Focus on Fitness: Canada’s new dietary guidelines provide food for thought

By Gloria Schwartz

The 2019 version of “Canada’s Dietary Guidelines,” previously known as “Canada’s Food Guide,” was released in January. The nutritional guidelines are intended as a resource for policy makers and health professionals as well as individuals with an interest in making healthy food choices.

The guide was originally published in 1942 to address widespread nutritional deficiencies caused by wartime food rationing. The guide has changed over time to reflect the needs of Canadians and the latest research in nutrition science. Sometimes food industry lobby groups have influenced the content and not always in ways that are in the best interest of Canadians.

In the 1940s, iodized salt was recommended to combat iodine deficiency. Today we consume too much sodium because of the abundance of processed foods. The 1949 guide reflected the end of war-era food rations and recommended avoiding excess food intake. Margarine, which had been illegal except during wartime butter shortages, became permanently legal in 1948 and was added to the guide.

The 1961 guide reflected the changes in food processing, shelf life and transportation as well as types of food more readily available to Canadians such as citrus fruit. By 1977, the guide removed the recommendation to eat potatoes daily, it included meat alternatives and enriched products (e.g., enriched white bread as an alternative to whole grain bread; this is no longer recommended) and other dairy foods besides milk. By 1982, the guide considered the impact of diet on chronic diseases, and the concept of energy balance was introduced.

The 1992 guide included information about energy requirements based on age, gender, body size, activity level and conditions such as pregnancy and nursing. The guide suggested the number of servings per day for each food group, which sounds logical, but made it challenging to adhere to and may have encouraged caloric intake that exceeded requirements, leading to weight gain.

The 2007 guide included guidelines for limiting added fats and oils and other foods and beverages and it recommended drinking water. It also emphasized eating a variety of foods, whole foods, colourful foods and whole grains.

Most Canadians today consume too many calories and unhealthy foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat. Sixty-two per cent of Canadian men and 46 per cent of Canadian women are overweight or obese and many Canadians suffer from preventable lifestyle-related chronic diseases.

The 2019 version includes three major guidelines: 1) Nutritious foods are the foundations for heathy eating; 2) Processed or prepared foods and beverages that undermine healthy eating should not be consumed regularly; and 3) Food skills are needed to navigate the complex food environment and support healthy eating.

More specifically, the guidelines include:

• Replacement of the four major food groups (vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives) with three groups (1-fruit and vegetables, 2-whole grains, nuts and seeds, and 3-protein). The protein group includes meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and legumes;

• Eating fewer and leaner meats and replacing dairy products high in saturated fat (cream, butter, high-fat cheese) with fewer and lower-fat dairy and with unsaturated fat (nuts, seeds, avocado), fewer processed meats such as hotdogs and deli meats, and a higher proportion of plant-based foods which are high in dietary fibre;

• Avoiding foods high in saturated fat, sodium, sugar and other real and artificial sweeteners;

• Avoiding foods containing and trans fat;

• Water as the beverage of choice and avoiding sweet drinks such as sports drinks, soda, fruit juices and chocolate milk – and limiting alcohol;

• Daily servings from each food group and portion sizes have been removed;

• How to eat, such as cooking more at home and dining out less, being aware of deceptive food marketing, using nutritional information on food labels and developing good habits;

• Avoiding restrictive fad diets that can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

According to a 2012 survey of 10,000 Canadians, less than a third of respondents had seen the last guide and just nine per cent said it was their information source for healthy eating. However, 25 per cent of those who used that guide reported better eating habits than those who used other sources.

Focusing on improving one’s eating habits should be balanced with enjoying food and not feeling stressed, guilty or ashamed.

While the guidelines are intended to be helpful, I think Canadians may find them more confusing than practical. The complete 2019 guidelines as well as what I think are its shortcomings are available on my website.