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Empty wallet or empty stomach: How palatable is Canada’s Food Guide?

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In mid-January, Health Canada released the update to Canada’s Food Guide. The new guide focuses on eating foods that please you and building healthy food habits rather than focusing on the amount of food consumed.

This is the first alteration made to Canada’s Food Guide since 2007. The changes were made over a period of three years and incorporate current research findings. The immediate differences Canadians will see in the new food guide are the elimination of recommended portions and no differentiation for age and sex.

In the past, Canada’s Food Guide has been criticized for appealing too much to industry. Gordon Zello, professor of nutrition in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition at the University of Saskatchewan, says that, this time around, Health Canada took a different approach.

“They did not speak to the industry with regards to determining what would be in the food guide,” Zello said. “They talked to stakeholders like myself, dietitians [and] the general public to see what they’d like.”

Since its release, the new food guide has been criticized as being inaccessible to lower socioeconomic households. However, Zello states that nutritious food options, as presented in the main graphic for Canada’s Food Guide, are not always expensive.

“A big problem that I see when I look at this beautiful picture is that it could look very expensive, especially for students and people of low socioeconomic status. You can eat frozen or low-sodium canned food and get the same amount of nutrients,” Zello said. “I guess they didn’t want to put a pack of frozen spinach on the picture — it’s not as nice looking.”

The number of food groups has also changed from four to three, and the guide provides information on the development of healthy eating habits.

The new food guide shows a figurative plate divided into three parts: half the plate is a mix of many fruits and vegetables, one quarter is a mix of whole grains, and the final quarter is made up of various protein sources, including yogurt, beef and tofu.

The new guide has combined the food groups previously labelled “meat and alternatives” and “milk and alternatives” into one category now labelled “protein foods,” providing a more open approach to protein sources. Zello says this change has resonated with his students.

“I had a discussion with my students, and most of them were actually pleased that [the guide has] gone to more of a plant-based approach because it allows for a lot of different varieties of different foods they can eat,” Zello said.

For those concerned about the reduction of four food groups to three, Zello reminds us that the main goal of the food guide is to promote a healthy diet.

“It’s a guide. You’re not actually eliminating things from the diet. You’re just saying, ‘There are things that you should consider eating to improve your health,’” Zello said.

Another big change people will notice with the new guide is that it emphasizes developing healthy habits. For Zello, learning these healthy food habits is something that most Canadians, even food educators, need to do.

“There’s a lot of sayings like ‘be mindful of your eating habits’ and ‘cook more often,’ which even in our program, [we] have to spend time teaching our nutrition students how to cook because they’ve lost those skills,” Zello said. “Enjoy your food, so it’s not something you should just wolf down and not think about. Find foods that you like — try new ones.”

Teevin Fournier

Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk / Graphics Editor

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