Eat your greens

Among other changes, Canada’s 2019 Food Guide places dairy and meat in the same category as other sources of protein including fish, beans, and tofu. The diet of every Canadian is at stake, with the Canada Food Guide influencing the recommendations of teachers, doctors, and dietitians across the country.

The new guide reflects a global trend toward more plant-based diets. In Canada, consumers have increasingly been avoiding meat and dairy. Statisticians have noted recent decreases in milk consumption among Canadians, with total consumption falling to 66.68 litres per capita in 2017 compared to 69.53 litres in 2016. In addition, nearly one out of 10 Canadians, half of whom are under 35, consider themselves vegetarian or vegan.

There is precedent for these changes, with previous food guides representing largely different scientific and social attitudes towards nutrition. For example, the previous food guide, from 2006, does not highlight the danger of processed foods, which have been strongly linked with cardiovascular diseases. It also included a decrease in recommended vegetable and fruit portions alongside an increase in meat portion compared to the previous guide from 1992. Several studies have since found that plant-based diets are more environmentally friendly since they require less natural resource input and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

“[I am] excited that the new guide brings a focus on plant-based options, as the scientific evidence points to the health benefits and lower environmental impact of having a more plant-based diet,” Andrea Rubin, a nutritionist and registered dietician, said.

However, deemphasizing the importance of meat for a healthy diet has prompted resistance among established interests. The government created the past 2006 Food Guide under the watch of an external advisory committee which included representatives from Food and Consumer Product Manufacturers of Canada, the Vegetable Oil Industry Council, and the BC Dairy Foundation. According to reports, Health Canada diminished the influence of meat and dairy industry lobbyists in the new 2019 Gude by banning them from meeting with Health Canada personnel working on the project.

“[The new guide is a] move toward a more science-based versus a politically-motivated guide,” Rubin said.

Beyond current food trends and lifestyle choices, the new Canada Food Guide also reflects Canada’s varied demographic groups. The 2011 National Household Census illustrated this diversity, which showed that one out of every five Canadians is foreign-born and one in five identifies as a visible ethnic minority.

The new guide also emphasizes individual responsibility for health. The notions of mindful eating, food labels, and food marketing put more onus on the consumer to make more conscientious food choices. This contrasts with the view that the government is responsible for regulating marketing, food labels, and production.

Canada relies heavily on imported fruits and vegetables throughout the winter, making it difficult to prioritize local produce for families facing food insecurity and simply cannot afford a diet rich in nutritious food.  A recent study shows that 90 per cent of Canadian youth did not meet the recommended fruit and vegetable servings from 2006. Furthermore, a 2017 UNICEF report ranked Canada 37 out of 41 high-income countries on child hunger. Canada is also one of the only high-income countries not to have a national school food program. This new food guide is undoubtedly a step forward; the next challenge is empowering Canadians to be able to meet its standards.

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