Canada’s Food Guide – More Plants, Fewer Animals

After more than ten long years, Canada’s Food Guide is getting an update. Health Canada is planning to release a new food guide in 2018, and the proposed guiding principles have sent journalists into a flurry of activity, with claims the new food guide will be “vegan.” Dairy farmers even complained the new guide would result in warning labels on cheese. 

While warning labels on cheese might be a good way to inform people about its cholesterol and saturated fat content, that won’t be happening any time soon. However, Health Canada is moving in the right direction, with new guidelines intended to increase consumption of whole plant-based foods. And, by default, this leaves less room for the unhealthy stuff.

The new guiding principles of Canada’s Food Guide indicate that Health Canada is following the example set by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health earlier this year. Like Harvard (and the World Health Organization before them), Health Canada is advocating water, not dairy, as the beverage of choice, and encouraging Canadians to avoid red and processed meat.

So far, Health Canada has revealed that the new guide recommends:

  • Regular intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein-rich foods* – especially plant-based sources of protein
  • Inclusion of foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat, instead of foods that contain mostly of saturated fat
  • Regular intake of water

Will Canada’s Food Guide Tell People to Stop Eating Meat?

No. But they are advocating a more or less reducetarian approach to animal protein. The guiding principles state “what is needed is a shift towards a high proportion of plant-based foods, without necessarily excluding animal foods altogether.”

So, not altogether eliminating animal foods, but eating far fewer of them. Basically, they advocate a strategy of “crowding out” unhealthy animal foods and processed plant foods, by eating more whole plant foods. I think that as a nation wide strategy, this is an encouraging step, and one that it would be lovely to see other nations following as well.

Unsaturated vs. Saturated Fat

Perhaps one of the most controversial addition was an admonition to avoid saturated fat. I ventured into the Health Canada forum where people were discussing the guide, and this seemed by far the most challenged aspect of the new guide. Obviously, this is a huge issue for Paleo dieters with their penchant for bacon and eggs, and their skeptical attitude towards cholesterol and saturated fat.

It’s been terribly voguish lately to pooh-pooh any studies that have portrayed saturated fat in a negative light. But the people designing Canada’s Food Guide have chosen to go with the canon of health research on this one.

Regular Intake of Water Trumps Dairy

Canada’s Food Guide will emphasize water as the beverage of choice. Dairy is not being limited or removed from the guide, but it is losing its starring role. For years, Canada and the US have encouraged citizens to drink milk (or eat yogurt or cheese) three times the day. Now, Health Canada wants Canadians to know it’s better to eat whole foods than to drink the majority of calories.

The Environment

I found the guide’s focus on the environmental cost of food production it’s most important and overlooked development.

Health Canada makes it abundantly clear that their primary focus is on preserving and protecting human health.

But they also go the extra step of stating (perhaps for the first time in any literature outside of that produced by the World Health Organization and FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization) of highlighting the fact that animal foods carry a higher environmental cost in addition to their negative potential for human health:

The way our food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed – including the losses and waste of food – can have environmental implications, such as greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), soil degradation, decreases in water quality and availability, and wildlife loss.[5] In 2014, the value of food waste and loss in Canada was estimated at $31 billion.[6]

Health Canada goes on to clarify the implications of these facts:

The primary focus of Health Canada’s proposed healthy eating recommendations is to support health. However, there are also potential environmental benefits of shifting towards healthy eating. In general, diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact, when compared to current diets high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat.[7] The application of skills, such as planning meals and food purchases can also help decrease household food waste.

This is encouraging, and I’m very excited that Canada may be one of the first countries in the world to acknowledge both the health and environmental costs of animal agriculture. I hope this is a sign of changes to come in how Canada views agriculture.

My Thoughts on the Guiding Principles for Canada’s Food Guide

Overall, I’m very happy that the Canadian government is seriously considering the health implications of diets high in processed foods and animal protein. It looks like the new guide will be a step in the right direction, encouraging Canadians to make healthier, more sustainable choices.


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