The meat and potatoes of Canada’s Food Guide used to be quite literally meat and potatoes.
The latest iteration of Health Canada’s advice on what to eat has taken those two former dietary staples almost entirely off our plates and replaced them mainly with leafier vegetables, alternative proteins, such as tofu and beans, and whole grains, such as quinoa.
Finally released Tuesday after a long delay, the 2019 guide advises Canadians to limit sugar, salt and saturated fat and, in a departure from previous guides, embrace a plant-based diet.
A dinner plate that is half-full of brightly coloured veggies has replaced the rainbow and pyramid as the guide’s new image. Small cubes of beef and thin slices of poultry are almost hidden on the plate beneath chickpeas and walnuts.
Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor helped unveil the new guide at Tuesday’s Montreal launch by saying that food is about family and tradition and “eating should be a pleasure.” Canada’s Food Guide helps, she says, by providing “clear, concise advice” about diet that’s also easy to use.
Now that the guide has stepped into 2019 with an interactive, mobile friendly website, she says, it is a “powerful resource” than ever before. “It reflects Canada 2019 with an eye to the future.”
The guide has its critics.
A group of doctors across the country had been crusading against some of the expected guidelines since 2016. Barbra Allen-Bradshaw, a British Columbia pathologist and Carol Loefflemann, a Toronto anesthesiologist, co-founders of Canadian Clinicians for Therapeutic Nutrition, a national non-profit, say that Canadians should be eating fewer carbohydrates and more fat from sources such as steak and cheese.
At Canada Beef, a marketing organization run by cattle producers, Joyce Perslow supports the guide’s emphasis on eating with others while limiting processed foods. But she worries the guide undervalues the protein in red meat. At 184 calories, a palm-sized piece of steak has 26 grams of protein, and to get the same amount of protein from almonds one would need to eat more than a cup, which could add up to 728 calories, Perslow said. Getting 26 grams of protein from beans would mean eating an entire can at 420 calories, she added. “For people who are concerned about their weight — and since obesity is an issue here in Canada — that’s not a great protein substitute.”
Dr. Andrew Samis, a critical care surgeon in Kingston, Ont., calls the food guide “vegan” and flatly rejects the notion that every Canadian needs to eat less meat and dairy, as the new food guide recommends.
Chronic illness, including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, are brought about by eating refined carbohydrates, including the pasta and toast on the food guide’s plate, Samis says, and for some people, “the pathway to health is by eating more eggs, meat and dairy.”
People need choice, he says, not a one-size-fits-all diet. “Will this diet make some people healthier? I think so,” he says. “Will it make some more unhealthy? Yes.”
The new website accompanying the food guide will offer Canadians quick food tips they can use in a hurry, says Kate Comeau, of the Dietitians of Canada, such as what to do with frozen spinach —throw a handful in soup, for instance — and how to navigate the supermarket’s produce isle.
The guide also focuses more on proportions of food on a plate rather than on precise daily intake amounts. Instead of weighing your stew or couscous to find the correct amount to eat, think about it as a quarter-portion of that dinner plate. “Even that one little shift is quite significant,” she says.
Here are five of the biggest changes to Health Canada’s Food Guide:
- Canadians should envision their dinner plate half full of veggies.
- Canadians should eat mostly plants, choosing alternative proteins, such as tofu, over food from animal sources, such as steak.
- More than ever before there’s a focus on eating behaviours, such as “enjoy your food” and eating with others.
- The guide takes aim at alcohol saying it’s loaded with calories and, mixed with syrups in a cocktail, can be a significant source of salt, sugar and saturated fat.
- Canadians should avoid fast and processed foods, including deep-fried take-out, sugary breakfast cereals and sports drinks.
An unhealthy diet is a risk factor for developing chronic diseases, such as ischemic heart disease, stroke, diabetes and breast cancer and it places a burden on the health care system, the guide says.
“The impact of chronic diseases is likely to continue to increase unless we take action,” the new guide says.
Unlike earlier versions, this guide isn’t simply about what to eat. It places greater emphasis on how to eat and think about food.
With its new slogan “Eat well. Live well,” the guide devotes some of its nine guidelines to food skills, such as cooking, and creating a supportive “food environment” where “cultural food practices should be celebrated.”
The new guidelines include “be mindful of eating habits,” “enjoy your food” and “eat your meals with others.”
Intended to inform policy as well as help regular Canadians figure out what to eat, the guide even tells consumers to be aware of food marketing.
Awash in a constant stream of changing and often conflicting messages about food, the guide says, we live in a “complex and crowded information environment (that) can make it hard for Canadians to make healthy eating choices.”
Cooking meals at home is the best way to stay healthy, the guide says. Canadian households are spending more and more of their budget on fast and processed foods that are laden with calories, sugar, salt and saturated fat, the guide says. And all that eating out is bad for yet another reason, according to the guide’s advice, because if we’re not preparing our own food we are missing out on an essential skill that is key to a healthy lifestyle.
Something else that undermines healthy eating, the guide says, is sugar.
Sugary drinks, including sports and energy drinks and fruit juices, were the main source of sugar in our diets in 2015, according to the food guide, and it urges us to cut back. Foods that are high in sugar, like candy bars and fruit leather, such as Fruit Roll-Ups, have “little to no” nutritional value and should be limited, the guide says.
In terms of what to eat, the guide trumpets vegetables and legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, fish and shellfish. If we must have our meat, the guide encourages us to choose lean cuts. Milk, yogurt and cheeses should be “lower fat,” the guide says. And, water should be our drink of choice.
Michele Henry is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @michelehenry