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A Healthy Diet Is so Much More Than Just the Food You Eat

No More Boring Portions; Welcome Shared Pleasures and Culinary Rediscovery!

It was high time Canada’s Food Guide was updated. This was done last January 22 in Montreal, the result was rather attractive, at least compared to the previous document, dated back to 2007. The new version of the Food Guide is a breath of fresh air, which promotes current nutrition principles.

From Capitalism to Humanism

The new Food Guide clearly reflects a paradigm shift in the way the public sector promotes health through nutrition. Nobody will complain, except probably dairy and agro-food industry lobbyists, who had made the previous Food Guide a docile puppet… Their influence having become much too obvious, they were thankfully ousted, otherwise the new version of the Food Guide could have easily been compromised. “We really needed to keep that distance for any perceived or real conflict of interest,” said Hasan Hutchinson, director-general of nutritional policy and promotion at Health Canada, in an interview with The Canadian Press; and he added: “[…] in the 2007 Food Guide there was a fair amount of criticism about the influence of industry and we think, to make sure we keep the confidence of Canadians and health professionals and other stakeholders, it was necessary to stay quite strict on that [for the 2019 version].”

This was cleverly avoided and it is wise that Health Canada, clearly inspired by the Brazilian experience, presented on the 2019 menu a beautiful plate naturally coloured and rather well prepared.

A Systemic Approach to Nutrition

Without achieving perfection, the new Food Guide reflects current trends as well as recent scientific knowledge and the diversity of our needs. It attempts to echo the Brazilian Food Guide, which was thought in a very holistic way based on many societal analyzes related to food, and for which, hopefully, other countries will be ambassadors.

It took the courage of a forward-thinking nation, Brazil, to challenge the old nutritional pyramids and rebuild an enlightened approach to nutrition with their 2017 Food Guide. This is a big issue, as obesity (+ 60% since 2006) has reached alarming levels in Brazil—one in five people—and 50% of the population is overweight.

Jean-Claude Moubarac, adjunct professor in international nutrition at the Université de Montréal, was instrumental for popularizing it in Canada. In an interview with Le Devoir on January 22, 2019, Moubarac appears satisfied with the new edition of Canada’s Food Guide which, he says, is the first in its history to deal not only with food but also with the environment, the context of consumer markets, socio-cultural aspects related to food, notions of pleasure, etc.

Well Beyond Simple Portions of Nutrients

Canada’s Food Guide’s website mentions that “Healthy eating is more than the foods you eat.” This sets the tone with the following recommendations:

  • Be mindful of your eating habits
  • Cook more often
  • Enjoy your food
  • Eat meals with others
  • Use food labels
  • Limit foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat
  • Be aware of food marketing

Rather than quantitative prescriptions as was the case with the old gender- and age-specific portion approach, the Food Guide favours a more open approach that allows a majority of people with special needs to find their way: Exit portions; welcome proportions!

Continuous Improvement

In this new standard plate, there are naturally some stumbling blocks that make experts talk, for example the grouping of protein foods with various nutritional profiles, or the advice to favour low-fat dairy products rather than a free but moderate consumption of cheeses and dairy products with varied fat contents. Also mentioned is the lack of tools and benchmarks in the new Food Guide, especially for reading labels. These must be modernized by 2022 only, to better warn the public about products containing excess sugar, fat, or salt. How should one examine a label? Choose products whose ingredients you recognize in your kitchen. This will reduce the risk of eating additives, preservatives, emulsifiers, and other dyes with unpronounceable names and deleterious health effects. For example, Health Canada could have gone further with warnings against ultraprocessed products.

That being said, the focus is on practical orientations to bring everyone to more fair and responsible behaviour with regards to food. We understand that it is crucial to favour locally prepared cuisine with fresh and unprocessed foods, whether at school, in restaurants, or at work. Lots of work needs to be done to reverse the trend of microwaveable and prepared meals! The stated basic principles also respect the great culinary diversity of Canada’s multicultural community, but also to “reduce the burden of the food chain on our environment,” as Moubarac points out.

A Political and Educational Tool

Accepting the blaring urgency of reducing our impact on the environment, and therefore indirectly on our food and our health, is one of the reasons that explain the legitimate decommissioning of dairy products and meat within the single group of proteins, with fish, eggs, nuts, legumes, and tofu. Vegetable proteins are now more valued, reflecting the trend of society to diversify its protein sources and reduce the pressure of livestock on the environment. This Food Guide is also seen as a springboard for much broader reflections—and, hopefully, actions—involving the agri-food sector. In this sense, Moubarac insists on the opportunity given by this new Food Guide to challenge public policies other than Health Canada, such as the Ministries of Agriculture or Education, in order to transform the food system to make sure the ideal plate is accessible to all. There is still a way to go when an official faithful to the vocation of his ministry is fired for denouncing the interference of private industry, in this case pesticides, on public scientific research in agricultural environment.

Health Canada has started a small revolution, based on the Brazilian experience. It has produced a reference document that warns against some adverse effects of food advertising. In addition to the Food Guide, healthy eating models planned by Health Canada address diverse cultural preferences and provide practical tools (recipes, educational programs, etc.), for schools and institutions regarding meal preparation. Hopefully, this will lead to enriching culinary education for children. This would resemble Danish school programs where children are involved in cooking and the development of short supply circuits for seasonal food (and, let’s dream, partly organic).

A Food Guide for Future Generations to Return to Their Roots

As recommended by the World Health Organization, eating fresh and unprocessed foods should be the mainstay of daily diets. As for ultraprocessed foods, which can shamelessly qualify as unhealthy, they should be simply excluded from the daily diet to occupy the same niche as fast food. After all, let’s not go crazy; we can all stray a little. Eat local, seasonal, fresh, simple, locally cooked, and possibly organic if possible: All trivial principles that must infuse youth to grow healthy, and our new Food Guide, although imperfect, will guide you to a healthy and responsible diet.

This new 2019 Food Guide reinforces what the natural health industry has been promoting for more than 50 years: A more natural, engaged, and equally delicious diet!