Getting Taken For a Ride with Canada’s Food Guide

Yes, it’s the day that Canadians have been waiting for with bated breath – the release of Canada’s first new food guide in fifteen years. The media can’t stop singing the praises of the thing, but much of the media write their articles based on press releases. The truth is, the new Food Guide is not especially useful to anyone.

The guide has been redesigned to allow more personalization of choices; there are more ethnic foods to accommodate the cultural changes within our population, and it allows individuals to make specific choices with regards to which foods they will eat from each section.

But while the new Guide does offer serving sizes, it doesn’t differentiate it terms of calories or fat content. In the milk and milk “alternatives” section (to which I must emit a giant “HA!” – the only non-dairy “alternative” offered is soy milk), skim milk, 1% and 2% milk are all considered equal. And in the alternatives section, you can have pudding instead of a glass of milk. Not that milk should even be there to begin with (it’s really not necessary to good health and nutrition), but the Food Guide really wasn’t created with the health of Canadians as its primary focus anyway, and marketing boards have a much bigger say in the final draft than the real and genuine health concerns brought up by doctors.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff was a consultant in the earlier stages of drafting the Guide and his recommendations were largely ignored. Dr. Freedhoff gives his own assessment of the Guide on his blog:

It cares about your age and sex. It doesn’t care about anything else. Not your height, your weight, your co-existing medical conditions, your level of physical fitness and the extent that you exercise. Nothing.

In a separate post, Freedhoff gives the specific pros and cons of the Food Guide and how it may actually cause Canadians to gain weight.

From a practical standpoint, after having played with the online guide a bit, it doesn’t seem especially useful. As Freedhoff points out, the calculations are based only on sex and age, not current weight, height, or physical fitness level. The Guide gives all items in weight or imperial measures, thus assuming that all Canadians will weigh their foods before eating them – do you weigh your food? Do you even own a kitchen scale? And while it gives specific advice to limit junk foods such as sodas, alcohol, cakes and pastries, and ice cream (hey – how come pudding gets to be a milk alternative but ice cream doesn’t?), the information is deeply buried within the web site and you have to actively look for it. The online Guide also forces the user to select three “physical activities” from a list, but doesn’t actually use this info for anything. It recommends 30 to 60 minutes of physical activity per day, but does no calculation with the activities selected to show how many calories you might burn or what benefits you might receive.

What we really need to ask ourselves is this – will the new Food Guide encourage people to make healthier choices, eat more conscientiously, dump the junk and get off the couch? Or will it just bewilder Canadians even more?

And finally for those who are vegetarian or vegan and find fully half of the new Food Guide completely and utterly irrelevant, here is a site with links to two very comprehensive food pyramids for vegetarians and vegans. It’s too bad Health Canada didn’t consider these suggestions when they were putting the guide together, instead of bowing to pressure by the various lobby groups whose products are featured so prominently in the document.