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Should Americans Follow the Canadian Food Guide?

Canada recently got a new Food Guide, one that appears to be conspicuously free of industry influence. What might Americans have to gain from following Canada's lead? And how are national food guidelines changing around the globe? Nutrition Diva reports.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #512
Canadian flag dinner plate

In this week's podcast, I interview Dr. Yoni Freedhoff about Canada's newly revised Food Guide and the implications of these guidleines for eaters and policy makers in Canada and beyond.  Dr. Freedhoff last appeared on the podcast to discuss weight loss resistance.  

Below are some of the highlights from our discussion. Click on the audio player to hear the entire interview:

What Is a Food Guide?

Dr. Freedhoff has been an outspoken critic of the Canadian Food Guide in the past but believes this iteration is a significant improvement over past attempts. Here in the United States, we go through a similar process every five years to update  the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. One of the recurrent criticisms of our DGA is undue influence from the food industry—and not just manufacturers who make ready to eat breakfast cereal and soda, but groups representing dairy farmers and cattle ranchers and other agricultural sectors.

In both countries, the government is balancing multiple missions: promoting the health and welfare of its citizens but also supporting its agricultural and business sectors. This has historically led to dietary recommendations that may have as much to do with propping up sales as with supplying nutritional needs. 

Blame Canada!

The latest Food Guide from Canada Health is striking in the lack of apparent industry influence. No longer are Canadians instructed to eat two servings of dairy a day, for example. Instead, dairy products are simply included as one of many possible sources of protein. There's also an emphasis on cooking more often and reducing consumption of processed and packaged foods. 

If we look at how interntational dietary guidelines have changed over the last couple of decades, we find that they are evolving along similar paths...which isn’t surprising. Research doesn’t stop at the border.  

We’re less worried about fat and cholesterol and more worried about added sugars. We’re talking about foods, dietary patterns, and proportions instead of individual nutrients and required numbers of servings.  Food policy experts are also starting to expand their scope beyond just what might be healthy for humans (or for farmers) to think about what might be healthy for the planet.

The Canadian Food Guide was unveiled shortly after the EATLancet report came out. This was a big position paper issued by an international consortium of scientists, who argue that we need to rethink our diets and food production systems in view of the rising global population. There was a lot of common ground between the two reports, in particular, that we need to get more of our calories and protein from plants.

Some have commented that the new Food Guide idealizes a diet that some people may find out of reach financially or in terms of the time required to procure and prepare meals. In a column for the Globe and Mail, Andre Picard writes:

“Healthy eating, as it is proposed in Canada’s Food Guide, is a privilege of wealth. The symbolic fruity/nutty/grainy plate is actually out of reach for many who struggle with poverty, food insecurity, and health illiteracy.” All these fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, are a lot more expensive than fast food burgers and French fries and not nearly as convenient.

To be fair, the Food Guide tries to provide a template for what a healthy diet looks like. It not intended to address the very real issues of poverty and food insecurity. Nonetheless, these guidelines will ultimately shape food policy, attitudes and, ultimately, our health. As we prepare for the 2020 edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, perhaps we should follow Canada's lead in reducing (if not eliminating) the influence of industry in determining what a healthy diet looks like. 

Dr. Freedhoff's blog on all things food and nutrition is at weightymatters.ca.

Yoni Freedhoff

Canadian plate image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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