In January 2019, Health Canada released its new and long-overdue food guide. The food guide was in the works for the past couple of years, and I took the opportunity to provide feedback and input, which Health Canada asked for during that time, as a health and nutrition professional. The proposed changes sounded very promising, but given that they would negatively impact two of the biggest food industries—meat and dairy, it was uncertain what the final result would be.
It is now here, and you can view the new guide and read through the accompanying health and nutrition guidance here on Health Canada’s official page: Canada’s Food Guide. At first glance, I have to admit my initial feelings teetered on disappointment, given how much the new food guide image resembles the poor guidance of the USDA MyPlate. However, upon closer inspection and analysis, I recognized the stark differences and positive changes that are portrayed by both the food guide image and supporting tips and guidance offered. In general, the new Canada food guide is a huge step up from previous guides and their food and eating recommendations, and the best one so far. In fact, it raises Canada’s stance as a leader in recommendations for truly healthy and responsible eating, next to many European countries. By no means is it perfect, as it still has several areas that could and should be improved upon, but taking the ideal aside, I am extremely pleased with the final outcome. My hope is that it can only get better. As part of this article, I will share with you 8 of the most important changes and positive improvements of the guide from my perspective as a holistic nutritionist and teacher who specializes in optimal health through whole food, plant-based nutrition, and healthy living.
The New Canada Food Guide
Here is a visual summary of the guide for you if you have not yet seen it:
As part of the new food guide, Health Canada also provides numerous tips and resources to help make healthy eating easy and practical. Whether it is eating on a budget or feeding children, there is a lot of guidance and other resources that are offered for everyday people and health professionals alike.
The Most Positive Changes in the New Canada Food Guide
1. An Emphasis on Eating Plant-Based
One of the biggest and most obvious improvements to the guide is the clear emphasis on basing one’s diet on wholesome plant foods. In this new guide, we can clearly see that most of our diet should be composed of real, whole plant foods. These being fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. Out of those, fresh fruits and vegetables that are either raw or gently cooked should be the most prominent in our meals and have the biggest role in our diet. In the detailed explanations of the guide, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are also referenced as possible healthy options.
For decades we have been told to focus on eating lots of fruits and vegetables, but this message was by no means taken seriously enough, especially when so much other food that is not ideal for us, was competing for our attention and a place in our diets. Nutritional science has also known for decades that plant foods, but especially fruits and vegetables, are the most beneficial, powerful, and healing foods for us. Yet, here again, not enough was being done to use this potential to prevent and reverse states of disease. Luckily, thanks to the focus on whole plant foods and diets based on them, especially in the last two decades, the prominence and importance of these foods have skyrocketed. This has been extremely helpful, but in truth, science and research aside, one only has to experience these foods to know their power and potential personally. The attractive natural colors and flavors of fruits and vegetables entice us. (Mind you, some people need a serious detox from processed food to appreciate them properly.) Our anatomy and physiology are perfectly suited for them. In addition, they are the easiest and most natural foods for us to obtain and eat without any or minimal tools, and most fruits and vegetables can be easily eaten in their natural forms without any cooking. Truly, nature could not have sent us a clearer message, and finally, modern society is catching up to feeding the human body with its most ideal food source.
2. An Emphasis on Eating Whole Foods
The second most important improvement is an emphasis on eating whole foods versus refined and processed foods. Although it may seem obvious to anyone who is health-conscious that this should have always been the guidance given by any government, health agency, or medical professional who actually cares about people’s optimal health, weight, and wellbeing, sadly this has not been the case. Over the years the message was mixed and unclear, as both the Canadian and other world food guides, pyramids, and plates featured, or to this day feature, ambiguous language and images when it comes to actual food choices. In fact, the 1992 version of the guide featured most prominently processed and refined carbohydrate-rich foods.
The new 2019 guide leaves nothing to the imagination by showing a real food image, and not any kind of animation or symbol, of what whole food means and looks like. The plate features real fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and animal products. These are the foods that provide proper and high nutrient density, as opposed to processed foods, which are a poor or devoid source of nutrients. Real foods provide us with healthy carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Processed/refined foods provide us with unhealthy carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and often synthetic vitamins and minerals, if any, and little to no fiber. Whole, real foods help us maintain good health, weight, and energy, whereas commercially processed foods are the most problematic, and increase our levels of inflammation, acidity, weight, and mental, emotional, and physical health problems. Thus, the more we can base our diets on whole, real food, the better.
3. Removal of the 4 Food Groups
This is what I consider to be the third most important improvement to this new guide. For much too long people were conditioned to see the ideal way of eating based on four arbitrary food groups that were largely a product of the industries behind them. I, like most people, grew up conditioned to think that I must eat meat and dairy for proper health. It wasn’t until my 20s that I realized how incorrect this was, and that we, in fact, have a choice in whether we include these foods, and thus their food groups, in our diet. But this was not taught in our schools or taught by our governments, health agencies, medical professionals, or families. This food guide, therefore, ushers in a new era where people are empowered to understand their food and eating choices in a new way. The new generations will grow up knowing that they have a choice, and a big one at that, in what they choose to put into their bodies based on what is truly best for them and not the industries that only want financial gain.
