The governmental department will re-examine the science behind it, to the policies and programs that stem from it and it’s relevance to Canadians, the “changing food supply, population and demographics,” says spokesperson.
It’s sung as Canada’s gospel of proper nutrition; a trustworthy guide dispensing sound advice on how to eat well, feel well and keep thin.
But Canada’s Food Guide is under fire — within academic circles, among clinicians, in witness testimony at a senate subcommittee investigating obesity — and now, at Health Canada, which says it has decided to review the country’s official food rules.
The governmental department will re-examine every facet of Canada’s Food Guide, from the science behind it, to the policies and programs that stem from it and it’s relevance to Canadians, the “changing food supply, population and demographics,” spokesperson Eric Morrissette wrote in an email.
It’s part of a new, “recently implemented” review process to “ensure Canada’s Food Guide and related dietary guidance, continue to be current and useful,” the statement says.
The Food Guide, a rainbow graphic of food groups and portion sizes explaining how we should spend our daily calories, was last updated in 2007 — despite a rising chorus of criticism from academics and clinicians. They say it is outdated, based on observations rather than hard science and focused on nutrients when it should emphasize whole foods.
“We need to throw out the idea that dietary recommendations can be built off nutrient requirements,” says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, a vocal critique of the guide. “We don’t shop for nutrients, we shop for food.”
Freedhoff adds that Canada’s official food rules do little for public health, but “quite a lot” to serve the interests of the food industry.
Health claims associated with the guide, such as “low in fat” and “no added sugar,” give hyper processed foods the illusion of “health in a box,” he says.
That puts the onus on the shopper to study “poorly designed nutrition fact panels,” and try to figure out whether the package is telling truth or not, he says.
Manual Arango, director of Health Policy for The Heart and Stroke Foundation, says it’s time the guide was revised — especially in its treatment of sugar.
Health Canada makes no distinction between added sugars, which are added in processing, and “free sugars,” which exist unbound from the whole foods they come from, he says, citing juice as a prime example.
Currently, the food guide says that a 1/2 cup of juice can stand in for a serving of whole fruit.
Calling it “sugar water,” Arango says he wants Health Canada to remove the recommendation immediately.
“It’s bananas,” he says. “Pure pulp fiction.”
Criticisms of the guide range widely: fruits and vegetables should be separated into two groups because Canadians already eat enough watermelon and grapes, but not enough veggies, like beets and eggplant, experts say.
Fats are absent — and they shouldn’t be, some experts say — especially with emerging evidence showing it is not fat that’s bad, but the food it comes from.
Even the science behind it is under scrutiny’s lens, says physician and University of Toronto nutritional sciences associate professor Dr. John Sievenpiper. “A big critique right now is that we don’t measure well,” he says. “We lack the big trials … the randomized trials.”
Valerie Tarasuk, professor at the University of Toronto’s Nutritional Sciences Department, says the guide, food groupings and portion sizes, are based on “sound scientific principles” and draw attention to how a healthy diet is made up of a spectrum of different foods.
If Canadians could only follow it, they would meet their nutritional needs, she says. The controversy arises from a misunderstanding of what the guide should be used for. “It’s not a prescription,” she says. “It’s an educational tool.”
Kate Comeau, registered dietitian and Dietitians of Canada spokesperson, agrees the guide is effective at starting a conversation about nutrition — with some groups, she says. But it’s “not for everyone.”
And, says Joanne Lewis, of the Diabetes Association, it is certainly not the only factor that contributes to health, and chronic disease. The environment of eating, she says, including food labels, marketing and access to food — are all important to healthier eating, she says.
If anything, what’s broken, she says, is “the way we implement” the food guide. “I would hope that the food guide is revised based on any new evidence out there.”