Canada's Food Guide: Baby Steps
Have your heard the good news!? Health Canada is in the process of doing a full revamp of our Food Guide for the first time in decades! Woohoo!
Just in case you’re not familiar, our Food Guide is that colourful booklet that has been telling children that their cheerios are the basis of a healthy diet and that canola oil is an ideal cooking oil. To hear that it is under renovations is, in itself, something to celebrate. The first step is always admitting you have a problem.
But what kind of revisions are being made? Are we headed in the right direction or are things just getting worse?
Well, after reviewing their detailed summaries of the proposed guiding principles, (available to view online here) I’ve got a few yays but also several nays.
Let’s pick it apart, shall we?
“Guiding Principle 1: A Variety of Nutritious Foods and Beverages are the Foundation for Healthy Living”
Well that sounds fair. We all know that we need a variety of fruits and vegetables to get the full range of vitamins and minerals! We also know we need a good balance of macronutrients by eating different types of foods to provide a proper ratio of protein, fat and carbohydrates. But, of course, they get more specific.
Ok, let’s start with that first bullet point.
Clearly they are encouraging a general shift toward a more plant-based diet, which I think could be fantastic! Some of their considerations are geared toward getting more fibre, avoiding processed foods and limiting sugar. These are great things and the way I see it, the more veggies the better! However, I am weary of the suggestion that plant-sources of protein are superior to animal-sources.
Now, I am well aware this is a touchy subject so I want to say straight out of the gate that if you are a vegetarian or vegan, I absolutely respect that choice. I have practiced both diets in the past myself, mostly for ethical reasons. I understand it. However, to my knowledge and what I have seen in practice, it is very difficult to achieve ideal health and vitality, when trying to get all of your protein from plant sources.
If I go too far into this subject it may warrant an entire other blog post, so for now I will backup that statement with a few simple points:
Higher plant protein consumption comes along with a higher carbohydrate consumption. This is because most beans and legumes are actually higher in carbohydrates than protein. It is also because, at least when consuming a full vegetarian diet, you need to consume both grains and legumes to get your full range of amino acids (i.e. beans & rice). An excess of carbohydrates can lead to a proliferation of bad bacteria in the gut, compromised immune system & digestive system, obesity, diabetes and inflammation leading to other chronic disease.
Furthermore, good quality animal proteins are our best sources of vitamin A, vitamin D, EPA & DHA, B vitamins and iron. Although, if careful, you can get adequate amounts of these nutrients without the consumption of animal protein but it is much more difficult, may require supplementation and requires your body to be able to adequately convert other nutrients. Deficiencies in these nutrients are associated with compromised immune system, fatigue, hormonal imbalances and anemia, amongst other conditions.
Finally, grains and legumes are a primary source of anti-nutrients in our diet. These are compounds such as lectins that make it more difficult to absorb other nutrients, and more importantly, cause damage along our digestive tract. Overconsumption of these foods often leads to increased intestinal permeability and nutrient deficiencies and is strongly associated with autoimmune disease.
So, although it may be a good idea to reduce overconsumption of animal proteins, it is my educated opinion that the guideline here should be to reduce portion sizes of animal proteins, and suggest plant proteins as a possible addition to the diet, in moderation, rather than stressing it as being the preferred source of protein.
Before we move on, I also just have to quickly zoom in on the sources of protein they’ve highlighted.
I’ve covered why I don’t love legumes as a primary source of protein, but I have to comment quickly on the mention of soy products (including fortified soy beverages). Again, this could be a whole other blog but I’ll keep it to two points. Soy “products” indicates one of the primary issues, being that they are mostly heavily processed. Furthermore, the base of soy is not only almost all genetically modified, unless certified organic, but also very high in phytoestrogen compounds that can interfere with the body’s own production of hormones. The overconsumption of soy products can contribute to issues related to hormonal imbalance including PMS, PCOS and infertility.
I would also note that the milk, cheese and yogurt recommendations still claim that low fat is better, which, especially in terms of these types of products, I whole-heartedly disagree with. Low-fat varieties of dairy products are more highly processed and tend to have extra fillers, additives, salt and sugar to compensate. Okay. I’m done…. On the first point.
The next points, “inclusions of foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat” and “regular intake of water”, I don’t take as much issue with and I won’t write an essay on, I PROMISE!