4. Taking the Focus Off of Dairy
This improvement deserves its own mention, as it is long overdue that people stop being conditioned into thinking that the mammary secretion of another animal, and one that is vastly different from us, is in some way an ideal or much less necessary part of a healthy human diet. It only takes a moment to observe nature to understand the role that mammal milk should have in our diet. Each female mammal makes the “right” nutritionally-composed milk for her offspring, and each offspring only requires and drinks that milk during a short part of its early life. There is a reason why most humans are unable to digest dairy; it is from the wrong animal and it is consumed past the weaning stage. One would think this would be enough to create a completely different outcome and view of dairy in our society, but not so. Everywhere one looks today, no matter what part of the world, dairy is inserted in nearly every cuisine and food choice, from the common use of butter and milk in many dishes and processed foods to the widespread promotion of cheese, yogurts, creams, and ice cream products.
However, here too, we have more than enough evidence today that neither milk nor dairy, in general, does a body good. On the contrary, milk and dairy products are one of the top allergenic foods, and ones associated with either increasing the risk of or aggravating numerous health conditions. Dairy most negatively impacts our digestive system, cardiovascular system, and immune system, and has strong links to the top three lifestyle diseases: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. So it is a breath of fresh air that the focus is finally off of dairy, which will hopefully quickly lead to new and enlightened attitudes about these foods and why they do not belong in human diets, especially ones geared towards optimal health and wellbeing.
5. An Emphasis on Plant-Based Protein
This improvement provides a lot of good and yet it missed the mark at the same time. In general, the guide takes a holistic approach to food and healthy eating and living, which I will talk about more below. This is to be greatly commended, as this is what helps us to see the “big picture” and better understand the dynamic interactions between our food, body, health, and lifestyle. Though when it came to protein, the guide still took a reductionist and industry-influenced approach. Notice that no mention is made of carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, or minerals on the plate, yet the nutrient protein is singled out. This paints a very incorrect picture, in most people’s minds, that it is only those foods that are “protein foods” or the source of protein in our diet. This is very misleading as all of the foods on the plate contain protein, and enough protein when one eats enough food for their needs, and the right quality or type of protein.
When we examine that group on the plate, aside from the beans and legumes, which are high in both carbohydrates and protein, animal products and nuts/seeds are both high in fat and protein. Eggs, for example, have around 60% of their calories coming from fat, and nuts around 70% or more. This is not said to vilify fats, but to paint more of a whole picture of our food. Not one whole food is composed of one nutrient only; all whole foods are a collection of both macro and micronutrients and deserve to be seen as such. In any case, getting back to the positive, the guidance is clear to focus on plant-based protein. Given the numerous health benefits of whole plant foods, the numerous health risks of animal foods, the numerous environmental sustainability concerns, and the numerous ethical and moral concerns, it is not only the most responsible advice that can be given today, but also the most beneficial for the present and future of all concerned.
In addition, and specifically for those who may be reading this and who are new to this info, here are a few other critical points to keep in mind about protein. First, human beings require much lower protein in their diets than many other animals, and it is estimated that around 10% of the protein in the diet is more than sufficient for optimal human needs. Second, high protein diets increase the risk of stress on certain organs and are associated with worse, not better, health and longevity. Third, most people in developed nations who eat enough food for their needs, even plant-based eaters, get more than enough protein without any effort, and the average person is eating too much protein for optimal needs. So there should be no fear about not getting enough protein or any special focus on protein, aside from telling people to eat enough food from a basic variety of the right foods (whole and real) daily, even if it is solely from plants.
6. Water as the Drink of Choice
This is absolutely outstanding advice from an influential governing health agency. Not juice, not soda, not milk, not tea, not coffee, and no other beverage but water should be our drink of choice daily. This is the most beneficial, healing, and healthy liquid, which contains no calories, no sugar, and no artificial additives unless we ruin it with any such substances. This is what benefits our health in a multitude of ways and whose benefits cannot be replaced by any other drink. Drinks that contain or are based on water do not provide the same benefits as pure water. Now the only challenge is to obtain high-quality water that is as pure as possible. For most people, this will mean using some kind of a filter, no matter how basic or elaborate as something is better than nothing, on a home water supply. This way we are not dependent on plastic bottled water, which has its own problems, and always have easy access to plenty of water that we can also easily take with us in reusable bottles.
