The Canadian government made some rather large changes to their dietary guidelines.
Like, some really large changes.
These changes have created quite the stir across the health industry. Some professionals applauding them, others are going as far as to suggest that they will accelerate the nation’s growing obesity epidemic.
So with all this controversy, we simply had to take an in-depth look.
What is the Canadian food guide?
Canada’s Food Guide is used as both health policy and as an educational tool for citizens.
It has been designed to help people make smart food choices to better allow them to meet their nutritional needs. They want to encourage Canadians to improve their health and reduce their risk of developing any dietary-related chronic diseases.
In this manner, it is said to help them interpret complex nutritional information in a practically meaningful way.
Canada’s Food Guide was first released in 1942. Since then, it has been revised eight times in total. With each revision, the Canadian government has taken steps to search and review the best available dietary research. It allows them to make decisions that they believe will best serve the health of their people.
So what changes have been made this time?
What are the big changes made to the Canadian food guide?
There have been a number of changes to the Canadian food guide. Each change has different degrees of evidence to support them. These changes fall broadly into one of four categories.
- Moving towards plant-based eating patterns
- Drinking more water and restricting sugary drinks
- Restricting dairy intake
- No junk food
A very detailed overview of evidence they have used to justify these guidelines can be found here. I have provided a thorough breakdown of their rationale in each of the following sections to provide insight into why they have made these key changes.
A shift towards plant-based food
The first big change made within the Canadian food guide is a shift toward more plant-based eating patterns (GC, 2019).
They state that vegetables, fruits, and whole grains should be consumed more often, and actually make up the bulk of the diet. Moreover, they also go as far as to say that most protein-rich foods within the diet should be derived from plant-based sources when possible.
This means opting for legumes, nuts, seeds, and tofu more often, with the inclusion of some fish, poultry, and lean red meat on the odd occasion.
This has been done with the intent increase fiber intake and lowers the consumption of both processed meats, trans fats (found in those processed meats), saturated fatty acids (found in fatty cuts of red meat), and processed carbohydrates (found in refined grains).
The combination of these factors has been shown to reduce the risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, while also lowering blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Water is the beverage of choice
Water is essential for the maintenance of nearly all aspects of health and function – but most Canadian people do not actually drink enough of it.
With this in mind, the food guide now states that water should almost always be the drink of choice. In conjunction with this, they have also suggested that the intake of sugary beverages such as soft drink and fruit juice should be heavily restricted and consumed as infrequently as possible.
Now I know that some people might be asking ‘why I thought fruit juice is good for you?’
But what most people don’t realize how much sugar is in juice.
Here, I’ll give you a hint – it is a lot.
With all this in mind, there is evidence to suggest that increasing water intake and restricting your intake of soft drinks and fruit juice can improve blood sugar levels, while also reducing potential weight gain and limiting your risk of developing diabetes.
In conjunction with the large recommendations made around the consumption of meat, there have also been some very clear recommendations made around reducing dairy intake where possible – and if you do choose to have some dairy, they proceed to state that it should be either ‘low-fat’ or ‘skim’.
Much like the alterations in meat consumption, this change has been suggested to limit intakes of saturated fatty acids. As we know, this will have some positive implications for heart health, and help contribute to lower blood cholesterol levels.
Limit processed junk foods
Finally, the guidelines also state that your intake of sugary, refined, or junk food, should be as limited as possible. While this sits in line with previous guidelines (and many others across the globe), it still requires mention.
A heightened intake of these types of foods (think sweets, bread, and refined pasta) has been shown to have negative implications for blood sugar levels, while also increasing the risk of developing diabetes significantly.
So pretty simply, avoid them like the plague.
How will these changes impact industry?
Some of the biggest criticisms to come out of these changes are actually coming from the food industry within Canada itself – with particular emphasis on the meat and dairy industry.
In fact, this discord was deemed so severe that key representatives from both the ‘Dairy Farmers of Canada’ and the ‘Canadian Meat Council’ have gone on record to speak out against the guidelines prior to their publication – albeit to no avail.
Many believe that their concern is warranted, and this shift towards plant-based food sources may reduce dairy and meat intake across the country, resulting in loss of demand, loss of income, and potentially a loss of jobs.
However, only time will tell if these concerns are well-founded, or not.
How is this different to other national food guides?
The Canadian government is often considered to be at the forefront of health change – leaders of the pack if you will.
With this in mind, we wanted to take a look at some of the dietary guidelines from other countries to see where they differ, and where they remain similar.
European food guide
The food-based dietary guidelines tend to differ slightly between European countries, however, there are some common recommendations between these countries that are certainly worth mentioning (Montagnese, 2015).
These commonalities include eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains), and choosing foods that are lower in saturated fat, salt, and sugar.
With this in mind, meat and dairy should be consumed in moderation, and bread and cereals are recommended to make up a large part of the diet.
As you can see, this differs somewhat from the new dietary guidelines promoted by Canada, as the Europeans appear to typically recommend higher intakes of carbohydrates, and more meat and dairy – although they both state that vegetables should be an integral part of the diet, and that sweets should be limited.
