Canadians Prefer Dietary Advice From Friends Over the New Food Guide

Health Canada enjoy your food

Researchers are disappointed by the lack of interest in the Guide and wonder how to make it more accessible.

It's been nearly two months since Canada published its new and improved Food Guide. The 62-page document pleased many with its refusal to bow to industry influences, its emphasis on plant-based protein sources, and its insistence on improving 'food literacy,' or how Canadians eat, i.e. together at home.

But such advice is easier given than practiced, as researchers from the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University have discovered. Canadians, it turns out, are not turning to the Food Guide for nutritional guidance, but rather relying on other sources for information.

A new study, published last week, found that Canadians' preference for sources of dietary advice is in the following order: family and friends (20 percent), general research (19 percent), social media (11 percent), cookbooks and magazines (10 percent), TV programs and documentaries (8 percent), and finally Canada's Food Guide (8 percent). Health professionals, grocers, celebrities, and food companies also appeared in the top-10 list. Baby boomers are most likely to rely on cookbooks and magazines, while millennials and Generation Zers look to celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow!) and social media.

Common complaints about the Food Guide are that it's expensive (27 percent of respondents) and does not align with taste preferences (20 percent) or personal dietary needs (10 percent). An additional 10 percent says it takes too much time to prepare food in the way the Guide recommends.

The 'too-expensive' argument doesn't stand up, according to University of Guelph professor and study co-author Simon Somogyi. He points out that "following the new guide will save Canadian families on average 6.8 per cent of their annual food costs, or about $1.30 a day and $475 a year for a family of four." This calculation is based on four hypothetical plates created by the researchers that are compared to the old Food Guide, published in 2007. Somogyi said in a press release,

"What we found cost-wise is that the new guide is making Canadians more food secure. This is a welcome change because it should allow families with lower incomes to still be able to eat nutritiously."

But these calculations also presuppose that a household makes everything from scratch, never eats out, and wastes no food, which isn't realistic.

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The new guide saves money because it emphasizes plant-based proteins (cheaper than meat) and drinking water, as opposed to large quantities of milk. The savings will only last until 2021, however, if domestic produce supply issues are not addressed. Says Sylvain Charlebois, professor at Dalhousie University, "Produce prices and access to vegetable proteins will increasingly become problematic over time, putting pressure on food prices."

I found the whole study intriguing because, even though I consider myself nutritionally savvy and a dedicated home cook, it wouldn't occur to me to consult the national Food Guide when deciding what to make for supper. I think of it more as a reference document, a textbook of sorts. I read it when it was first published in January (and wrote an article about it) and have stored away the key points in my mind; but other than that, I don't see much reason to open it up. What about you readers?

Where I think the Food Guide has the most clout is in Canadian institutions like hospitals, schools, nursing homes, summer camps, etc. But Somogyi and Charlebois want to see it reaching further, which is why they suggest moving the information to where the people are:

“It’s not a lost cause, it just means the information contained in the guide may need to be communicated in different ways,” said Somogyi. “For example, if we want millennials and Gen Zs to use the information, then we need to put it out on social media. We need to use the tools that they are using.”

You can read the new Food Guide here.