What's wrong with Canada's food guide?

Posted on Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Written by Lindzie O'Reilly

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide (originally called Canada’s Official Food Rules) has been around since 1942 and is meant to provide guidance when it comes to making healthy and nutritionally adequate food choices. There has been much talk recently about the state of the Food Guide and many calls for an update.

As a science, nutrition is not new. Nutrition is, however, constantly evolving. Additionally, because we all eat, we all have our own opinions about food and nutrition. Combined together, this has created a very complicated and, in my opinion, often toxic food environment.

How is the average person supposed to make sense of all of this information? Is the Food Guide still a useful tool for Canadians?

In many ways, the Food Guide can serve as a source of guidance, but in my opinion, should not stand alone.

I believe that Health Canada will always struggle to develop a Food Guide that depicts the natural variety of a healthy diet. We eat for many different reasons, we all have different likes and dislikes, and we have each been raised in a unique food environment (i.e. the foods you were exposed to and the messages you were provided with as a child). From the Food Guide, one can learn that a serving of meat and alternatives could be two eggs or 75g of chicken, but what if you have never cooked an egg before, or are terrified of purchasing and touching raw chicken? I believe that in order to bring about healthy change in our society, we need to spend a little more time looking at issues such as busy schedules or lack of cooking skills, rather than debating whether to include 75g or 100g of chicken with dinner or feeling guilty if we include three tablespoons of peanut butter instead of two.

We have forgotten about balance, and instead have begun an unrealistic pursuit of perfection

I will admit that, when building a meal plan for clients, I typically include a bit more protein and a bit less carbohydrate than the Food Guide suggests. I also believe that the Food Guide does tend to emphasize more processed grains (i.e. cereals, granola bars, and breads) and neglects the awesome variety of tasty and unprocessed whole grains (have you tried millet, amaranth, buckwheat or teff??). That said, following the Food Guide “as is” will certainly not make you unhealthy and I work very hard to fight against many of the extreme approaches that continue to pop up in the media and in social circles.

Cutting out entire foods or food groups and labelling foods as “good” and “bad” has the potential to have a very harmful effect on health and a very destructive effect on one’s relationship with food. Instead, if I feel that an individual is consuming more carbohydrate or processed food than is ideal for their health, I believe in giving them the knowledge and skills necessary to increase their intake of fresh healthy food, rather than shaming them for eating processed food or establishing rules against it.

The Food Guide focuses on individual food choices, rather than the overall picture

All in all, I believe that debate around the content of the Food Guide has led us to become caught up in the nitty gritty details. We look to the Food Guide to provide rules and guidance and, in doing so; have forgotten the importance of enjoying delicious real food. When working with clients, I often keep the Food Guide in the back of my mind, but would almost never pull it out and use it in a session. Instead, I am more likely to talk with clients about trends in their intake and set specific and individualized goals around variety and balance at meals and snacks.

I believe that we should always have a Food Guide that provides guidance regarding balanced and nutritionally adequate choices. I believe that our current Food Guide could use some updates to reflect a greater variety of fresh whole foods. I also believe, however, that the Food Guide should never serve as a stand-alone document and that, if you have concerns about your food habits, you should work with a qualified health professional to find a routine that works for your body, that you enjoy, and that you can maintain long term.

Questions, thoughts or concerns? Feel free to contact me at loreilly@uoguelph.ca OR call x52131 to book a free one-to-one nutrition appointment.

News Archive