The 2019 Canadian Food Guide – One Giant Step Forward and Two Giant Steps Back

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As many of you know the newest version of the Canadian Food Guide was released earlier this week, in fact it was released on my Birthday!   In many ways it was the perfect representation of what most gifts are; a moment of excitement at the sight of the wrapped present followed by confusion followed by the thought in my head “Does this person even know me at all?” (at least to me, I really despise gift giving culture for many reasons but I digress)

Before I go forward with my critique, I want to share the things I DO actually like about this food guide.  I’m going to seem ungrateful because I’m going to blow past them really quickly as I’m sure you’ve read other blog posts by my amazing colleagues:

  1. Goodbye to the Milk and Dairy products food group! There are multiple reasons why I wanted to see this gone.  The biggest of which is reflective of the statistics that the majority of the world’s population is actually lactose intolerance.  Secondly, there’s growing evidence that calcium intake ALONE doesn’t have those positive effects on bone mineral density (Yeah, you read that right.  There’s poor evidence that calcium intake ALONE will have positive effects on bone mineral density – more on that in a future blog post).  Thirdly, and probably most importantly, it’s a huge move away from the lobbying power and control that the Dairy Farmers of Canada and many other lobbying groups had in Canada.  Don’t get me wrong, I love dairy (when I can tolerate it) but it causes so many more issues for the average person – why bother?
  2. Dietitian haters can’t say we’re bought by industry anymore! I’m tired of people accusing Dietitians that we’re bought by industry and that we’re part of this giant corporate conspiracy, this is proof that we’re not.  Messages like “Be aware of food marketing” and “Cook more often” is amazing! That’s all us “sell-out” (insert sarcasm and eye roll) RDs have always wanted! My integrity and my trust-worthiness are extremely important to me (especially now as my career is moving more towards Media and Journalism with my TV show ‘Highway to Health’), so being in a profession that constantly gets criticized undermines what I hold dearest.  There are no strings on me!
  3. Promoting the social aspect of eating! Eating is one of my favourite things to do; not only because food is my life and it nourishes my body but because when I get to eat with my friends and family it also nourishes my soul! Research points to lower mental health issues, greater health outcomes along with a bunch of other amazing benefits when we simply get to eat with others.  Food has, and always will be, more than just food – it’s a unifying factor in ALL cultures! It’s time we slowed down and ate more with our friends, families, loved ones and even coworkers! 
Ok, now that the ceremonial participation trophies are given out, let’s tear this thing to shreds.

