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The Canadian Food Guide: Irrelevant and outdated

By in Opinions
Changing food trends require an updated guide for the Canadian diet

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What Canadians eat on a daily basis has evolved to focus on concerns of nutrition and health, as waistlines and fast-food intake both increase. A substantial number of the meals we eat are now on-the-go and home-cooking has become somewhat of a luxury — for those who can afford it financially and time-wise.

The official Canadian Food Guide of how Canadians should eat ignores these changing factors and new alternative diets, including vegetarianism and all of its variations, food scares and concerns about specific commodities, like sugar or gluten. New trends in food combined with alarming rates of diet-related illness are largely ignored by the Canadian Food Guide, making it seem very passé indeed.

History professor Valerie J. Korinek from the University of Saskatchewan — who teaches an upper level food history course — sees the Food Guide as incompatible with popular trends.

“The Food Guide doesn’t have anyone tweeting updates so that it could compete with cultural producers in the realm of food. It seems pretty dull compared to pop culture in the 21st century,” Korinek said.

As dull as the document may be, it has been around for awhile. I was first introduced to the Food Guide in elementary school and since the rainbow it doned was pretty, the Food Guide looked like a good option to my 10-year-old self.

Now in my 20s, I do not consult the Food Guide and have not for some time. For health information, I usually go online and if I want to modify what I eat, I make my own guidelines based upon external research. I know I am not alone in regarding the Food Guide as irrelevant to my daily life.

However, in Canada, all levels of government rely on Health Canada’s guide for feeding people in schools, hospitals and prisons, and for demonstrating to the public what it means to eat well. It has been this way since the first version of the guide was introduced in 1942.

The 1942 Food Guide was called the “Official Food Rules,” and paid attention to the concerns specific to the time. This included wartime rationing and restoring the health of Canadians in the period after the Second World War — after the nation had its resources depleted from the wartime effort.

The first edition of the guide featured six food groups: fruits, vegetables, breads and cereals, milk, meat and fish, and eggs. This version proves to be a little humorous now — with the benefit of hindsight, nobody would think to classify eggs as its own food group. The guide currently includes four food groups: fruits and vegetables, breads and cereals, milk and alternatives, and meat and alternatives.

The latest version released in 2007 is called Eating Well With Canada’s Food Guide. Health Canada’s website claims that following these guidelines will allow for adequate vitamin, mineral and nutritional health, while reducing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and some cancers.

However, the Food Guide ignores some pretty important factors that can be detrimental to one’s health and can promote the very diseases it aims to eliminate. It only recommends to “limit sugars,” which is both vague and subjective, while also ignoring vegetarians, vegans and those with allergies. For someone who is lactose-intolerant, they must eliminate an entire quarter of the food groups — then what?

Part of the problem is that the Food Guide is not merely concerned with citizens’ health. It is not an unbiased, objective document — instead it also has a food industry to please. Many industries have a seat at the table when the discussion of food groups comes into play. If for some reason milk was deemed to be unacceptable for human consumption, there would be a massive outcry from the dairy industry and removing the “milk and alternatives” category from the Food Guide would prove an incredibly difficult task.

Like many things that appear to be for the benefit of the public, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes.

“I think if the way in which food players jockey for position in the Food Guide was revealed to the general public, people would find it very interesting, although probably not surprising,” said Korinek.

The guide also serves as a marketing tool for companies to sell their own products; food products that boast a specific nutrient base this information on the recommended daily values of vitamins and nutrients in the guide.

To meet recommended daily values, many foods are fortified with artificially manufactured vitamins and minerals. Since these foods contain the recommended amount through fortification, they are given the same weight as foods that are naturally embedded with these same nutrients. However, your body does not process artificial and natural vitamins in the same way. The types of food you eat in order to meet daily nutritional requirements actually does matter — much more than any isolated nutrient.

Orange-flavoured beverages fortified with vitamin C do not count as a serving of fruit, but many people who have no knowledge on dietary health beyond the Food Guide would likely consider this to actually be a serving of fruit. A burger and fries can easily be broken down into food groups based on the guide, but that does not necessarily mean this is a healthy option for a balanced meal either.

Perhaps the reason why the Guide is not consulted is that there is simply too much information on what to eat, coming from too many sources. The Food Guide stands alone as one source that lacks in specific examples of balanced meals and has to compete with other trendy and interesting sources.

However, the question is, could the Food Guide be updated so that it holds more relevance to Canadians’ lives?

“I think Canadians and Americans want to be reassured that their food supply is safe. I think Canadians would like to have some guidance from a variety of sources, but I don’t think they want the government to tell them what to eat. Eating is personal and draws on all kinds of family histories, gender issues, ethnicities — so the government may not have much say in changing peoples’ diets,” said Korinek.

There are many factors that come into play with what we choose to eat — what we find tasty, pleasurable, affordable, realistic and ethical. An ideal Canadian Food Guide would encapsulate all of these factors. However, because it is so difficult to combine these things into one document, our current Food Guide lacks authority and weight in the everyday lives of Canadians.

“The recent shift towards tremendous focus in food opens up some welcome conversations about food — what we should eat, what’s optimal for health, the environment and sustainability,” said Korinek. “I don’t know that a rather one-dimensional document such as the Food Guide really captures all that is nuanced behind what we eat.”

Far from capturing all the factors that play into what we eat, the Canadian Food Guide lacks impartial information on what is truly going to benefit Canadians’ health. Outdated and irrelevant? I’d certainly say so.

Naomi Zurevinski / Opinions Editor

Graphic: Stephanie Mah / Graphics Editor

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