New Canada Food Guide Promises to Emphasize Plant Protein and Get Rid of Dairy

CC BY 2.0. Hamza Butt

Still in draft form, the revised Food Guide reflects the cultural and environmental considerations of modern times.

Many people were disappointed last year when the United States unveiled its new dietary guidelines and discovered that earlier recommendations to reduce meat intake had fizzled in the face of industry lobbying. Now all eyes are on Canada, which is in the midst of a similar revision process for its Food Guide. So far, it looks promising.

Health Canada has released a detailed draft, based on input from 20,000+ Canadians last fall, and is now in a second round of public consultation. The new Canada Food Guide draft makes some surprising and significant changes. These include eliminating food categories (such as “meat and alternatives” and “dairy”) and focusing instead on three guiding principles:

1) A variety of nutritious foods and beverages are the foundation for healthy eating.
2) Processed or prepared foods and beverages high in sodium, sugars, or saturated fat undermine healthy eating.
3) Knowledge and skills are needed to navigate the complex food environment and support healthy eating.

The first guideline encourages, first and foremost, the intake of plant-based proteins (legumes and soy products), before acknowledging consumption of limited meats and other traditional game, such as moose, deer and caribou, which may be “obtained through gardening, hunting, trapping, fishing, and harvesting.” While the draft still suggests eating low-fat yogurt and cheese, and giving full-fat milk to children, it does not include dairy as a recommended food group, whereas vegetables, fruit, grains and protein remain.

From the Huffington Post's analysis:

"There’s no more dairy food group, a win not only for public health but also cultural inclusivity, given that up to 90 percent of some non-European ethnicities are lactose intolerant. It’s also a huge win for the cows who really don’t want us to kill their babies so we can steal their milk. Instead, the guidelines will sensibly advise people to drink water."

The second guideline offers an outright condemnation of fruit juices (even 100 percent fruit), as well as other sweetened beverages and energy drinks, and advises drinking water to hydrate.

The third guideline, together with a fourth section called ‘Considerations,’ does a good job at putting diet into a social context. Food should be made from scratch and eaten in company as often as possible, though Health Canada realizes that this is not always possible, in which case frozen, packaged, and canned foods are good substitutes.

The final section touches, courageously and crucially, on the environmental effects of food production, and how we have an obligation to consider the planet when choosing our food.

“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. In 2014, the value of food waste and loss in Canada was estimated at $31 billion.
“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. The application of skills, such as planning meals and food purchases, can also help decrease household food waste.”

Health Canada is asking for public input; you can register here. If it follows through with these suggested guidelines, Canada will join countries like Brazil and Sweden in creating much more user-friendly, less industry-influenced nutritional advice; however, if the Canadian beef and dairy industries are allowed to intervene, the new Guide could end up looking a lot more like the meat-centric U.S. guidelines. Let’s hope Canada holds its ground on this issue.