What an early draft tells us about Canada’s new food guide

Canada’s new food guide, expected sometime early this year, already looks like it might be a big change from the old “food rainbow” design that hung in classrooms for years.

While the new guide has yet to be finalized, some clues about its contents can be found in an October 2018 report prepared by Earnscliffe Strategy Group in which the firm was asked to present various concepts and illustrations to focus groups to find out what Canadians think.


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“The Earnscliffe report reflects early work done by Health Canada to test different concepts for the food guide,” wrote a Health Canada spokesperson in an emailed statement.

“The final version of the food guide will look different and will reflect feedback not just from the report but also input from stakeholders, experts and the public.”

Although Health Canada notes that the concepts presented in the report aren’t even a full draft of the new food guide, they do give some sense of the major changes from the current guide.

Here are some of the big ones.

How to eat

The most novel change is that it looks like the new food guide will also include advice on how to eat — rather than just what to eat.

“Healthy eating is more than the foods you eat,” reads a heading in an illustration meant to provide key concepts at a glance.

One of the images sent out to focus groups in a report about the new food guide prepared by Earnscliffe Strategy Group.

It suggests being “mindful” of your eating habits, cooking more often, sharing meals with others and drinking water.

What to eat is “just a piece of the puzzle,” said Kate Comeau, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada.

“When we talk to clients and families, we know that there is research to support that eating with your family has more benefits than simply being nice. If you’re eating with others, we see better performance in school for children, we see higher consumption of fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Cooking at home helps teach kids cooking habits that can extend into adulthood, as well as conferring nutritional benefits, she said.

“Generally, when we’re cooking at home, we know that food tends to be more nourishing, lower in processed and prepared foods that are high in sodium, saturated fat and in sugars that tend to have negative effects on our health,” Comeau added.

This section seems to borrow from Brazil’s food guide, which contains a whole chapter emphasizing the importance of eating with friends and family and mindful eating. Following these guidelines confers several benefits, according to Brazil’s food guide.

“These include improved digestion and use of foods, more efficient control of what and how much food is consumed, enhanced family and social life and, in particular, more pleasure in eating,” the Brazilian guide reads.

The illustration and some proposed guiding principles released by Health Canada in 2017 also stress enjoying your food.

What to eat

In an illustration showing different kinds of food, the new food guide looks like it might do away with some of the food groups with which most Canadians would be familiar.

The old food guide rainbow broke diets into four food groups: vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives and meat and alternatives.

The cover page of the last edition of Canada’s Food Guide, featuring the now-familiar food groups rainbow.

Under the heading “Eat a variety of healthy foods every day,” a proposed illustration for the new food guide seems to instead emphasize eating lots of whole-grain foods, plenty of vegetables and fruit and protein foods.

The old food groups model has been criticized before, as a lot of the calories Canadians eat don’t fall into one of the four current food groups, and some question whether milk and dairy products really deserved their own separate category.

Examples under the new “whole-grain” category include wild rice, brown bread, a brown pita and, presumably, whole-wheat pasta. Vegetable and fruit examples include canned and fresh tomatoes, bagged salad, broccoli, melons and berries. Similar illustrations from the old food guide included fruit juice — this one doesn’t.

“The Dietitians of Canada say that children do not need juice,” Comeau said, and in her experience, people often grossly overestimate how much juice constitutes a serving, which the last food guide said was just half a cup, or 125 mL.

Protein foods seem to include tofu, beans, fish, nuts and peanut butter, meat and a carton of milk — the only appearance of a dairy product on this illustration, though Health Canada’s emailed statement also noted that low-fat cheese and yogurt would count as protein foods, too.

“[Milk] is still on there as a nutritious food,” Comeau said. “I think we’ll see whether that language of protein foods persists but I think we’re, as dietitians, generally supportive of the idea that all of those foods are nourishing foods.”

How much to eat

It’s only a single illustration, but this picture seems to be missing advice on how many servings of each food you should eat every day. The old guide recommended, for example, that adult men eat seven servings of vegetables and fruit, seven servings of grain and three servings each of dairy and meat per day.

The serving size recommendations in the last food guide were confusing, Comeau said.

“Serving sizes are really complicated. The way they were presented in 2007 were generally difficult for Canadians to understand.”

She continued: “Are Canadians really measuring out what the rice they are putting on their plate is?”

More specific guidance on how much to eat will likely be in the complete version of the food guide, though, Comeau said.

What not to eat

The draft illustration of the new food guide also suggests that people limit foods high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat — offering the examples of pizza, muffins and a can of soda. Earlier draft “foundational statements” also emphasized eating fewer processed foods.

The illustration also advises that people read nutrition labels and “be aware of food marketing.”

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