Arbitrary Food

Arbitrary: Thoughts on the New Canada’s Food Guide

Fruit: you know it’s good for you, so why don’t you eat more of it?

In January 2019, the Canadian government introduced a new version of Canada’s Food Guide, and it’s caused a bit of a ruckus up here in the frozen-solid north. The resulting document is a fascinating study in what happens when you stop hectoring people with specifics and start empowering them to make good choices based on general nutritional principles.

Before we delve into it any further, here’s a bit of background for our American readers, who might find this interesting.

What’s All This, Then?

Canada’s Food Guide has been a staple of schools, homes and institutions in Canada, and it has traditionally defined the kinds of things we should be eating, and how much we should have every day. Until this year, there were four food groups (grain products; vegetables and fruit; milk and alternatives; and meat and alternatives), and the guide provided rough estimates on how much of each of these groups we needed to eat, as well as suggested portion size.

In the years since Canada’s Food Guide was introduced, nutrition science has evolved at the same time as food manufacturers and marketing boards have tried to spin the recommendations to favour the consumption of their own products. For example, up until last month, fruit juice counted as a serving a fruit, which is clearly out of line with current thinking.

There have also been changes in our attitudes toward dairy in Canada, as well as a spike in interest in vegetarian and vegan diets. The old guide needed an overhaul to reflect both modern science and the kinds of things Canadians are actually eating.

Got it? Good.

And so, the Canadian government set about overhauling the food guide. Because the guide has so much clout in schools and homes – no doubt affecting purchasing decisions for decades to come – industry groups got spooked and started reminding everyone just how important their corner of the food industry is.

Red meat? Juice? Cold jugs of good old-fashioned milk from cows? All part of a balanced diet! Etc. There seemed to be genuine concern that a bad word from the government could spell disaster for an entire industry on the wrong side of a recommendation.

When the new guide landed in January, it was an interesting change. The four food groups had evolved, and there was a greater focus on best practices of healthy eating instead of the more gamified version of the food guide from before. Gone were recommendations to eat 7-10 servings of vegetables and fruit every day, along with 6-8 servings of breads and cereals, etc. (Check out the archived version here.)

Instead, the new guide provides common-sense principles that will please the kinds of normal, non-OCD eaters who don’t weigh their chopped carrots to the nearest gram. I like what they’ve done, and it strikes me as far friendlier and more attainable than their last attempt.

While you’re welcome to dig into the rest of the document (available online here, even for our American friends!), I wanted to look over the most interesting section, Canada’s Food Guide Healthy Eating Recommendations. The following is a list of these recommendations, with a bit of commentary from me.

When life gives you lemons, squeeze them and use their juice in a nice veggie dish. Maybe roast potatoes?

1. Be mindful of your eating habits

  • Take time to eat
  • Notice when you are hungry and when you are full

NEAROF: Mindful eating is one of the food trends we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and the same concept makes an appearance a few more times down this list. In effect, don’t shovel food into your mouth as fast as you can, and pay attention to what you’re eating, the taste, the flavours, etc. Also, note your portion size and whether you really need as much as you’re taking. Do you really need seconds, or are you comfortably full? Another common theme out there right now is to turn off the TV while you’re eating, and to put away the phone. Focus on your eating, and you’ll be more satisfied after eating less.

2. Cook more often

  • Plan what you eat
  • Involve others in planning and preparing meals

NEAROF: I believe it was Michael Pollan who noted that people are welcome to eat junk food as long as they make it from scratch by themselves. Have you ever made French fries from scratch? I have, and it’s a pain. Washing, peeling, cutting, rinsing, heating oil in a fryer, frying, waiting for the fryer to cool, disposing of the oil, cleaning the fryer. If you have to put in the effort, you probably won’t. Compare that with how relatively easy it is to whip up a stir fry, throw together a salad, make a big pot of filling chili, etc. Another key to cooking often is making a weekly plan and shopping for it. It just takes five minutes to plan your meals for the week, but having a plan and the ingredients on hand makes the difference between cooking something healthy when you get home vs. giving up and calling Domino’s.

3. Enjoy your food

  • Culture and food tradition can be a part of healthy eating

NEAROF: This falls under mindfulness. I’d read this as taking pride in what you cook, using spices and fresh ingredients, and generally appreciating the experience of cooking and eating. Even at a restaurant, taking the time to savour a perfectly cooked steak or a serving of buttery mashed potatoes means you’re getting a meaningful experience instead of just a quick refuel. On NEAROF, I write a lot about what people typically think of as junk food, but I always take the time to think critically about what I’m eating, to savour tastes and textures instead of just dumping a bag of chips in my face. Eating is more satisfying if you take the time to fully enjoy it while you’re doing it.

4. Eat meals with others

NEAROF: Another mindful eating point. When you eat with others (with the TV off, thanks), you slow down and take your time. Not only are you going to enjoy your meal more (unless your dining companion is a jerk), but you’ll give your body more time to feel full as you eat, which tends to reduce the amount you consume at a sitting. This is such a simple way to control how much you eat, I’m surprised more people don’t already do it.

5. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods.

  • Choose protein foods that come from plants more often
  • Choose foods with healthy fats instead of saturated fat

NEAROF: This one was controversial, as the meat lobby doesn’t much like it when folks are encouraged to eat more plant-based protein instead of animal protein. I like how the advice is simply to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, without any specific targets. This is pretty basic advice, but it’s good to hear it stated by an official source. Friendly reminder that potato chips and fries don’t count as vegetables. The guidance around whole grains is interesting, as it hints at the reality that not all grains are equal, nor are the flours made from these grains the same across the board.

6. Limit highly processed foods. If you choose these foods, eat them less often and in small amounts.

  • Prepare meals and snacks using ingredients that have little to no added sodium, sugars or saturated fat
  • Choose healthier menu options when eating out

NEAROF: This comes back to the central theme of cooking from scratch more often, and using fewer ingredients that have been transformed in a factory. It’s worth stating that vegetarian and vegan products can be just as guilty when it comes to being highly processed, as you’d note if you read the ingredients list on the average package of veggie dogs. But instead of, say, yelling at people to stay away from salami, the guide is more moderate. A bit of salami in a sammich is seemingly fine, as long as it’s not an everyday thing. So much advice around food comes down to moderation. Eliminating things entirely is a hard sell, but there are ways to mitigate risk and improve health outcomes that involve shades of grey.

7. Make water your drink of choice

NEAROF: Even more impressive, the guide goes on to state: “Replace sugary drinks with water.” Fantastic, common-sense advice that’s about as far from “juice is awesome!” as you can get in a document like this.

8. Use food labels

NEAROF: They’re on almost every food item you buy, but how often do you read them? Even if you don’t have time at the store when you’re scrambling to buy something for supper, take a look at the label before you throw the empty can in the recycling bin so you’re briefed up for your next grocery trip. And don’t confuse the useful info on food labels (ingredients, nutritional facts panel) with the focus-grouped marketing spin (low-fat! no added sugar!) on the rest of the label.

9. Be aware that food marketing can influence your choices

NEAROF: As much as this seems obvious, it’s not. How many ads tell you that something is part of your complete breakfast? Or part of a healthy, active lifestyle? A whole lot of foods want to convince you that they’re healthy, despite the contradictory evidence spelled out on the food label. We all understand that potato chips and beer aren’t healthy snacks, and that’s OK because we least we’re not under the illusion that they’re doing us any nutritional favours. It’s when the marketers start making health claims that we, as consumers, should start asking questions and doubting their motives.

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