In Depth

Canada's Food Guide

A nutritional juggling act

Last Updated February 5, 2007

food guide The new guide recommends that Canadians eat foods with little or no added salt, though it's not clear whether a low-salt diet provides added benefits for healthy people. (CBC)

Before Feb. 5, 2007, the last major revision to Canada's Food Guide came out in 1992 — long before Canadians became concerned about trans fats, omega-3 fatty acids and growing rates of obesity.

On May 8, 2002, Statistics Canada released results of the Canadian Community Health Survey, which collected information from over 130,000 people aged 12 and older. The first report looked at obesity and levels of physical activity.

The results were not good.

The survey found that between 1994-95 and 2000-01, the number of obese Canadians aged 20 to 64 grew by 24 per cent to almost 2.8 million. Increases in obesity rates were greatest among men and women aged between 45 and 54, who accounted for a quarter of all obese adults in Canada.

Among children, nine per cent were considered obese. Another 20 per cent were considered overweight.

The survey also found that children and adolescents who reported eating fruits and vegetables five or more times a day were substantially less likely to be overweight or obese than those who consumed them less frequently. Forty-one per cent of children and adolescents reported they ate at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day.

Two years after that study was released, Health Canada announced that the Food Guide would receive a makeover to address changes in eating patterns, food supply and diets, as well as advances in nutritional science.

It would be the third revision that Mary Bush, director general of the office of nutrition policy and promotion, would preside over.

"Eating is a fundamental health prerequisite, and it is becoming increasingly complex for people to understand what is healthy eating," Bush said. "So what the Food Guide tries to do is define healthy eating."

Not to everyone's taste

But from the beginning, the process was mired in controversy.

Criticisms were levelled at the advisory committee set up to oversee the revision. The 12 members included dietitians and academics as well as the nutrition education manager with the BC Dairy Foundation, the head of a group representing 85,000 oilseed growers, oilseed processors and makers of oilseed-based food products, and the director, scientific and regulatory affairs at the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada, which represents some of the biggest food producing companies in the country.

Critics like Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, who treats obesity at the Bariatric Institute in Ottawa, worried that major food manufacturers had too much of a voice.

"I imagine that those companies would not want the words 'junk food' mentioned anywhere in the Food Guide. The Food Guide should have very, very clear messages about foods that are not healthy choices, including red meat … We are the No. 2 beef producer in the world. And I imagine that may well impact or handcuff in some way, shape or form to make appropriate recommendations about beef consumption."

Bush defends the role of the food industry on the advisory committee.

"It's important for us to understand all of the issues, as we are packaging our information to deliver to Canadians. At the same time we have to have perspective from all stakeholder communities … to deliver the best advice we can to Canadians in the best available manner."

In April 2006, Health Canada circulated an eight-page draft of the revised Food Guide. It was met with mixed reviews. Bill Jeffries, of the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, was mainly concerned over the nutrition advice. The draft reduced the recommended daily number of servings of fruit and vegetables from a range of five-to-10 to four-to-eight.

"I would be much more hopeful about revisions to this Food Guide if I were confident that Health Canada was ambitiously pursuing a public health agenda rather than just trading off things to make everybody that has a stake in it a little bit happy," Jeffries told CBC News. "They should be looking at the science and providing advice to Canadians that encapsulates that science in a way that they can put it into action."

Draft version not final

In the wake of the criticisms, Bush noted that the draft guide was far from final. She said reaction to it provided some useful suggestions.

"Many suggested we hadn't dealt with sodium well either," Bush told CBC News. "Those are precisely the kinds of inputs where it allows us to see what we've done, how it's been received and then make appropriate changes where required."

The final version of the guide was a marked departure from previous versions. It contains information that is more targeted to specific groups — children, teens, women, men and the elderly. And, for the first time, serving sizes for preschoolers are included as well.

Also for the first time, adults over 50 are being advised to take a vitamin D supplement every day, to help reduce the risk of osteoporosis.

The guide doesn't just say which foods are good and which are bad; it tells Canadians how much food is enough and how much is too much.

The guide now recommends that Canadians eat foods with little or no added salt, though it's not clear whether a low-salt diet provides added benefits for healthy people. It also recommends that people strive to get their fruit and vegetable servings from fresh fruits and vegetables instead of juice, as much as possible. It also recommends that Canadians include some fats and oils in their diet, with the focus on unsaturated fats such as olive and canola oils. The guide recommends that people limit as much as possible the consumption of trans fats.

The guide contains more specific information on what constitutes a serving. An apple, for instance, equals one Vegetable and Fruits Food Guide serving. If you're having a stir-fry for dinner, one cup of mixed broccoli, carrot and sweet red pepper would give you two Vegetables and Fruit Food Guide servings, and 75 grams of chicken (or game meats such as deer, moose, caribou or elk) would constitute a Meat and Alternatives serving.

Don't like meat? You could substitute 175 ml of hummus or lentils — or 150 grams of tofu.

One cup of milk or fortified soy beverage makes one Food Guide serving. If you're between age nine and 18, you'll need three to four servings every day to make up your Food Guide requirements. You could include cheese, kefir or paneer in your diet to make up those servings.

In 2002, the Ontario Women's Health Council got together with the Ontario Public Health Association to adapt the food for several cultural groups. A Chinese food guide, for instance, contains images of several types of rice and rice noodles as well as bok choy and Chinese eggplant. Soy beverages and tofu are part of the "Milk and foods high in calcium" group.

In northern Quebec, the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services came out with a local version of the food guide in 2005. Its four major food groups are somewhat different from the official Food Guide. They are:

  • Berries, fruits and vegetables.
  • Grain products (which includes bannock).
  • Meat, fish, eggs, birds and beans (including muktuk).
  • Milk products and substitutes.

The guide says people should "be sure to enjoy country foods." The familiar food rainbow also includes caribou, whale, seal and walrus.

The revised Food Guide includes far more culturally specific foods and is expected to make translations available within several months.

Interactive elements

The guide has gone a long way towards offering far more specific information, tailored to individual users. It has adopted some of the American food pyramid's online interactive elements. Under the My Food Guide, users provide their age, sex and physical activity levels. The website takes the information and churns out your own personal food guide. It also produces portion sizes in ways that are easy to measure.

"It's not a weight-loss tool or a diet system, but if we match it with advice from Canada's Physical Activity Guide, it can help assist Canadians to make healthier choices," Dr. David Butler Jones, Canada's chief officer of health, told a news conference.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Diabetes Association welcomed the new guide as a key tool in helping Canadians make healthy choices.

"It is important for everyone - young and old - to balance healthy eating and daily physical exercise," says Sharon Zeiler, senior manager of nutrition strategies and initiatives for the Canadian Diabetes Association. "The key to reducing your risk of Type 2 diabetes is to move more and eat less. Canada's Food Guide can be your road map to your daily nutritional requirements."

Bush says the three-year process to revise the Food Guide has been extensive. Along with the advisory committee, about 6,000 people have used Health Canada's website to send recommendations about what should be in the guide and another 600 people submitted suggestions in person.

What the final document says will have a huge influence: if you've ever eaten meals in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, or any other institutional setting, chances are their menus were directly derived from the Food Guide.

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