This fall, HealthCanadawill publish a new and updated food guide. On April 10 at SFU Harbour Centre in downtownVancouver, HealthCanadahosted an event for stakeholders, which presumably means everyone who eats. I was happily surprised to find that they did not mean steakholders. Our proposed guide is showing much more allegiance toward health than its American counterpart, which is published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is even more permeated by agribusiness interests.

This Vancouver event was attended by members of the public, representatives of the food industry (BC Dairy Foundation, Hain Celestial, Soyaworld, Overwaitea, BC Blueberry Council, Nature’s Path Foods), the BC Ministry of the Environment, BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, vegetarian associations, and seniors groups, and by dietitians, nutrition professors, health department and hospital staff, media, and by specialists in cancer, heart disease, and organic farming.

The revision process already has been underway for 4 years of preparation and then two years of work on the guide, which will be launched later this year.

A Food Guide has the rather impossible job of translating scientific data of human requirements for nutrients such as protein, fat, and carbohydrate plus about thirty minerals and vitamins into groupings of foods, and attempting to put the end result onto a single piece of paper. Of course, the translation will be quite different for an Inuit population or for a group whose cultural origins are Asian or Hispanic. To see a paper on http://www.senba.es/recursos/piramides/pictorials_nutrition_guides.pdf

InNorth America, guidance about what to eat began during World War I when a

Home Economist connected with the U.S. Department of Agriculture assembled a guide entitled “How to Feed Children”. It consisted of 5 food groups: 1. Meat & Milk; 2. Breads;  3. Vegetables and Fruits;  4. Fats; 5. Sugars. When we consider the fourth and fifth groups,

In the 1930’s and early 40’s, through the depression and the war, with an emphasis on getting enough to eat and then “a chicken in every pot”, the form and content continued to shift in guides intended for the general public of all ages. Guides consisted of 7 to 10 food groups, (for example by dividing the Vegetables and Fruits into 4 groups: potatoes & sweet potatoes; tomatoes & citrus; leafy green and yellow; and other, and by dividing the Meat & Milk into 4 groups: milk;     dry beans, peas & nuts;  eggs; lean meat, fish & poultry.

Canada’s first food guide, the Official Food Rules, was introduced in July 1942. This guide acknowledged wartime food rationing, while endeavoring to prevent nutritional deficiencies and to improve the health of Canadians. In 1961, the Rules became a Guide with five food groups. Since 1977, Canadian guides have featured simplicity, and a four food group system. For 15 years Milk and Milk Products and Meat and Alternates were featured foremost and at the top. Then, in 1992, the other two groups Bread and Cereals and Vegetables and Fruits became more prominent reflecting advances in nutritional science, and a growing concern with our beefy, cheesy, fatty bodies.

It didn’t really bother anybody, back in the 1940s and 1950s, that dairy products (cow’s milk, cheese, and ice cream) were depicted as essential to everyone’s health and a necessary cornerstone of a “balanced” diet. Never mind that this guide was the ultimate marketing tool for the dairy industry. The focus then was on preventing dietary deficiencies (rather than obesity), and the nutritional merits of dairy products were emphasized and viewed as nature’s perfect food, not just for fast growing young calves but for humans of every age. Our perspective was not as multicultural as it is today. If it were, we might have wondered, that insists on the essential status of a food that is linked with lactose intolerance for 70 percent of the world’s population, including Canadian aboriginal people, Asians, African.  Might it even be seen as racist to insist that everyone drink cup after cup of milk when it causes gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort to so many?

Several positive changes that we may anticipate on the 2006 guide are these:
1. For the first time we may see fortified soymilk as an alternative in the Milk Products group. This is the first acknowledgement that everyone does not have to consume dairy products to get the nutrients they need, even if it makes them sick. There are other options (though we can’t expect to see kale and calcium-set tofu featured as alternative ways to get calcium.)  But getting one nondairy option in this group will be a start.
2. In the Meat & Alternates group, the alternates are gaining recognition; not just fish but also beans, tofu, nut butters, and nuts. The plant foods listed are excellent sources of fibre and a tremendous help in keeping our blood sugar level. Nuts and seeds turn out to be one of the best ways for us to get dietary fats; they are not linked with obesity and are important sources of vitamin E, trace minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.

To follow the process of this revision, you can go to www.healthcanada.ca/foodguide

If you want to email in comments, email:  food_guide_revision@hc-sc.gc.ca

Vesanto Melinais a registered dietitian and author of seven classic books on food and nutrition. For personal nutritional consultations, call 604-882-6782 or email vesanto@nutrispeak.com. Website: www.nutrispeak.com.

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