servings). Instead, the new messaging approach focuses on the quality of food choices, and how eating habits help to prevent chronic disease: that starts with family meals, food skills, and the eating habits of children.
  2. Healthy eating is more than just the foods you eat. It includes action advice on making healthy food choices, healthy eating habits, meal planning, and cooking tips – all of these factors impact your health, and this is reflected in the new food guide which presents more than “just the plate”.
  3. The food guide is designed to apply to adults and kids from two years upwards. That doesn’t mean that kids should eat as much as adults do, but rather that the proportions matter. In other words, kids need half a kids plate filled with fruits and veggies, whereas adults need half an adult plate filled with fruits and veggies. There are additional resource guides available for healthy infants (0-6 months and 6-24 months), pregnant women, and also a number of “life stages” recommendations with practical advice and tricks for groups of people such as seniors, low-budget eaters, and so on.
  4. The foods chosen on the plate were chosen because they aligned with the dietary guidelines, reflected a range of culture, were relevant to indigenous people, commonly produced in Canada, or because they are cost-effective (i.e. available in frozen, dried, canned and fresh forms for your convenience).
  5. The ‘fat profile’ caused a lot of confusion for people. The food guide does not recommend reducing total fat. Rather, it recommends getting your fat from polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats, because lowering your saturated fats improves your lipid profile and decreases total and LDL cholesterol, which reduces risk for cardiovascular disease. Current evidence does not support a need to differentiate between the types of polyunsaturated fats. (That said, I will add that for a number of medical conditions, differentiating between polyunsaturated fats can make a huge difference in your health and quality of life. Just ask if you want to know more.)
  6. They also explained the health consequences of various foods. A few examples:
    • Plant-based proteins have positive health impacts, such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes
    • Alcohol not only increases risk of cancer, liver disease, hypertension, but it is an additional calorie source
    • Refined grains have been replaced by whole grains because this improves cardiovascular risk factors
    • Sugars should comprise less than 10% of your dietary intake, because added sugar may lead to weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes

Looking forward, we can expect:

  1. The food guide is only one part of an integrative approach to address health inequity, which is fancy language to say that they plan to work with schools, employers, organizations and industry to make healthy eating the easier choice for all Canadians.
  2. More specific guidance for health professionals & policy makers, life stages will be coming out this year. Stay in tuned!
  3. Butter is currently fortified with additional vitamins, in particular Vitamin D, which is not present in food supply except for fish. (Did you know that butter is fortified by law?) In order to align with the new plant-based emphasis and replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, there are some new vitamin fortification policy proposals coming up that will likely move the mandatory vitamin fortification into other foods, such that all Canadians continue to get sufficient vitamins under the new food guide.
  4. They are currently working on proposed regulation for getting a food packaging symbol for foods high in sugar, sodium, or saturated fat on the front of those foods.
  5. Online resource enhancements (e.g. simplified messaging, or more specific information such as ‘Eat orange veggies several times a week’) as required.
  6. A set of dietary recommendations that are more specific to the considerations for indigenous peoples.

Again, I would like to emphasize that I am thrilled with the new guidelines and I firmly believe this is a big step in the right direction. Coincidentally, my own recommendations line up very closely with Health Canada’s newly unveiled food guide – which just goes to validate that this is the right approach to a long and healthy life!

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