American food guide
The American food pyramid has been developed with the intent to provide useful and practical dietary information to American citizens as a way to enhance health and function (NASEM, 2017).
It revolves around suggesting the consumption of a variety of vegetables, whole fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and a variety of protein dense foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), as well as nuts, seeds, and soy products.
With this, it also suggests that you limit your consumption of saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars, and sodium as much as possible.
Much like the Canadian guidelines, this means limiting junk foods and sugary beverages as much as possible – although again, the meats are recommended for greater consumption within the American guidelines.
Australian food guide
And finally, we can move into the Australian food guidelines (Fayet-Moore, 2015).
Like the Canadian food guide, the Australian dietary guidelines have undergone a number of changes in its history. It has remained very similar over the last decade or so.
With this in mind, it suggests that the bulk of the diet should be made up of whole grains, bread, and cereals. Higher consumption of vegetable and fruits is also recommended (5 serves of vegetables and 2 serves of fruit per day).
In conjunction with this, they suggest a moderate intake of low-fat dairy, and moderate consumption of meat, seafood, and poultry. A low intake of processed foods, sugars, and saturated fatty acids is also a part of the Australian food guide.
In this manner, they are very similar to the food guidelines made by for the American people, in that they recommend a higher intake of meat and dairy than the Canadian guidelines.
Have the Canadian food guides made the right choices?
So, have they made the right choices?
Related Article: Gene-Based Nutrition: Can It Benefit You?
There are criticisms that people have about the changes in the guidelines. The vast majority of them have been made upon epidemiological data (Gulis, 2015).
Epidemiological data is essentially cross-sectional in nature. A snapshot of a large portion of the population is taken at a single point in time. This data is then used to find associations and patterns that may identify dietary health risk.
For example, in this scenario, they have found that those people who eat more red meat tend to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and higher blood cholesterol levels. Those who eat a more plant-based diet do not.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that red meat causes these issues. Individuals who eat more red meat just tend to have them.
You see, it could simply be that individuals who eat more red meat are also more likely to eat junk food and smoke. This will cause the same issues. In this manner, red meat isn’t responsible for the issues. It is rather an indication that those people who eat more meat tend to partake in less health-positive behaviors.
Additionally, many of the recommendations made within the food guide lend themselves to a diet that is much lower in protein. Eating less protein is not necessarily a good thing.
As an aging population, we are seeing an increased incidence of muscle-centric diseases such as diabetes and sarcopenia. There are also heightened rates of obesity.
It is well established that a higher intake of protein can reduce the risk of developing sarcopenia. A diet high in protein also helps promote weight loss, and contributes to the prevention of diabetes. Protein intake reduces these risks by promoting the maintenance of lean muscle mass (Deer, 2015; Smith, 2016; Campos-Nonato, 2017).
In this manner, some of the recommendations made may actually contribute to the onset of these diseases.
So, have they made the right choice?
At this point in time, the food guide has obvious positives such as more vegetable intake, less refined carbohydrates. Potential negatives would be lower protein intake. Lower protein intake would make it difficult to determine if these changes will have a large impact on the health of the Canadian people.
I guess time will tell!
Take Home Message
The changes to the Canadian food guide are large and varied. With higher intakes of vegetables, fiber, and water recommended, there is reason to believe that there will be significant improvements in heart health. This is assuming that they are adhered to of course.
However, there is also reason to believe that as a result of the lower protein intakes suggested, they may not do anything for the increasing rates of obesity, sarcopenia, and diabetes, that are currently plaguing the population.
Of course, only time will tell how effective these recommendations truly are.
Government of Canada (GC). Canada’s dietary guidelines: for health professionals and policy makers (2019). From: https://food-guide.canada.ca/static/assets/pdf/CDG-EN-2018.pdf
Montagnese, Concetta, et al. “European food-based dietary guidelines: a comparison and update.” Nutrition 31.7-8 (2015): 908-915.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). “Role and Purposes of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Evaluation and Findings.” (2017).
Fayet-Moore, Flavia, and Suzanne Pearson. “Interpreting the Australian dietary guideline to “limit” into practical and personalized advice.” Nutrients 7.3 (2015): 2026-2043.
Gulis, Gabriel, and Yoshihisa Fujino. “Epidemiology, population health, and health impact assessment.” Journal of Epidemiology 25.3 (2015): 179-180.
Smith, Gordon I., et al. “High-protein intake during weight loss therapy eliminates the weight-loss-induced improvement in insulin action in obese postmenopausal women.”. Cell reports 17.3 (2016): 849-861.
Campos-Nonato, Ismael, Lucia Hernandez, and Simon Barquera. “Effect of a high-protein diet versus standard-protein diet on weight loss and biomarkers of metabolic syndrome: a randomized clinical trial.”. Obesity facts 10.3 (2017): 238-251.
Deer, Rachel R., and Elena Volpi. “Protein intake and muscle function in older adults.” Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care 18.3 (2015): 248.
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