When I shared my initial thoughts about Canada's new food guide on Instagram, I intentionally approached it from the perspective of where it's at today, based on current research and my expertise as a Holistic Nutritionist – not based on what it was.
The general consensus and most common comment I heard was "it's better than what it was – we are moving in the right direction!". While this may be true, I was more interested in evaluating it for what it is today, in 2019, versus what it evolved from over 10 years ago.
While I wholeheartedly agree that progress has been made, especially because of the inclusion of healthy eating beyond the food you eat and the removal of dairy as a food group, I believe we still need a critical review of the 2019 Canada Food Guide. After all, this is the guide that will be used as gospel for schools, hospitals (maybe it will inspire them to remove jello from the menu?), nursing homes, prisons and more.
Before I get to my review, if you don't want to read all the way to the bottom and you just want to know if you should follow this guide to a "T", my short answer is no.
You can use it as a guide, to which you adapt and customize it to your needs and your family's needs, but no guide can be suited to 37 million Canadians – and that's just the reality.
This is the reason I've never recommended any client or reader of my blog to follow any governmental food guide. In fact, where I went to school, we weren't even taught to follow a guide such as this. That is also one of the reasons I chose to study Holistic Nutrition which is evidence-based nutrition with a strong focus on prevention that is not guided by a government that updates its food guide only a handful of times over a 75 year span.
I've taken a lot of time to go through the updates to Health Canada's website and reviewed almost everything. If I have missed something important, please feel free to comment below and I will do my best to keep this post updated.
The emphasis on filling half your plate with plant-based foods
We can all benefit from eating more plants! There are nearly 25,000 known phytonutrients (naturally occuring beneficial compounds in plants) that can help us fight disease and truly thrive so it's an absolute necessity that we eat more plants.
This is why most of my recipes on the blog are plant-based and every day of the week, the large percentage of what I eat and my family eats is plants but we still eat fish, chicken, some dairy, occassionally meat and my hubs and daughter would be more than happy to eat their weight in pizza and pasta. We eat also eat a healthy dose of fat with every meal and snack.
I've been advising my clients and community alike to fill at least 50% of their plate with plant-based foods since I became a nutritionist nearly 10 years ago, as have most of my colleagues.
In fact, in my first cookbook, Joyous Health, I created my very own food guide pyramid as you can see below. It was 5 years ago that I created this so the main tweak I would make is to ignore the serving number and just follow this as a general guideline. At every meal and snack, make sure you have protein, complex carbs (preferably from veggies) and some good fat.
As for the grains section, please see my note at the very bottom regarding grains. But back to Canada's food guide – way to go Health Canada, let's eat more plants!
The actual visual of a plate of food
At a quick glance, it looks pretty good and much more enticing than what it was before. Real food does look far more appetizing than illustrated pictures, which is what most other food guides worldwide do, including Canada's food guide in the past. Many people have since commented that it looks very "diet-like" and quite unappetizing. Personally, I don't mind it. To me it looks like a flat-lay on instagram :).
Make water your drink of choice
It's absolutely fantastic that this is front and centre. Water is definitely the best drink of choice for hydration and something we should be drinking multiple times per day. It's great they advised how to make your water more tasty by adding fruit ( hello lemon and water! ), spices ( cinnamon ) and herbs (like basil!).
HEALTHY EATING IS MORE THAN THE FOODS YOU EAT
I think it's awesome there's an extensive section on mindful eating which includes how to create a healthy eating environment, cooking more often, eating meals with others, listening to music while eating, socializing over food, and more.
Beyond this page and image you see here, I really wish they would have made this section a little more visually appealing. It's like dry toast trying to get through it (like reading a Microsoft Word '97 document, to be exact - haha!). I'm assuming this is based on budgetary reasons but a stock photo that costs 10 dollars would make a world of a difference!
Be aware of food marketing
I'm really glad Health Canada went more in-depth on educating the public of food marketing. It would have been great if they used visuals and specific examples to illustrate this.
There is no distinction between fresh to frozen to canned
Here's the flipside to my point about giving Health Canada a high-five on recommending people to fill half their plate with plant-foods. Because if we go a little deeper into their recommendations, you find that fresh food is on par with frozen and canned foods. In fact, they state "fresh, frozen or canned vegetables and fruits can all be healthy options". This is really bad advice.
The bad advice is providing no distinction between fresh, frozen or canned. If you follow their recommendation, you might as well "skip the hassle of fresh foods" (but really, they are no hassle) and just eat canned foods all day (but actually, don't do that, for the sake of your taste buds and health!).
Fresh can definitely be on par with frozen. In fact, sometimes frozen can be even more nutrient-dense than fresh food that was picked a month ago and travelled 950 miles to get to the grocery store shelf. Strawberries picked in July that were flash frozen will be FAR more nutrient dense in January than fresh strawberries flown in from New Zealand.
Joyous Tip: Buying frozen organic produce in the off-season can often be more affordable than conventional fresh. So you can both save a few bucks AND get more nutritious frozen foods. Of course, when produce is in season, it will be the most nutrient dense AND more afforable option.
There were a few people who were upset with me on Instagram because I said that canned foods were a poor recommendation. They were upset because they felt I was out of touch and an "elitist" and that by stating that canned foods were a poor recommendation, I was not considering people who are on a limited budget or of lesser means.
If Health Canada is so inclusive and hyper-aware then why the heck are they recommending "Pre-bagged vegetables that can be quickly tossed into a salad. Try: baby carrots!". I don't know about you, but I NEVER buy baby carrots. One because of the outrageous price tag and two because they are very wasteful (they use large carrots to make baby carrots) but that's besides the point.
