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We Can't Ignore The Unhealthy Messages In Canada's New Food Guide

The role that Canada's food guide has embraced is rife with food judgment, weight stigma and old science

I have a confession to make: I am not excited about this new food guide. Unlike many of my Canadian colleagues who are falling over one another to announce their enthusiasm for the updated version, I have a few reservations.

Let me be crystal clear — I am not against having some sort of government statement or position regarding food and eating in a way that supports health. I am, however, against categorizing food as healthy and unhealthy, the oversimplification of diseases and why people eat "poorly."

The guide promotes food shaming and weight stigma.

Sadly, the role that Canada's food guide has embraced is rife with food judgment, weight stigma and old science. These things are so problematic because they encourage the erroneous belief that "if only people knew what to eat, they would simply do it."

It also encourages the rhetoric that those people who don't eat to the narrow definition of "healthy eating" are ignorant and will develop diseases because of this. Not to mention the completely erroneous beliefs that a "healthy weight" has something to do with BMIs and weight loss is possible for most people.

Watch: What new about Canada's 2019 food guide. Blog continues below.

Here are a few more reasons why I am notthrowing a launch party with my colleagues about this so-called revolutionary food guide.

It co-opts the mindful eating movement

The term mindful eating and "be careful you don't eat too much or the wrong thing" are NOT synonymous. The real spirit of mindful eating is not compatible with the food guide's judgmental statement "[be] mindful of your eating habits."

The true meaning of mindful eating includes setting aside judgment of food, being curious while exploring habits as well as when trying to change them. As I outlined in a previous blog, intuitive eating is more than savouring every bite, mindful eating is NOT about being mindful of avoiding "bad" foods or ingredients.

Being curious about your eating includes wondering why rather than admonishing yourself (or others) for doing the "wrong" thing. Why am I eating past fullness? Why am I always reaching for a certain food? Why are my meals often lacking vegetables? Being non-judgmental and curious helps us betterunderstand our habits and change if we choose to.

The word mindful, in the context of mindful eating, is nuanced. Something that Health Canada has completely missed. This nuance is not hard to get right, it just requires doing some homework.

It oversimplifies food choices and disease development

According to the guide, making the "healthy" choice is much about your environment: "regardless of where you are, try to make changes to your surroundings so that the healthy choice is the easy choice."

Without any suggestions as to what these miraculous changes could be, we've swept all the other influences over our food choices under the rug. I think most people want to eat "well" and feel well in their body, so if there was a simple answer, wouldn't we know it (and have adopted it) by now?

The above statement from Health Canada hammers in the idea that healthy food choices (as determined by only one factor the lack of sugar, saturated fat and sodium) are super important for our health. What about the social and economic factors and genetics (two things we can't change) that make up 60 per cent of the determinants of health? According to the CDC, health behaviours (what we eat and how we move) account for less than 25 per cent of population health.

It encourages an unhealthy relationship with food

Categorizing foods as good and bad is an unhealthy practice, for both the mind and body.

Our body craves variety and our mind craves autonomy. So when we make certain foods off limits or try to avoid them, the opposite usually happens. We are naturally drawn to what we "can't" have. This is just one of the many reasons why diets have a 88 to 95 per cent failure rate.

When we end up experiencing normal reactions such as "I want what I can't have", last-supper thinking and the what-the-heck effect, we feel like we have failed and lack willpower. We blame ourselves for the normal reaction to restriction when it is the very act of restriction that leads to overeating and intense cravings.

It uses the word "processed" as a euphemism for high calorie

Instead of using taboo words, the guide simply uses socially acceptable words that sound less offensive. An example of this is the use of the term "highly processed" in place for higher energy foods.

Health Canada furthers diet culture when it speaks ill of higher energy foods as unhealthy. There is no actual definition of "unhealthy" food, and vilifying calories encourages people to be scared of the very thing that keeps us alive.

One example of this is ice cream versus yogurt. They would have us believe that ice cream is more processed than yogurt, when in fact, what they really mean is that ice cream can be higher in calories, fat and sugar. It is not more processed.

Enjoy your food with a side of righteousness

I am so glad that the importance of enjoying food was highlighted. However, statements like this one show just how shallow the attempt was: "knowing that you are making healthy food choices can increase your enjoyment of food."

Um, no. Feeling righteous about your food choices or feeling superior to those that aren't "as healthy as you are" due to their food choices is strange and an invitation for food policing.

Truly enjoying food is an important aspect of eating. When we label foods as bad or unhealthy, it takes away our enjoyment and replaces joy with worry, guilt and shame. It is really hard to enjoy food when we've been told this food will lead to weight gain, disease and poor health.

Let's do better

I have come to the conclusion that I will likely never been excited or happy with any food guide that does not speak neutrally about food and health.

Without shining a light on the reasons Canadians (and others around the world) don't or are unable to follow the government-sanctioned guidelines, this guide will not help to address health inequity.

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