After years of research analysis, stakeholder and public consultation, and message testing, Health Canada has published an updated version of Canada's Food Guide.
Dairy no longer has its own special category. Gone are the "meat and alternatives" and "dairy and alternatives" labels that suggested animal foods were the superior choice. There are no more confusing portion sizes (did anyone ever really eat just five ounces of meat per day?) It's no longer obscured that excess saturated fat compromises health.
Instead, the new food guide is organized around guidelines that emphasize plant-based proteins and fats:
- Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein foods should be consumed regularly. Among protein foods, consume plant-based more often.
- Foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat should replace foods that contain mostly saturated fat.
- Water should be the beverage of choice.
The reality is, these recommendations are not a major departure from the previous guide, which said —albeit in finer print — to "have beans, lentils, and tofu often" and to "satisfy your thirst with water."
What is different, however, is that in the new version these important recommendations aren't unduly subtle. Previous versions of the food guide have been heavily influenced by industry, perhaps contributing to ambiguous communication of these key messages. In the new version, instead of industry, Health Canada listened most closely to public health experts, and tested its messages with a wide variety of Canadians to ensure they are clearly understood.
The new food guide also acknowledges that how we eat is influenced by external factors, and accordingly recommends structural reforms that will help make good food choices the easy choices. The guide now clearly states that food and beverages in publicly funded institutions — including hospitals and schools — should align with the eating guidelines. And consumers should be educated in how to use nutrition panels and ingredients lists to make better food choices.
Food guides are important, but they're not enough. Policy interventions — including those that educate consumers and shape which foods are readily available — are essential to ensuring the evidence-based food guide recommendations are put into practice. Governments play a key role in ensuring populations are consuming plant-rich diets. It's not only the compassionate thing to do: diseases and mortality related to preventable lifestyle diseases cost the Canadian economy tens of billions of dollars each year in lost productivity and health care expenses.
The release of Canada's new food guide comes less than a week after the publication of a groundbreaking report, published by leading medical journal The Lancet, similarly recommending an eating pattern that includes "a diversity of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal source foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and limited amounts of refined grains, highly processed foods and added sugars."
That report — put together by 37 world-leading scientists over the span of three years — found that diets rich in plant-based foods are not only better for public health, but they will be essential for averting climate catastrophe, calling food "a defining issue of the 21st century."
That's because animal farming is a leading contributor to climate change, water usage and pollution, land usage, loss of biodiversity, and harm to oceans. The United Nations asserts that animal agriculture should be a "major policy focus" in addressing these environmental issues.
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Our food system is also heartbreaking for the animals caught up in our relentless pursuit of cheap meat: it has become industry standard to genetically manipulate animals to have painful but profitable qualities, to separate babies from their mothers, to confine animals in barren conditions that drive them mad, and ultimately to kill them on fast-moving slaughter lines where mistakes are made far too often.
Canada's new food guide is a glimmer of hope that truth and integrity can prevail. Now, it's time to get to work overhauling our relationship with food so we can enjoy long and healthy lives on a habitable, compassionate planet.
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