Health Canada is preparing to release a modernized version of Canada’s Food Guide in 2018 – the first update in more than a decade – and its preliminary Guiding Principles document signals a marked departure from previous Food Guides, which have been the target of criticism for what many describe as outdated advice based on old research.
Health experts have long argued that that Health Canada and Canada’s Food Guide have done a poor job of adapting and modernizing to address changing health concerns over the years; away from the malnutrition and wartime rationing the guide was originally intended to address, and toward current concerns of obesity and diet-related chronic illness.
Other criticisms include that it has been too influenced by industry lobbyists, prescribes too many calories, continues to include dairy as a food group, doesn’t take into account the increasing diversity of Canadian palates, and allows fruit juice to count as a serving of fruits and vegetables.
The new Guiding Principles document – a mission statement that outlines the priorities – emphasizes consuming a largely plant-based diet of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and plant-based protein-rich foods, and warns against consuming processed foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat.
It also identifies a range of new food concerns, including environmental sustainability and animal welfare and the importance of eating locally produced foods.
“We applaud Health Canada for heeding the growing body of evidence demonstrating that diets rich in plant-based foods are better for human and environmental health,” says Pamela Tourigny, executive director of the Plant Foods Council, which protects and promotes the interests of plant food manufacturers in Canada, and educates the public about eating plant-based foods.
A whole foods plant based diet is one of the healthiest diets you can follow, according to a wealth of evidence including recent studies from the Harvard School of Public Health. Clinical research studies show that adopting a low-fat, plant-based diet can aid in weight loss, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce blood sugar and cholesterol and reverse type 2 diabetes.
The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada have asserted that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, such as hypertension, heart disease, and obesity.
In its first guiding principle, Health Canada cites foods that Canadians should regularly eat, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein-rich food – especially plant-based sources of protein.
“We are hopeful that Health Canada will stay the course with its modernization of Canada’s Food Guide, to address the legitimate concerns of doctors and nutritionists that it has not changed enough over 75 years,” Tourigny says.
Health Canada has committed to greater transparency, and banned meetings between lobbyists and bureaucrats working on the guide. However, there are indications that industry is still attempting to exert pressure on the process.
Agriculture and Agri-food Canada has reportedly lobbied officials at Health Canada to soften language in the new guide that might discourage Canadians from consuming meat and dairy. In memos marked secret and obtained through access to information by the Globe and Mail, officials warned that emphasizing plant-based sources of protein would have “negative implications for the meat and dairy industry.”
Conservative MP Luc Berthold interrupted presentations from health experts to the Standing Committee on Health in December 2017 to move that the committee hear more from industry, and has made this assertion on several occasions since then. Earlier this month, Conservative MP John Barlow took health minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to task for the lack of consultation with industry, calling it “an ideological attack on Canadian agriculture.” On Feb. 15 Conservative MP Martin Shields went to bat for animal agricultural producers, saying that the emphasis on plant protein is confusing to consumers and that, “Plant protein is great, but meat protein is fantastic.”
“The Plant Foods Council fully supports Health Canada’s commitment to not meet privately with food industry representatives as part of the Food Guide development process,” Tourigny says. “We are pleased that Health Canada is allowing the body of evidence to speak for itself, without interference from industry interest groups, and believe that this is the best way to ensure good public health policy.”
In the Guiding Principles document, meat and dairy are not mentioned until the appendix, as examples of protein-rich foods.
The influence of the food guide across Canada is significant, as it is used by teachers, doctors and dietitians as the authority on healthy eating. The guide is available in a dozen languages and is the Canadian government’s second-most-requested document.
To view the Guiding Principles and Recommendations, click here.