So in response, I offer this:
My review of the guide was not from a socioeconmic perspective; it was purely from a health perspective. I would be doing a disservice to my community if I, too, said, fresh, frozen and canned foods are all created equal. Canned mushrooms that can sit on the store shelf for 8 years is definitely not your best choice, especially when you have a choice.
Don't ALL people, exclusive of how much money they make, deserve to know what the healthiest choices are?
UMMMM – DRINK WHAT, NOW?
Water is good. Okay, agreed! But vegetable juice is ... not? Same goes for fruit juice, but for some reason, it is no where to be found under the "what to limit section".
This recommendation really perplexed me. Under "Make water your drink of choice" it listed "vegetable juices" under the "what to limit" section with no mention of fruit juice. Sure, it does say limit sugary drinks but knowing how terrible fruit juice, pop and other sugary drinks are for our health, I can't for the life of me understand why this wasn't included.
And again, there is no distinction between a healthy, cold-pressed homemade veggie juice or a canned store-bought choice. Simply saying that "vegetable juices" should be limited would put my delicious and nourishing green juice in the bad category.
If I didn't know anything about nutrition, I would think that my green juice is no good. I can only guess their recommendation to avoid veggie juice is based on the highly processed vegetable juices like V8 that are full of sodium. But who knows!?!
White low-fat milk as a healthy option for hydration
Whether they realize it or not, the large majority of people (up to 60%) cannot digest lactose, the main sugar in milk, and many of the remaining are either allergic or intolerant.
The form of dairy that most people are consuming is pasteurized and homogenized cow's milk which is a pro-inflammatory food with many problems. This shouldn't be anywhere in the guide in my opinion. The focus on low-fat dairy is a great way to completely eliminate any benefits of milk like fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K which actually require fat to be absorbed.
The best option for hydration is and always will be – water. And if you're so inclined to drink milk, don't go with skim. Go with full fat and you'll drink less of it because you'll be consuming a more filling and nutritious drink.
Too much soy
Soy is one of the most common food sensitivities, allergens and for many suffering from hormonal imbalance, soy beverages can exacerbate these issues. Research has already shown it can reduce fertility in men because isoflavones in soy are plant compounds with estrogen-like effects.
I've seen the negative implications of consuming soy products in my own clinical practice and I experienced it myself. You can read about it in this post about food is fermented. Fermented soy products include tempeh, miso and natto. If you want to avoid GMO foods, make sure you purchase certified organic soy products only.
The section on fat is missing on the plate
This is such a big miss! Fat is one of three macronutrients that we need for survival. In fact, there are fats that are essential and we MUST get them from our diet because our body cannot make them.
If I was on the committee creating this, there would most definitely be a designated section on the plate for healthy fats. If you want to learn more about the types of fat I recommend, you can check out this video and blog post. If you dig deeper into the various links on Health Canada's website you'll come across advice on fats and recommendations for cooking with corn and canola oil (nooooo!). Not to mention, many of the recipes include margarine as an ingredient!
Wellness Mama recently did a great job of explaining the harmful effect of canola oil which you can read here because it really deserves a whole blog post. Just like soy, canola and corn are commonly genetically modified foods.
it's time to retire the Saturated myth
This is probably the biggest misinformation of the entire food guide. Health Canada is completely ignoring the latest science (read 5 studies here that debunk the myth that saturated fat causes heart disease or raises cholesterol).
Their opinion, that it should be avoided (which is what it is – an "opinion") is not based on scientific evidence and this opinion is included on nearly every page.
When the recommendations were given to avoid saturated fat, heart disease rates skyrocketed, as did the consumption of carbs and liquid vegetable oils like canola, sunflower etc.
An excerpt from a meta-analysis:
"Despite popular belief among doctors and the public, the conceptual model of dietary saturated fat clogging a pipe is just plain wrong. A landmark systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies showed no association between saturated fat consumption and (1) all-cause mortality, (2) coronary heart disease (CHD), (3) CHD mortality, (4) ischaemic stroke or (5) type 2 diabetes in healthy adults."
And there's more:
"Similarly in the secondary prevention of CHD there is no benefit from reduced fat, including saturated fat, on myocardial infarction, cardiovascular or all-cause mortality."
Every single food on the planet that contains fat, includes some amount of saturated fat, so you actually can't avoid it! Your body needs fat for survival, and that includes saturated fat. Recommending low fat and the avoidance of saturated fat is just plain wrong and dangerous. I could go on and on talking about the Diet-Heart Myth but I've included lots of links to studies for you to review on your own because I need to move on to my final point.
So ditch the white egg omelettes (eat the yolk - these guacamole eggs are divine!), don't bother with low fat dairy and start eating high-quality healthy fats again.
You'll be more satiated, you'll feel and look better and will even give your brain a little boost! Even if you're vegan, you can get a healthy dose of saturated fat from coconut oil and coconut products.
Okay now I almost feel bad saying this, but I have no idea who developed these recipes for Health Canada but they are pretty awful. Ingredients such as margarine, canola oil, corn oil, skim milk, all-purpose white flour are scattered throughout the recipes. I mean, just check out these muffins? I don't even know where to start so rather than beat up on the recipes, I will share some healthier mufin recipes that are nourishing and absolutely delicious!
Blueberry Flax Oat Bran Muffins
Cranberry Walnut Muffins
As with any food guide, if you have food restrictions or health concerns that require a specific diet, it's best to speak with a qualified health care practitioner because even my food pyramid requires tweaking if you follow a grain-free diet due to an autoimmune disease.
I don't personally see clients one-on-one but there are many great practitioners all over the world you can hire to help you find the best diet for you because the food you should eat should be custom-tailored to suit your needs. I eat the Joy McCarthy diet and I'm the only one on planet earth eating this exact diet, just like you should be the only one eating the (insert your name here) diet! :)
Looking forward to chatting with you more about this!