7. Real Grains, Not Just Whole Grains
The guidance to eat whole grains, as opposed to refined or “white” grains, is nothing new. However, as has been shown over these last years, whole grains are not enough. There are too many processed food products that showcase the term whole grains, while the product is mostly composed of refined grains. Worse yet, many whole grain food products are still processed foods and full of numerous undesirable ingredients, including added sugars, oils, flavors, and preservatives. Common, conventional bread and bread products, cereals, granola bars, cookies, and crackers are perfect examples. This is why emphasis must be placed on eating real whole grains, grains that we can actually see, and not grains processed into flours that are further processed into unnatural foods for us. This is where we want to see foods like real brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, barley, and oats on our plates and as part of our meals. Secondarily, any processed whole grain products like bread or pasta, as the image shows, should play a smaller role, if any, in healthy diets.
8. A Holistic Approach to Food and Healthy Eating
Last but not least, one of the most important improvements that this food guide features is a holistic approach to food and healthy eating. Along with the food groups, gone are the arbitrary servings and numbers that created more confusion and made eating out to be a mathematical process. As part of this new food guide, people are guided to focus on eating the right foods in the right environments. This, as we already talked about, means more whole food and more plant food, along with eating more home cooked meals and more meals with family and friends. The food guide also emphasizes mindful eating to enjoy our food and moderate our personal food needs better with regards to how much food is enough, and it highlights the pitfalls of emotional eating or eating out of boredom, loneliness, etc.
This is so excellent to see because for the longest time our food environment and one’s mental and emotional environment were completely disregarded by such guides. Food and nutrition were approached and prescribed almost like drugs; take this, in this amount, this many times a day. However, this is not how our food, our bodies, or nature work. Life is dynamic, and there is no one formula or food prescription that will satisfy all people’s needs. Therefore, the more people are taught the right foundation for healthy eating and living, and how to modify it to meet our unique personal needs, the more we can ensure the best results when it comes to proper health, weight, energy, and longevity.
This is where we are called to make eating and proper nourishment a priority in our lives. Make more of your own meals and eat out less; it is not only many times healthier, but the most economical option too. Make a point of focusing on eating when eating, instead of eating while watching TV, playing games, or driving. Improve your social wellbeing and family dynamics by eating more meals with family and friends. It is these types of habits that have one of the biggest impacts on our health and weight, and what many cultures around the world who display the best health and longevity have in common. Skipping meals, rushing meals, or eating in a distracted way all create stress, which leads to poor digestion and increases the risk of energy, weight, and health problems. When we shift towards taking responsibility for our food and health, we are the ones who benefit the most.
The Right Results Require the Right Action
In conclusion, if people were to take the advice of this guide seriously and focus their diets on real, whole food that mostly comes from plants, within a few years we would start turning around the health and weight statistics in this country for the better. Diets based on such food choices automatically avoid or drastically reduce our consumption of added sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, which the food guide also mentions and recommends to reduce. This is why, in general, this is a pretty outstanding final product, given how much our society is set up to favor processed foods and animal foods and influenced by these industries.
Of course, given how polarized and opinionated our society has become, this new food guide is still bound to be criticized, especially by those who have a stake in the dairy, egg, or meat industries, along with those who follow or have a financial stake in specific diets that single out certain nutrients, such as high fat, high protein, or low carb diets. That is to be expected. Likewise, the food guide is not going to be satisfactory for vegans and those who wish to see a world where no animals are exploited for human consumption, especially when plants provide everything we need and more in a better way for us and our Earth. The food guide is also presenting a picture that may seem out of reach for many poverty-stricken Canadian households. However, it is not the fault of this or any food guide that people in a rich and developed country like Canada, especially children, don’t have enough to eat or survive based on nutritionally inadequate diets. The solution here is not to lower the food guide standards, but to face the elephant in the room and fix a broken system. It is also not the fault of this or any food guide that most of our land, water, air, and forests are being destroyed by factory farming, and animal farming in general, due to the perverse desire for animal food that has been conditioned by the industries upon the people. Again, the solution is not to adapt the food guide to a destructive system, but to set a higher bar for positive and necessary change.
Our world and human society are changing rapidly. We are facing challenges that we never had to deal with before, and most humans are overwhelmed mentally, emotionally, and physically as it is. The same goes for our Earth, which has been battered by the onslaught of the chemical and industrial fallout. The solution is not to keep people in states of stress and sickness, but to help them and teach them how to help themselves. So if this new food guide sets the bar too high for the likes of some, I think the solution by now should be obvious; it is time to change our attitudes and behavior, rather than try to maintain a dysfunctional status quo. As Krishnamurti shared several decades ago:
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Oftentimes, change is not easy, and it is all too often our natural tendency to resist change, especially when it pushes upon our comfort zone. But this should not limit or stop us from growing and moving forward. If we are to make effective progress, we have to look for solutions that benefit the greater good, and not a select few, and continue to build upon those solutions. I hope this new food guide inspires you toward healthier eating and living choices.