Feeding Canada

Canada’s Food Guide is supposed to be the coherent universal healthy eating policy for the country, but a recent Senate report blames the food guide for contributing to Canada’s rise in obesity.

“Canada’s Food Guide has been at best ineffective, and at worst enabling”— Senate Report

“Several witnesses suggested that Canada’s Food Guide has been at best ineffective, and at worst enabling, with respect to the rising levels of unhealthy weights and diet-related chronic diseases in Canada,” said the report.

Canada’s Food Guide 2007 Photo © Health Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAulay, in his mandate letter, to “develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food by putting more healthy, high-quality food, produced by Canadian ranchers and farmers, on the tables of families across the country.”

That may require Health Canada to rewrite the food guide.

“I think the Minister of Agriculture is in a difficult position, because the minister is really there to promote the agriculture industry and that tends to be linked, to some degree with food processors,” said Senator Kenneth Ogilvie, who released the report.

The trouble with food guides

The problem the Minister of Agriculture is facing with creating a healthy food policy and promoting the agriculture industry is that often these two ideas conflict.

“If you look at food guides from various countries, the witnesses [that spoke to the committee] think they’re unduly influenced by the food industry, so that can create a lot of differences in what various countries’ food guides might contain,” said Senator Ogilvie.

Brazilian Food Guide Breakfast Recommendations
Photo © Government of Brazil

There are countries that are able to take the information provided by science, how the people of the country actually eat and the agriculture industry, and tie them all together.

Malek Batal, who has a PhD in nutrition and is a professor at the University of Montreal, pointed to the Brazilian food guide as an example of a government doing it right.

Ogilvie agreed. “The way that food guides present their information has got to be a lot more user friendly like the examples of Brazil and the most recent U.S. guide that use a whole plate concept,” he said.

Source: CIA

The problem with the food guide, as Minister of Health Jane Philpott pointed out via email, is that there are new scientific discoveries on food and healthy living happening constantly.

“We need to continue to update advice on healthy eating overall as scientific knowledge evolves and as Canadians change their food environments and how they eat,” said Philpott.

The cost of obesity

Both Minister Philpott and Senator Ogilvie expressed concern about Canada’s rising rates of obesity. It’s an epidemic, Ogilvie suggests. “It has enormous negative impacts on Canadians’ health and the cost to Canadians is estimated to be $7 billion annually, just on the obesity aspects alone,” he said.

That’s why the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, which he chairs, released the report on obesity linking it to the food guide. Health Canada said that the food guide is not solely to blame.

“A food guide is one tool in a broader strategy to support healthy eating,” said André Gagnon, media relations officer for Health Canada.

Source: Health Canada

While the food guide is not the sole cause of the rise in obesity, it does contribute to the lack of public understanding about what healthy eating looks like, said Batal.

There is an overemphasis on eating a specific food for one type of nutrient, like fish for omega-3s, he said, rather than focusing on a nutritious overall diet.

“Just eat real food”

“The simpler message is just to eat real food and to define real food. It’s anything that’s not overly processed and that’s not changed from the original state,” he said.

Health Canada said it is considering whether it needs to update its food guide or not.

“Health Canada will communicate publicly the results of the evidence review later this year,” said Gagnon.

“Changes in a new food guide should not have industry representatives on…”— Senator Ogilvie

The Senate is now waiting for a response to its recommendations.

But one element the committee stays firm on is that industry representatives cannot be involved in helping the Minister of Agriculture create his food policy.

“The committee recommending …changes in a new food guide should not have industry representatives on, we think that’s an absolute conflict of interest situation,” said Ogilvie.

The Minister of Agriculture did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

I am fourth year student at Carleton University, originally from Cambridge, Ontario but I spend most of my time off in Toronto. Throughout school I've been an intern many times over at Global Toronto, Global National Ottawa, CBC Ottawa, and Ottawa Citizen. I've also freelanced for Ottawa Sun and Toronto Star. I'm a lifestyle blogger at littlewhytebook.com. When I'm not constantly working I practice yoga, bake cookies, and play board games.

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