Canada’s Food Guide.

…now that you have had time to process your visceral reaction (apathy, rage, confusion), let’s talk.

I honestly don’t think about the food guide too often. That is, unless prompted for my opinion on it with comments such as,

“…aren’t you worried you are going to get in trouble because you don’t teach the food guide?”

Yes, I have actually been asked this dozens of times.

“If we actually ate the food guide, we would all be obese.”

“You can’t trust the food guide because big business is all over it.”

“I went to see this dietitian, and all she did was read me the food guide.”

I am surprising myself by actually wanting to write a blog post on the subject but as Health Canada finally announced that an overhaul is in the works, I am having a hard time keeping my opinion to myself.

Do I use the food guide?

Nope, no I don’t. Why? For a couple of reasons. The first is that I don’t generally use generic documents in my counselling…because good nutritional counselling is totally individualized. If I just hand you the food guide, what is the point of you coming to talk to me?

I strive to help people put more plants on their plate and use the functional properties of food to help them heal. Telling you to eat a certain amount of servings of one food type doesn’t speak to food choice, quality, or help you decide what to make for dinner. It also doesn’t tell you that the phyto-chemicals in cruciferous veggies help fight cancer or that avoiding FODMAPS might help ease tummy troubles. But, to be fair…that’s not what the guide was designed to do. It’s meant to guide 30 million people in a general pattern of healthy eating.

And that is where it falls short. It’s confusing and irrelevant to how people make food choices.

The equivalencies bother me. Orange juice is not an orange. There is a massive difference between eating sprouted grain bread and 100% whole wheat Wonder Bread – or 3/4 cup of chickpeas versus a hamburger patty. The way these foods affect your metabolism, satiety and hunger are totally different.  The food guide doesn’t make that clear…and it makes them equivalent. Which is totally friggen confusing…and makes it easier for food companies to sway us with their marketing.

Oh, and ‘make half your grains whole?’…um, no. Make them all whole. Sure, you might eat some baguette every now and then but for a nutritionally-focused document to “green light” white flour is insane.

And, as a dietitian, it’s totally okay for me to think this. The only type of nutritional advice I am 100% legally obligated to provide is advice that is based on real scientific evidence. And the evidence moves far faster than a document updated once every ten years.

Big Business at the Table

To me, the food guide is a policy document that should inform decision making across governmental agencies and guide the food industry. It’s true: industry has real influence over the content of the guide. And it should stop, immediately.

Yes, the food industry is an important part of our economy and is responsible for feeding us. However, we are at a point in history where chronic disease treatment is crippling health care budgets. It is not normal for someone in their thirties to be on multiple meds for things like high cholesterol and blood pressure. Common, yes…but not physiologically normal for our bodies to be failing so fast.

Companies exist for maximizing profits, not maximizing health outcomes. So we are literally allowing big business to fill their pockets while taxpayers pay the bill for lives filled with hyper-processed garbage masquerading as real food. When even ‘real’ cheese doesn’t need to be 100% fluid milk by law, that’s frustrating. Industry will cry that they need to make crappy food to survive in this economy…but remember trans fats?

When Health Canada hinted some time ago that they may be banned (even though they haven’t pulled the trigger yet), business largely eliminated them from the food supply. Miraculously, you can still make Doritos without trans fats! And make money! Funny how adaptable business is when they worry for their bottom line.

However, time for a bit of a haters reality check. The food guide is not 100% industry driven. Remember, your dear government is still begging you to eat fruits and vegetables. Sure, the dairy lobby has probably ensured the existence of a milk and alternatives group as part of our guidance, again, it’s not like the guide tells us to drink tons of milk instead of apples and brown rice.

No, eating the food guide won’t make you obese.

This statement makes a juicy headline but it’s a bit ridiculous. Maybe, if you were five feet tall, sedentary, chose the least healthy foods and ate the highest servings, you might gain some weight. But a bit of common sense would help you avoid that.

The real reason we are in this obesigenic shit pickle in North America is because we eat fake food. Most of our food choices are hyper-processed. And, even the stuff that looks real – like bread and yogurt – is now filled with all manner of crap it didn’t have in in when I was a kid. That’s a food supply issue.

If you pay attention, you’ll see that what that silly rainbow is actually telling you to do is to eat more fruits and vegetables than any other food type on the planet.

However, that that fact isn’t immediately apparent is a massive part of the trouble with the food guide. If the food guide is truly meant to guide Canadians in healthy food choice, it needs to be bloody obvious that the government wants you to eat broccoli and not double cheeseburgers.

Nowhere in the food guide do they tell you to eat McDonalds or drink pop. However, it should be crystal clear that you shouldn’t eat it. Like almost never. An evidence-based approach means that the food guide should be telling us in no uncertain terms that drinking sweet drinks will cause us to gain weight and get sick.

Brazil is on the right track. They talk about eating traditional foods, avoiding packaged foods and eating at home. But we can do better. I was bolstered to hear that Health Canada wants to make apps that make national food guidance totally customizable so you can get advice based on your food intolerances, activity levels and size. If the food guide isn’t relevant and practical to the public it serves, it’s useless.

But truth be told, if you need individual guidance, you should still probably come talk to a dietitian.

How to Eat Well

We live in a confusing food system. Much of the tens of thousands of products in the average supermarket are totally unnecessary and probably detrimental to good health. And yet, we have to eat.

Want to be healthier than the vast majority of the population? It’s not rocket science…but it will take diligence to avoid the crush of marketing and make good decisions. So while we wait for the new food guide to emerge, here is all the food guidance you really need to stay healthy*

  1. Make half your plate vegetables at every meal. Seriously, this will change your life.
  2. Make single ingredient foods 80% of what you eat. Broccoli, chickpeas, quinoa…good. Instant breakfast drinks and frozen sausage rolls? Not good.
  3. Cook for yourself most of the time. Even if it’s just basic spaghetti, veg and sauce.
  4. When you eat multi-ingredient food, look for the simplest ingredients possible. You don’t need glucose-fructose in your pasta sauce. Nor do you need BHT in your cereal.
  5. Drink water, unsweetened milk-type things and tea or coffee. Oh, and sometimes wine. Sweetened drinks are one of the worst things we can do for our weight.

Don’t want to be a passive bystander in the discussion? Wanna have your say? Public consultation is open this month!! Seriously. Do it. Tell those folks at Health Canada what you want. Because they are actually  listening.

…Otherwise, just go and eat some broccoli and have a good day.

*Unless you have a medical condition…then go see an RD for individualized advice