All I will say is that I simply think there still needs to be more specification around fats. It is fair to say we should be consuming mostly unsaturated fats, however, I don’t want people to be afraid of all saturated fats. Some high quality saturated fats, such as grass-fed butter, ghee and coconut oil have a myriad of health benefits and can be a fantastic addition to the diet, in moderation. I think it becomes especially important to note that these are better sources of fat than something like canola oil, which although it is unsaturated is still a highly processed damaged fat that causes systemic inflammation. Essentially, I just think there should be more than one sentence about fats.
As for regular intake of water? YES, YES, YES!
Okay, lets move on to the next guideline!!
“Guiding Principle 2: Processed or prepared foods and beverages high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat undermine healthy eating.”
Can I get an Amen?! I mean, processed food and drinks are at the core of what is wrong with the typical Canadian diet. Any intension to reduce consumption of these is definitely a step in the right direction.
Looks good, right? Well, yes, but honestly I think these sentences should be shorter.
My revised version?
The Realistic Holistic recommends:
· Limited intake of processed or prepared foods
· Avoidance of processed or prepared beverages
The specification of processed foods and drinks high in sodium, sugar or saturated fats as the only ones that need to be avoided is problematic. This suggests that if the product label says it’s low in sugar, fat and sodium that it’s totally OK, which is not necessarily the case especially with processed foods. It’s not only the excess sugar, fat and sodium that make processed foods damaging to your health but it’s also the reduced nutritional value and the addition of chemicals, preservatives and other non-food ingredients. To my mind, they should ALL be avoided as much as possible. But again, at least the issue is being addressed to some degree!
So I’ll take that one for now! On to the final pillar!
“Guiding Principle 3: Knowledge and skills are needed to navigate the complex food environment and support healthy eating.”
YEP! Seems kind of obvious doesn’t it? Isn’t that why we turn to a food guide?
All of these recommendations are wonderful. I especially like that they get into the holistic aspect of sharing meals with family and friends as a way to encourage taking the time to sit down at a table with people to focus on and appreciate a meal and enhance enjoyment of the overall experience. This is something that affects our relationship with food and even our ability to digest it.
However, I think that the difficulty with this guideline, although well intended, is that it doesn’t give us much extra to work with. I think we need to go a little further in depth in terms of HOW to select nutritious foods when shopping or eating out, HOW to plan and prepare healthy meals and snacks and WHAT healthy meals and snacks look like. The first two guiding principles only crack the surface.
This principle of knowledge and skills being needed seems to promote the idea that nutrition should be something that is taught in schools or that nutritionists should be more utilized and maybe more appropriately covered under health insurance, but there is no indication that there will be any kind of progress here. At the very least, perhaps this will encourage people to invest in their nutrition education by meeting with nutritionists to ensure they are taking the proper steps to fulfill this guideline.
Conclusion: Baby Steps in the Right Direction
All in all, friends, these three guiding principles seem to be baby steps in the right direction. We’re taking a step away from processed foods laden with sugar toward whole foods. We’re taking a step toward emphasizing variety in the diet, ensuring a wider range of nutrition for all. We seem to be moving away from the over-emphasis on grains and dairy and we’re considering all aspects that go into healthy eating. So, Health Canada, to you I say, KEEP GOING! These baby steps are promising. There are many things to sort out but if we keep pushing, maybe, eventually, we will have a food guide that we can teach to children that will actually lead to health and vitality instead of simply fattening the pockets of prominent industries while fattening the tummies of our people.
We have yet to see a full-proposed food pyramid or daily amount recommendations, but there has been whispers of removing dairy as it’s own food group and moving it, along with beans & legumes, into a protein section. This indicates, not only that Health Canada is resisting the strong arm of the Canadian Dairy Industry but also that we are beginning to acknowledge that dairy is NOT an essential nutrient. Hopefully more changes like this will take place! Again… baby steps!
If you have strong opinions on any of the guidelines discussed today, I encourage you not only to comment here and let me know what you think but also get online and tell them! Let Health Canada know how you feel. They’re listening! Fill out the full survey that explores every point of these proposed guiding principles here and give them a piece of your mind!
Thanks for reading guys! Stay curious, continue to educate yourself and always always do what is best for you and your real life.
The Realistic Holistic