Food for Thought About Canada’s Food Guide

March 2019

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The Canada Food Guide received its first update in more than a decade earlier this year.  Gone are the food groups and portion sizes. The new message for Canadians is clear: eat more plant-based proteins, and less meat and dairy.   

Kathleen Turner, a registered dietitian with the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, is on board with the message. Turner, who works in the UOHI’s division of cardiac prevention and rehabilitation, says the guide is reflective of current science and focuses on food and nutrients. 

UOHI Registered Dietitian Kathleen Turner
Registered Dietitian Kathleen Turner works at the Heart Institute in the division of cardiac prevention and rehabilitation. And she makes a mean Pumpkin Spice Latte. Get the recipe.

I think they got a lot of things right this time,” said Turner in an interview with CTV’s Graham Richardson. “Not only are they talking about what Canadians eat, but how people eat.”

The what people should be eating is simple. Guidelines say half your plate should be filled with vegetables and fruit because they have important nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. One-quarter of each plate should contain protein foods like eggs, lean meats, poultry or fish, and nuts and seeds. Dairy products are folded into this group, no longer a stand-alone category of its own.

“This is something we’ve been encouraging people to do for a long time,” said Turner. “We know people who are able to eat more plant-based proteins have a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It also helps to lower blood pressure and cholesterol…

“The guide is not saying you have to become a vegetarian or stop eating meat and dairy altogether, but have it less often, and enjoy more plant-based proteins and fish.”

The remaining quarter of a plate should include whole grain foods, like quinoa, whole grain pasta, bread, rice, and/or oatmeal.

Turner said changes in diet don’t have to happen overnight. “If you’re not currently including plant-based proteins as part of your diet, start by adding them to your meals once per week and try mixed meals such as soups or chili.”

The how people eat – that is, sitting at the table, eating mindfully, and remembering to enjoy their food – can also help people make healthier food choices. It also helps people think about how much they’re eating. 

 “Eating mindfully, regardless of the situation is important,” said Dr. Rozen Alex, a cardiac rehabilitation psychologist at the UOHI. “For people who are eating alone, it’s also important to make meals an occasion.” Dr. Alex recommends setting a place, sitting down, focusing on the food, and even playing music in the background, instead of plopping down in front of the television.

For all the acclaim the new guide has attracted from medical and health professionals since its release, the latest version comes not without criticism.

In a blog post critiquing the food guide, Registered Dietitian and Muslimah Nutrition Expert Nazima Qureshi slammed its lack of cultural representation, saying it features only Eurocentric vegetables like carrots, broccoli and spinach, which are already commonly associated with healthy eating.

“I mean sure, there are some chickpeas and lentils in the protein section, but they’re not in any cultural context,” she writes. “Where is the okra, eggplant, bok choy, the veggies that people of different cultures actually cook with?” 

- Nazima Qureshi

Qureshi acknowledges the guide as a great resource and starting point for conversations about healthy eating. However, being Canada’s Food Guide, “there was an opportunity to really represent Canada and its values. As a country that is multicultural, I think we missed our mark by not catering to all that want to eat healthy.”

Sports Dietitian Ben Sit echoes Qureshi’s sentiments (and others) in his blog post

In an interview with CTV News, Canada’s Health Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor said “We have to recognize that there are over 37 million Canadians in this country, many from multicultural backgrounds and many individuals follow different diets… We chose to move forward based on the best science that’s available out there to really capture the needs of all Canadians.”

Canada’s Food Guide will be an interesting story to watch as further developments are expected in the coming months. For its latest offering, the guide is largely seen as a much needed step in the right direction, but leaves us hungry for more. 

Suggested reading:

You can read Dr. Andrew Pipe and Heart & Stroke CEO Yves Savoie’s op-ed piece about the food guide as part of Canada’s healthy eating strategy as published in The Hamilton Spectator.

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