The highly anticipated new version of Canada’s Food Guide has finally been released and is giving Canadians a new way to think about healthy eating for themselves and their families. If you’ve seen the old guide (which I’m sure you have – the classic rainbow infographic) then you’ll be able to tell how different the new guide is – not only in terms of presentation, but content as well.
With more emphasis on how to eat instead of just what to eat, the new guide removes portion sizes and age-specific serving recommendations, and instead focuses on being mindful of our eating habits, cooking more, and eating meals with others.
Why is a guide containing healthy eating information important?
We know that an unhealthy diet increases risk of chronic disease, and while there is a lot of nutrition information out there to help individuals eat healthily, it is often complex, confusing and unreliable. Canada’s Food Guide aims to break down nutrition information into evidence-based, useful and relevant recommendations for Canadians to implement into their daily lives.
So, what does the new food guide say about what you should eat?
I am so happy that the new food guide is focused around a “healthy plate” model! This is a model I use with the majority of people I see in my office because it is simple, to-the-point and helps people contextualize what their meals should look like on a daily basis. Using the healthy plate model, the guide recommends eating a variety of healthy foods everyday by ensuring that for most meals, half of your plate is filled with fruit and vegetables, a quarter with protein foods and a quarter with whole grains. In addition, it recommends choosing healthy fats over saturated fats and making water your drink of choice.
Let’s break down these recommendations even further…
Have plenty of fruits and vegetables: Fruits and veggies provide the body with many vitamins and minerals, such as potassium (required for muscle contraction), vitamin A (crucial to eye health) and vitamin C (used to form collagen), as well as fiber, which is important for gastrointestinal health and weight management. Canada’s Food Guide recommends choosing whole fruits and vegetables over fruit juice and fruit juice concentrates – a major difference from the previous guide, which included juice in its fruit and vegetable category. Fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are all healthy options, however keep in mind that some canned produce is high in sodium and sugar, so pay attention to the nutrition label to help you choose the best option.
Eat protein foods: Protein helps you build strong muscles and bones, control hunger between meals and contributes to a healthy immune system. Another significant change from the previous version, the new food guide recommends that you choose protein foods that come from plants more often – this means nuts, seeds, beans, peas, lentils and soy products. Plant-based proteins contain more fiber and less saturated fat than other types of protein, which can be beneficial for heart health. For those of you meat-lovers, don’t worry - animal-based proteins, like beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products, can also be part of a healthy eating pattern – but the guide does recommends choosing lean poultry and beef and low-fat dairy products over their higher fat counterparts.
Eat whole-grain foods: Whole grain foods like quinoa, whole grain pasta or bread, whole oats and wild rice, are healthier than refined (white) grain products because they contain all parts of the grain. In addition to preserving many vitamins and minerals which are lost in the process of refining grains, whole grains contain more fiber which can help lower your risk of stroke, colon cancer, heart disease and type II diabetes. The guide cautions the importance of knowing the difference between whole wheat, multi-grain and whole-grain foods, as whole wheat and multi-grain foods can sometimes look like whole grain but may not be. Always read the ingredient list and choose foods that say “whole grain”, followed by the name of a grain like oat or wheat.
Choose foods with healthy fats: Fat is an important macronutrient with many functions, including nutrient absorption, cell growth and hormone production. The guide states that rather than focusing on how much fat you include in your diet, paying attention to the type of fat is most important. Choosing foods with healthy, unsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish and certain vegetable oils) can reduce your risk of heart disease, which is one of the leading causes of death in Canada. On the other hand, saturated fats - found in fatty meats, high fat dairy products and hard margarine – should be limited.
Make water your drink of choice: Many beverage choices are high in sugar, sodium and calories. Drinking water keeps you hydrated, helps get rid of waste and is important for your overall health. Other healthy options for keeping hydrated include milk, unsweetened fortified plant-based beverages (like soy or almond milks) or unsweetened coffee and teas.
Healthy eating is MORE than the foods you eat
In addition to recommending what foods to eat, Canada’s Food Guide emphasizes the importance of the behavioral and social aspects of eating. Being mindful and aware of your eating habits, cooking more frequently and eating meals with others are all ways to help you improve your relationship with food and live a healthier life. Here are just some of the recommendations that the guide provides to promote healthy eating habits:
Be mindful of your eating habits: Be aware of how, why, what, when, where and how much you eat. This can help you make healthy choices and be more conscious of the food you eat and your eating habits. For more details about mindful eating, read my previous blog post here!
Cook more often: Cooking instead of eating out not only helps you make healthy choices for you and your family, but saves you money in the long-term. Cooking big batches for leftovers and keeping quick healthy options on hand like soup broth, bagged leafy greens or frozen veggies are just some of the ways you can make cooking faster and easier.
Enjoy your food: With so much emphasis on the importance of food for health, it’s sometimes easy for forget that food is something to be enjoyed. Enjoying your food includes socializing at mealtimes, getting to know the people that grow your food and finding fun recipes to cook with your family.
Eat meals with others: Enjoying meals with family, friends or co-workers allows you to explore new foods and share food traditions, and is an important part of celebrations, holidays and special events. Eating together as a family is especially important – children benefit greatly from regular family meals as a way to develop a healthy eating habits and behaviors.
So, what is my overall impression of Canada’s NEW food guide?
Overall – it’s great! In my opinion, the new food guide takes a modern approach to nutrition and eating that is evidence-based and relevant to Canadians. New scientific evidence related to the importance of plant-based eating (both for our health and the environment) is one of the biggest changes in the new guide, and I believe this is a huge step in the right direction for Canada, and globally.
Of course, like with anything, there is always room for improvement. Some people have critiqued the guide for not being tailored to low-income populations, saying that following the recommendations are nearly impossible to follow for individuals who don’t have a big budget for food. Others say that the guide doesn’t take into account Canada’s “melting pot” of cultures and traditions, nor does it consider alternative diets that many people like to follow - like keto or paleo. What we need to remember is that Canada’s Food Guide is just that – a national guide. The main purpose of the food guide is to give Canadians a good idea of how and what to eat, as well as inform institutional policies for schools, daycares etc. For personalized recommendations on your diet and what’s right for you, it’s always best to consult a professional, like a Registered Dietitian!
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