Within a year, Canadians will have a brand new Food Guide–hopefully one that incorporates the latest science on healthy eating–namely, increased consumption of fruits, vegetables and legumes, and a decreased emphasis on meat, milk, and eggs. This reform is supported by the latest research, but unsurprisingly, Canada’s meat and dairy industries are fighting these changes.
Health Canada had promised a transparent process, however, secret memos obtained by the Globe and Mail indicate that Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has been lobbying health Canada, asking them to soften their language on meat and dairy in the new guide.
Need Milk? Maybe not!
Health Canada had already given us a preview of what we are likely to see. One of the key proposed changes is the grouping of “protein-rich foods” where Health Canada encourages Canadians to choose plant-based sources of protein more often. This group will also include meat, poultry and fish, but will likely also include dairy. This will represent a big shift for the dairy industry, as they have previously had their own food group. The emphasis on plant-based sources of protein like lentils and beans allows Canadians to get more fibre along with their protein. Fibre can help prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, and most Canadians are only getting about half of their fibre requirements. This enhanced emphasis on plant-based proteins is exactly the type of leadership that Canadians need from Health Canada at a time when there is so much confusing nutrition information in the media.
Even if dairy loses its status as a food group, Canadians can rest assured that there are many other good sources of calcium to keep our bones and teeth strong. Non-dairy milks like soy and almond milk sold in Canada are fortified with the about same amount of calcium that you would get from dairy milk. Calcium is well absorbed from non-dairy milks (about the same as from cow’s milk, as long as the carton is given a good shake first). But we don’t have to just drink our calcium; green vegetables like kale and broccoli as well as tofu and almonds are other good non-dairy sources of calcium. Obtaining calcium from whole plants has the added benefit that these foods are also rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
This proposed change in the guide reflects consumer behaviour in Canada, where sales of dairy milk are slumping and non-dairy alternatives are skyrocketing. According to Statistics Canada, per capita consumption of fluid milk decreased 21.5 per cent from 1996 to 2015 . It is important to remember that dairy will not be removed from the food guide, it will likely just be placed with other foods, rather than having its own food group. This is an appropriate shift, because in terms of nutrition, dairy does not offer anything unique to Canadians in terms of nutrition, and therefore does not need to be in a separate group.
Keeping step with international changes
Some may argue that these proposed changes do not go far enough. In 2015 the Netherlands released a new Food Guide recommending where they recommend that the Dutch people eat fewer animal products and more plant-based foods. They specifically recommend limiting the intake of meat and dairy and encourage regular intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. The evidence is strong that a shift toward a plant-based diet can reduce our risk of premature mortality, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 70%, and will create a global savings in healthcare and environmental costs of up to 31 trillion US dollars.
The new food guide promises to also encourage Canadians to move away from processed foods, especially beverages which are high in sugar, and return to more cooking from scratch, meal planning and meal preparation. A 2017 survey found that 42% of Canadians eat out once or twice per week, and that 40% of Canadians eat lunch at their desk. The new guide will also encourage us to eat together with family and friends, recognizing that food plays an important social as well as nutritional role. These proposed changes would almost certainly improve the health of Canadians.
Hopeful for a more plant-based future for Canadians
I remain hopeful that new guide will reflect the evidence that clearly shows that a shift to more plant-based diets is better for our health and the environment. I believe that Health Canada will do the right thing and remain true to their promise for a transparent, evidence-based and publicly accountable process. I believe the new guide will be a big and long overdue shift that will better serve the health and well-being of Canadians, and better reflect our values and modern lifestyles. I very much hope I will not be disappointed.