Cross Country Checkup

Does Canada's revamped food guide bridge cultural divides?

Health Canada's plant-focused food guide overhaul — which favours fruits, veggies, whole grains and plant-based protein, like tofu — may make the new version a hard sell in some ethnic and Indigenous households.

Plant-focused overhaul may make new guide a hard sell in some ethnic, Indigenous households

The updated Canada's Food Guide was released last week with a focus on fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

When Christine Fu decided to adopt a plant-based diet, it wasn't for ethical, environmental or economical reasons.

She did it for love.

"He was very hardcore vegan," said Fu, a 22-year-old from Toronto, about her then-boyfriend.

"I first started introducing it to my lifestyle, just a few days a week. Then, it became very easy to just transition."

What Fu didn't anticipate was the pushback from her meat-loving Chinese-Canadian family.

"They're, like, 'Oh, you're not getting enough nutrients. You're too skinny.' There's a lot of mindsets and traditional thinking."

Christine Fu pictured in Bangkok, Thailand's Khao San Road in 2018. (Submitted by Christine Fu)

Plant-based diets are increasingly popular in Canada, with millennials leading the way. Vegetarians and vegans now account for nearly 10 per cent of Canada's population, most under the age of 35.

That trend got a boost this week, when the federal health agency updated Canada's Food Guide to be heavy on fruits and veggies, and light on meat and dairy.

While environmentalists and dieticians are lauding the emphasis on plant-based proteins in the new guide, its lack of culinary diversity may make it a hard sell in some ethnic and Indigenous households.

Health Canada promises Indigenous-specific food resources are coming after consultations with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

A spokesperson said, "Canada's Food Guide is intended for all Canadians. Health Canada is working to ensure that the revised Food Guide is inclusive of Indigenous Peoples, reflecting social, cultural and historical context."

Cultural food traditions

Shane Chartrand, a chef from the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, said traditional Indigenous diets often place heavy emphasis on animals and fish harvested from surrounding lands and waters.

"True Indigenous food to me is really about healthy food from where you're at," he said.

Shane Chartrand is the executive chef of River Cree Resort and Casino in Edmonton. (Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance)

The diets of Indigenous peoples vary from region to region, Chartrand adds, whether enjoying salmon on the West Coast, seal in the North, or, in his own territory, bison.

"Bison is a huge staple in the Plains Cree diet ... [we're] really, really meat-orientated over here."

However, Chartrand is quick to point out locally harvested plants are also an important part of traditional Indigenous cuisine, citing bullrush stems, wild rice and mint as common ingredients.

The plant-heavy graphic on the guide's cover certainly struck Chinese-Canadian food writer Karon Liu.

"It's definitely veering towards the North American plate," he said. "I'm trying to see if there's anything that I would use from, like, an Asian market. No, there isn't."

The cover of Canada's Food Guide now shows a neatly sorted graphic that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein foods in recommended portions. (CBC)

Though Liu appreciates there's some cultural inclusion in recipes that accompany the guide, he said the emphasis on whole grains might make it tough to swallow for those who prefer traditional Chinese dishes.

"We've been eating white rice for how many tens of thousands of years? And, you know, how many billions of us are there in the world?" he asked, laughing.

"I actually tried to make the brown rice switch a few years ago on my healthy kick," he said.

"Brown rice does not go with Chinese food, I can tell you that."

Finding culinary balance

Anar Allidina, a registered dietician based in Richmond Hill, Ont., feels the new guide is a "huge improvement" over the last one.

But, she acknowledges it may lack thoughtful ways for newcomers to incorporate their preferred foods.

"A lot of ethnic groups in Canada have white rice as their staple. And if you look at that plate method [used by the new guide], we don't see anything white on there. It's all whole grain rice, whole grain pasta," Allidina said.

"This is going to be a shift for so many of us."

Anar Allidina is a Richmond Hill, Ont.-based dietitian. (Aliya Amarsi)

Allidina said people can still follow the recommendations, even if they have cultural or religious dietary restrictions, simply by being mindful to include more vegetables in meals.

In Fu's case, meat symbolized "strength and manliness" to her father. He reacted strongly to her conversion to veganism.

"He was just very against it. He was like, 'What happened to you? Who are you dating? What's wrong with you?' So, I had quite a bit of discouragement."

She began making compromises to preserve harmony at the family dinner table.

"If there was meat in the dish, I was OK with eating around that. So, I didn't want to force them to do something that they didn't want to do, or they didn't want to eat."

Though she felt veganism was healthier and more affordable, her meat-free diet came to an end after eight months. She parted ways with her boyfriend, and decided to go backpacking in Asia.

The trip included visits to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

"Only if you're very privileged, and you have a lot of money, then you can access a lot of fresh vegetables."


  • An earlier version of this story gave the impression Health Canada wasn't addressing Indigenous concerns about the new Food Guide. It has now been updated to reflect their actions and position more accurately.
    Jan 29, 2019 11:56 AM ET