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Health Canada reviewing food guide, critics demand drastic changes now

Government says review results coming later this year

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Canada's Food Guide is arranged as a rainbow, divided into food groups. Critics want an overhaul of its approach.

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Critics are calling on Health Canada to immediately overhaul the country's food guide to help improve the health of Canadians and address the growing obesity crisis.

The federal agency told CBC News it is reviewing the almost decade-old document to ensure it remains scientifically sound and useful. Review results will be announced later this year. 

But the news doesn't appease critics who doubt much will change about the Canada Food Guide — a guide they charge is too deferential to the food industry and fails in its mission to promote healthy eating.

"I'm not really full of hope," says obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. The Ottawa physician has been campaigning for years for a revamped guide, claiming the current one is "fully broken."

Senate demands overhaul

Canada's Food Guide is taught in schools, used to create eating plans in institutions and influences how we view healthy eating. Health Canada last revised it in 2007.

A Senate report just this month charged that the guide is dated, ineffective and needs urgent change to combat the rising rates of obesity in the country.

"Fruit juice, for instance, is presented as a healthy item when it is little more than a soft drink without the bubbles," declared the report.

It also said the explosion of ultra-processed products on the market has led to Canadians gorging on food that is "calorie-rich and nutrient-poor."

The study charges the guide, which includes an emphasis on low-fat foods and a number of servings of carbohydrates, doesn't do enough to help Canadians kick their bad eating habits.

"We think Health Canada's got to revise its examples of what healthy foods really are," says Conservative Senator Kelvin Ogilvie, chair of the Senate committee that devised the report.

A guide to unhealthy eating?

Obesity expert Freedhoff says it would take him an hour to even begin to cover all the problems he has with the current guide.

He points to the grains food group. The guide advises that adults eat six to eight servings daily, depending on gender and age. Recommended items include cereal, pasta and bagels.

The document also advises Canadians make at least half their choices whole grain.

"That is a very poor piece of guidance," says Freedhoff. He believes people should aim to choose virtually all whole grains to fight off diseases such as diabetes.

He also notes that many cereals on the market are highly processed.

"Ultimately, this is a guide that is very friendly to wheat and the refining of wheat," he says.

Freedhoff also takes issue with the milk and alternatives category. He says he's not anti-dairy, but questions the recommendation to drink two glasses of milk daily. 

The physician says advising people to drink their calories can contribute to weight gain because people don't have the same feeling of fullness.

Freedhoff adds that for an adult male like himself, he finds the guide a little "odd."

It recommends that he drink two glasses of milk every day. But he is also advised to consume just two servings of dairy a day. If he followed both rules, concludes Freedhoff, his dairy intake would be limited to drinking milk and he couldn't have any other products like cheese or yogurt.

Freedhoff also finds himself alarmed by the guide's suggestion that Canadians should "limit" trans fat in their diet

"It doesn't say you should avoid them, which is a remarkable thing," he says.

Trans fats have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. The U.S. is already taking steps to phase out artificial trans fats in that country.

So what do we eat now?

Freedhoff and the Senate committee want to see a new guide that moves away from a food group-based approach. They recommend instead a format that emphasizes eating fresh, whole foods and makes strong statements about limiting highly processed products.

Both the Senate report and Freedhoff uphold as a shining example Brazil's new food guide.

It advises making natural and minimally processed foods, mainly plant-based, the basis of one's diet.

It also recommends that people avoid ultra-processed products and to be wary of food advertising and marketing.  

"Health Canada has got to be aware that there's a trend in enlightened countries to make their food guides much more meaningful to consumers," says Senator Ogilvie.

Health Canada didn't respond to a request for comment on the Senate report except to say the agency is examining the study and its recommendations.

But critics are already predicting the agency's upcoming review results won't include needed sweeping changes.

"I'll believe it when I see it," says Freedhoff.

Ogilvie is also skeptical but says he's holding out hope.

When asked how he'll feel if the review doesn't lead to a major overhaul, the senator responded, "Then I would say that Health Canada has failed Canadians."

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