Health Canada just released its preliminary draft of Canada’s new Food Guide, the first such overhaul of the country’s nutrition policy in ten years. The changes are long overdue, say health care experts, many of whom see the proposal as a step in the right direction.
Yet, with its new emphasis on a plant-based diet, one high in fruits and vegetables and low in animal products, the proposed guide — which will not only define healthy eating for Canadian families but also inform nutrition policies at institutions like schools and hospitals — is likely to be a tough swallow for dedicated carnivores. Is Health Canada trying to turn us all into vegetarians?
Now halfway through a two-stage consultation process, the dramatic re-evaluation stems from a comprehensive research review along with almost 20,000 submissions from the public, health care professionals and the food industry.
The new plan highlights the evils of processed, prepackaged foods that contain high levels of sugar, fat and sodium, while firmly touting the benefits of a diet rich in plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains as well as plant-based sources of protein such as legumes, nuts and seeds.
Most notable is the demotion of animal products like meat and dairy, which the guidelines say can be “nutritious everyday foods” yet should in many cases be limited due to high contents of fat, sugar or salt. “What is needed is a shift towards a high proportion of plant-based foods, without necessarily excluding animal foods altogether,” reads the report.
The changes have been greeted by approval from health advocates across the country who have long called for an update, arguing that past and current iterations of the guide have been ineffective at combatting rising rates of obesity and heart disease across the country.
“It’s long overdue,” says Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, Dean of the Faculty of Management and professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, to Cantech Letter. “Canadians are already moving towards a more plant-based diet, and the trend will likely continue. A guide suggesting so will only reinforce what is already happening.”
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Unsurprisingly, Canada’s vegetarians are also pleased with the new direction. David Alexander, Executive Director of the Toronto Vegetarian Association says his group is “extremely encouraged” by the proposed changes.
“Health Canada has reviewed the latest nutrition science, and put forward a set of clear, evidence-based recommendations,” says Alexander to Cantech Letter. “We welcome the emphasis on heart-healthy, plant-based protein sources. Nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and soy-based foods are high in protein and fibre and low in saturated fats.”
The plan even makes mention of the resulting environmental benefits that should come with a move away from animal-based diets, something that Liz White of the Animal Alliance of Canada sees as a good sign, while at the same time hoping for more run-on effects from the new approach.
“We very much appreciate the broad government consultation about the direction of the food guide,” says White to Cantech Letter. “However, they need to address other regulations and policies such as those in Agriculture and Fisheries that would now come in conflict with the direction of the proposed guide, for instance, on the significant contribution that intensive animal agriculture has to global warming.”
One industry likely to feel the impact of the new recommendations would be dairy, which for decades has been given a starring role as one of the four food groups. (Currently, the Food Guide includes a “rainbow” of four colours: vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives and meat and alternatives.)
Not any more. While milk is still promoted as good for children, for the most part, the proposed guidelines would lump dairy products in with other animal-based foods to be approached with caution, going so far as to single out items like sweetened yogurt, cream, high fat cheeses and butter as food options to avoid. All of which would be troubling to dairy producers.
“We don’t know yet what the next Food Guide will look like, but if this is the route that Health Canada is taking, they would be doing a disservice to Canadians and, in fact, they would be going against their own scientific evidence review,” says Isabelle Neiderer, director of nutrition and research with the Dairy Farmers of Canada and a registered dietician, in conversation with Cantech Letter.
“Their review actually stressed that the majority of Canadians do not consume enough milk and milk products and that most Canadians’ diets are lacking in eight essential nutrients, six of which are provided by milk products,” she said.
Neiderer is concerned that the guide’s focus on reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer through a more plant-based diet might be to the detriment of efforts to combat osteoporosis, a public health issue which she says gets “completely overlooked” by the new guide. “It’s not even referenced at all, and that’s worrisome for me,” says Neiderer. “We know that calcium, magnesium, Vitamin D and potassium are problem nutrients for most Canadians, and the fact of the matter is that when you don’t consume milk, most of the time people are not getting enough of these,” she says.
As far as industry-wide implications go, it may be too early to tell. But there will be a need for adjustment, says Dr. Charlebois. “Over time, animal protein will need to be redefined,” he says. “Both dairy and meat sectors, particularly red meat, will need to reconnect with consumers in a different way. They’ll need to reinvent themselves and realize that the Canadian market is much more fragmented than what is believed by many in the industry.”
Health Canada is now accepting public input on its proposed recommendations for the new food guide.