Health Canada is responsible for creating and promoting a healthy eating pattern for Canadians. ‘Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide’ categorizes foods into four groups: fruits and vegetables; grain products; dairy; and meat and alternatives. The guidelines also make recommendations on the number of daily servings that should be consumed from each group.  

The guidelines are taught in schools, are used by health professionals and public health organizations, are used to create eating plans in institutions around the country, and inform various policy initiatives. The guide is revised periodically- most recently, this took place ten years ago, in 2007.  

A March of 2016 senate report has (rightly) conveyed that the guide is ‘dated, ineffective and needs urgent change to combat the rising rates of obesity in the country’.

Canada's Food Guide: A Revamp for the Ages


Members of the Canadian senate committee want to see new guidelines that shift away from a food group-based approach. They recommend emphasising fresh, whole foods and making strong statements about limiting highly processed food products (over 60% of foods now purchased in Canada are ultra-processed).

They point to Brazil’s overhauled 2014 guidelines as an example to uphold, in which natural and mainly plant-based foods are the point of focus.  

The senate committee recommended in 2016 that the Minister of Health immediately undertake a complete revision of Canada’s food guide in order to better reflect current scientific evidence.

Many health professionals agree that the guide has not changed enough in 75 years, and that it does not adequately reflect serious concerns with respect to obesity and eating pattern-related chronic illness.

1. Health Canada allows sugar-laden cereals to be counted among its ‘grains’ category, and recommends that Canadians make ‘at least half’ of their grains whole.

The guidelines appear to be very friendly to nutritionally-stripped refined wheat.

Whole grains are higher in fibre, are minimally processed and linked to lower risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses; guidelines should advise people to choose virtually all whole grains.

2. Health Canada recommends consuming 2 cups of milk per day.

There is no good reason (health-wise) for dairy to be singled out as its own food group, as it is neither health-promoting or disease-fighting. The highest rates of osteoporosis and fractures occur in countries with the highest dairy intake. Dairy consumption is also linked to prostate cancer in men. A high prevalence of lactose intolerance and a lack of dairy intake in some diets within Canada’s multi-cultural population offer further reasons for omission of dairy products as a food group.

The secondary recommendation to ‘drink fortified soy beverages if you do not drink milk’ does not place enough emphasis on plant-based alternatives (e.g. soy, oat, or rice drinks). The guide also fails to mention plant food sources of calcium, such as legumes, dark leafy greens, broccoli, and some nuts and dried fruits.

3. Health Canada recommends consuming 2-3 tablespoons of unsaturated fats, such as canola oil or margarines, each day.  

This advice risks easily being misinterpreted, allowing people to believe that they should cook with more oil or use oil-based salad dressings or mayonnaise. Instead, healthier sources of fat like legumes (beans, peas, lentils), nuts and seeds should receive more attention.

Author: Anna DeMello

Anna is the founder of PBLI and is registered as a dietitian in Canada. She holds a Masters degree in Human Nutrition from McGill University, and is currently an Assistant Research Fellow at the University of Otago, Dunedin.

It is certainly worth reflecting on the origins of the food guide as a list of war-time rationing recommendations. The guiding ideology, says Ian Mosby, a food historian, was ‘to be healthy, you have to eat more.’ With each new version, the guide moved more toward general ‘food groups’.

‍‍In recent times, the food guide has become one of the Canadian government's most controversial publications and the subject of fierce lobbying. Food manufacturers, food producers, and special interest groups fight hard to ensure the continued front-and-centre representation of their products within these guidelines- a situation that is by no means unique to Canada. You can read about lobbying and the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans here.

If the guide is in fact published according to these principles, it would effectively eliminate dairy as a food group of its own, although Health Canada officials have told The Globe and Mail that no such decisions have yet been made.

Dr. Hutchison has also said that the mission statement alone does not mean that any one food group will be eliminated from the guide. What seems apparent is that the final version of the guide could still appear very different from what has been released so far.

No matter what, the food industry is expected to be very critical of change. Public consultations on this issue are open to everyone, although a major difference this time around is that Health Canada has committed to not meeting privately with food-industry representatives as part of the development process. This is a very positive step.

The guidelines are also expected to address sustainability and animal welfare- something that has not previously been done in Canada. The environment is, in fact, expected to be a key consideration. Health Canada's guiding principles state:  ‘The way our food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed – including the losses and waste of food – can have environmental implications. In general, diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact, when compared to current diets high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat.’  

As of May, 2016, only four countries– Brazil, Germany, Sweden and Qatar – had explicitly drawn connections to environmental threats (including GHG emissions) posed by modern eating patterns. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have also taken steps to incorporate these issues into their food guidelines.

Other organizations, such as the Barilla Center, have been working to build awareness of both the health and environmental impact of everyday food choices. The Double Pyramid (below):

Recent Canadian media reporting on the food guide for those interested in further reading:

2014: Why Canada’s Food Guide needs a dose of reality

2016: Health Canada reviewing food guide, critics demand drastic changes now

2017: Inside the big revamp of Canada's Food Guide

4. The guide does place emphasis on meat alternatives, telling Canadians to ‘have meat alternatives such as beans, lentils and tofu often’.  

It does not tell people to replace meats with these alternatives, to consume meat less often, or to place any specific limit on daily or weekly meat intake. Sadly, instead of recommending that people avoid processed meats altogether, the guide says that ‘if you eat luncheon meats, sausages or pre-packaged meats, choose those lower in salt and fat’.

As you may know, the World Health Organization has classified processed meats (hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, deli meats, and others that contain poultry, offal, or meat by-products) as Class 1 carcinogens (i.e. known to cause cancer in humans), and has classified red meat as a probable human carcinogen. Read the press release here.

5. Finally, fruit juice is listed as a fruit within the guidelines, which, given that many juices contain more sugar than soft drinks, is misleading to say the least. Although the guide says to ‘limit’ foods and beverages high in calories, fat, sugar or salt (sodium), there is no explicit recommendation to avoid these foods when possible.

A Quick Look Inside the Current Food Guide

Past Versions of the Food Guide

1942: Canada’s Official Food Rules were preoccupied with wartime rationing, and reducing malnutrition amid widespread poverty.

1944: Certain portion sizes were increased, including milk and potatoes.

1961: The food rules were renamed ‘Canada’s Food Guide.’

1977: The total number of food groups was reduced to four. ‘Eat a variety of foods from each group every day,’ the new guide advised.

1992: The four food groups were displayed on a rainbow-like graphic, which made clear that foods were not meant to be eaten in equal portions.

Overhaul

The Canadian government is finally preparing to release a new version of the Food Guide, which is expected to be made public in early 2018. Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, director general of the Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion at Health Canada, and his team are still in the process of doing this work.

Health Canada has, however, released its ‘guiding principles’– a mission statement that outlines the food guide’s priorities at this time. Encouragingly, this document emphasises a regular diet of ‘vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods – especially plant-based sources of protein,’ and explicitly warns against processed foods high in sodium, sugar and saturated fat. It also appears to de-emphasise the necessity of animal meats and dairy, as these are not mentioned until the appendix, as examples of ‘protein-rich foods.’