  1. How is this possibly new? – This food guide is inspired in many parts by the Brazilian Food Guide but this guide isn’t even new to Canada.  Are we forgetting that ‘Just the Basics’ guide designed for the Diabetic population is EXACTLY this? Although you wouldn’t likely know about ‘Just the Basics’ unless you work with a diabetic population or are diabetic yourself – this ‘New’ Food Guide is an Instragram friendly version of just that.  Seriously, aside from a pretty picture what new information is this giving us? I would also argue that ‘Just the Basics’ is still superior to this food guide (aside from the visual aspects), take a look for yourself here
  2. Lack of Diversity – Canada’s best strength as a nation is in our diversity, our ability to bring all cultures together and somehow make it work, where the hell is the diversity in this Food Guide? I’m not going to write too much about this point because an amazing colleague of mine Nazima Qureshi said it perfectly herself in her critique of the food guide which you can read right here.  I get that there’s a fine line between tokenism and representation. Having images of people from different ethnic backgrounds and even with visible tattoos on the website without having recipes to support it IS tokenism. I also get that despite this multicultural identity that we have as a nation that most of the population is from a European background so using the plate model is still appropriate.  Say what you will about the last food guide but there was a genuine effort there to reach out to different cultural groups. This one clumps all the cultural groups together in one link on the website.  The previous Food Guide was ahead of its time you were able to go onto the Health Canada website and print out food guides in tons of different languages with different cultural foods associated with those cultures! The last one made a genuine effort – this one doesn’t even care.  Thanks Health Canada, I guess the most vulnerable populations will have to fend for themselves or try to find the few rare Dietitians that represent cultural and ethnic diversity to talk to about their health and food choices.
  3. It’s entirely online – So far as I’ve seen, all the benefits of the new Food Guide are entirely online.  While this is great for many, I can’t help but think of the vulnerable populations without internet access. I can only speak to Ontario where I live, but with our current controversial Ontario premiere hacking away funding to places like libraries and public health spending I shudder to think of how those populations (eg. low income, poorly educated and non-tech savvy populations like our aging population and many immigrant populations) are going to fully utilize this (full disclosure, I haven’t actually seen any printed copies yet so if the printed copy addresses this then I fully retract this critique but for now it stands).
  4. Do people even have the time or necessary cooking skills required to follow this Food Guide? – “Cook more often,” “Enjoy your food” and “Eat meals with others” are GREAT messages – IF you have time to do it.  Let’s be honest here; less and less people have the time to cook proper meals, let alone making them an event to eat with others.  I’m unmarried, trained as a chef and primarily work from home and I still struggle to cook for myself I can’t even think of what a family has to deal with given the crazy time commitments kids have now-a-days balancing metric tonnes of school work along with extra curriculars along the parents needing to act as personal chauffeurs! These are great messages but only if it’s actually doable.  The website offers a lot of tips on how to save time but see point three above.  I’ve always been an advocate of finding and bringing back home economics to teach kids how to cook and learn to do other things extremely important for successful adulting – good luck with that, at least in Ontario – Have you heard our Premier is cutting funding to schools, what are the chances you think Home Economics is going to come back anytime soon?
  5. Why the hell did they get rid of portion sizes??? – I know that a lot of my colleagues are going to give me crap for this but hear me out.  I agree that the old portion sizes were confusing and difficult to follow but a big portion of the population still needs them for guidance! I also work with an athletic population that needs more exact measurements.  In fact, if our goal to get the population healthier by getting them more physically active and eating better to support that then why are we disregarding this? The portion sizes should have been revamped, not thrown away! Again, look at ‘Just the Basics’ use of the ‘Handy Portion Size’ system.  It was so much easier and more applicable then the previous food guide and what I was looking forward to seeing in this new one.  Now I fear that even more people are going to be lost on healthy eating due to this abstract food guide.  The new Food Guide needed to be more abstract and less prescriptive but not to throw away a system that many still rely upon!
  6. They missed HUGE opportunities for the Dietetic profession! – This one really bothers me.  I was hoping in combination with revamped portion sizes that they would lean into the idea of personalized nutrition by working together with a Dietitian.  I’ll be honest with you because the only way to solve a problem is to acknowledge it; the Dietetic profession is not doing so good right now.  With healthcare cuts resulting in decreased RD jobs and cuts to Dietitian coverage under many employee benefits packages – this profession is in trouble and this new food guide could have changed everything! Instead of the previous Food Guide prescribing portions to different populations, this Food Guide could have encouraged the public to actually go see their local Dietitians and encouraged the public to work together with the Dietitian to create customized plans for them and their families.  That would have allowed the public to get nutrition recommendations specific to them as well as have boosted the importance of the Dietetic profession.  But sadly, we live in a reality where our advocacy board simply doesn’t advocate – Like I said before “There are no strings on me”
  7. Mislabelling foods – WHY IS POTATO STILL CONSIDERED A VEGETABLE???? It’s not, it’s a carbohydrate, same as Nuts & Seeds and Beans, Lentils & Legumes.  When the majority of the calories from a food item come from a different macronutrient it’s just misleading.  In the case of Potatoes – that is ENTIRELY starch/ carbohydrates and should be recognized as such.  For Beans, Lentils and Legumes – they’re not a protein source, they’re a carbohydrate source WITH protein.  You would never think of Quinoa as a direct protein source so why think of Beans/ Lentils/ Legumes as a protein source when only 1/3rd of the food is protein and the rest is carbohydrate? Furthermore, is it really that responsible to tell people that Beans, Lentils and Legumes are a good protein source when the absorption rates are typically 50-60%? Finally; nuts and seeds are a source of fat WITH protein.  It’s well established that the Recommended Dietary Allowances for protein are too low for the general population, they’re reflective of a sedentary/ non-active population so mislabelling poorly absorbed protein sources isn’t doing anything to solve this.  There are more complexities to this critique but I have to keep this concise, I think I’ve made my point here.
  8. It’s a self-serving, esoteric document that forgets what its primary purpose is and who it’s primarily for (Yeah, I saved the best for last) – The Food Guide has always been an educational tool for vulnerable populations like children, low income individuals and vulnerable populations like new immigrants and the elderly.  Many of the messages in the Food Guide simply don’t take these populations into account in my opinion.  The last Food Guide attempted to address these things but was maybe too ambitious but at least you can see the reasoning behind it.  With this new one, I’m just lost.  Mindful Eating is a difficult point of discussion for many people and what I would consider to be advanced. How do we teach people to be mindful when we’re living in an obesogenic environment that constantly messes with our hormonal signals and is constantly competing for our attention to the point where it can take months of counselling to get people to even recognize when their body is telling them that it’s hungry and time to eat? The website does a good job of talking about this a bit more (if you have internet access and the time and patience to actually go through the entire guide) but it fails to give you concrete examples.  The messaging here is too abstract and requires a Dietitian to put those messages in context for the individual and their families.  I would go so far as to say that the people that are celebrating these messages in the Food Guide are already practicing some sort of ‘Mindful Eating’ but I wonder haw often they’re going to refer to this Food Guide for health advice? Probably very little as it seems to pat you on the back and give you a participation trophy before it becomes irrelevant.

So there it is; my brutally honest review and critique of the new Food Guide.  Now I realize that this blog post comes across as overly critical and negative – good.  But criticism without constructive ideas is just whining and I’m no whiner.  Stay tuned for a follow up Blog Post on what I think they should have done and my full wish list for the next Food Guide, which will hopefully come sooner rather than later. 


The Old Food Guide


​So there it is; my brutally honest review and critique of the new Food Guide.  Now I realize that this blog post comes across as overly critical and negative – good.  I’m not saying that there isn’t something positive, but the new Food Guide is admirable but mistaken in my honest opinion.  Criticism without constructive ideas is just whining and I’m no whiner.  Stay tuned for a follow up Blog Post on what I think they should have done and my full wish list for the next Food Guide, which will hopefully come sooner rather than later. 

​Ben Sit, RD, Sports Dietitian
Owner, Founder and President of Evolved Sport and Nutrition
Creator and Host of ‘Highway to Health‘ on the Bell Network
Complete Lifestyle Management

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