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A Dietitian's review of the new Canada's Food Guide

Finally - the new Canada's Food Guide has been released by Health Canada! There are a lot of positive changes to the new guidelines. The four food groups are gone. No more meat and alternatives or dairy group. They've been replaced with a more visual plate-style of half fruits and veggies, one quarter whole grains and one quarter protein foods. Another change is a focus on HOW you eat (they call this section "eating habits"), not just WHAT you eat ("healthy food choices").

While the guide itself is simple, more resources and information is available at canada.ca/foodguide. I had to do a bit of digging to find them, so have laid out all of the recommendations with links here. I'll also share some more detailed thoughts about what I like about this new guide, and potential concerns or questions below.

Healthy Food Choices

  • Eat a healthy variety of foods
    • Eat plenty of fruits & vegetables. The visual plate suggests half of your plate be filled with fruits and veg. The more detailed guidance includes discussion of why and how to do this, including snack ideas & how to eat more produce! Love it.
    • Eat whole grain foods. The old food guide suggested to make half of your foods whole grain. So it's great to see this new guide suggests ALL whole grains!
    • Eat Protein foods. This is a big change, lumping in meat and  low-fat dairy and suggesting to include more plant- based proteins. A good move for health & the environment.
    • Choose foods with healthy fats: Suggests limiting saturated fat and choosing unsaturated fat. This will likely peeve off keto-fans, but is where the majority of evidence lies in terms of heart health. I'm not quite sure about the focus only on low-fat dairy though. More on that later...
  • Limit highly processed foods
  • Make Water your drink of choice discusses why to drink water, ideas to flavour it and drinks to avoid (sugary drinks, alcoholic drinks, juice). This will of course help decrease added sugar in the diet and help maintain a healthy weight. Juice is no longer considered a serving of fruit, which is great! It also suggests other healthy alternatives for drinks: unsweetened lower fat white milk, unsweetened fortified plant-based beverages, unsweetened coffee and tea.
  • Use food labels Includes links to help interpret labels, claims and ingredient lists.
  • Be aware of food marketing How food marketing can affect your food choices  (from social media to product placement in TV shows).

Eating Habits

  • Be mindful of your eating habits:
    • Take time to eat: Tips include noticing when you're full, putting down the fork between bites and eating without distraction.
    • Notice your hunger cues:  Be aware of emotional eating,  and your fullness level before getting seconds!
  • Cooking more:
    • Plan what you eat. How to make a meal plan and stick to it. Another thing I regularly preach!
    • Involve others in planning and prepping meals. It goes further to provide guidance in how to getting kids involved! Offering suggestions for why and how to get kids involved in planning, cooking and some idea for each age group. You know I'm a big proponent of this and will refer to it a lot.
  • Enjoy your food: Includes suggestions to try new foods and create a positive eating environment (like adding friends & background music!)
  • Eat meals with others includes guidance on why & how to do this, along with specific recommendations for seniors and families (and family meals! I've written about the benefits here).

Lots of resources are provided including a page of Recipes and tips for healthy snacking, healthy eating on a budget, and environmentally-friendly tips to decrease food waste. Guidance is also provided on healthy eating at school and some tips for parents briefly touches on picky eating.

Note that the new food guide is for age 2 and over. Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants still provides nutrition guidance for babies.

What I love about the new food guide

Overall, I love the focus on how to eat in this new food guide: mindful eating, eating together & meal planning. When I teach families about feeding kids & the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, I stress that the how of feeding is at least as important as the what.

I also am excited to see the focus on more plant-based foods. And mention about the environment and sustainability of food. This is a  concern with a growing population and it's great to see it addressed.

What I'm not sure about...

1) I'm not 100% sold on the focus of avoiding all saturated fat and choosing only "low fat" dairy. Especially for kids (the guide is for ages 2 and up). When digging into the research used to put the guide together, the recommendation for low-fat dairy mainly comes from this review study. It found that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat decreased blood pressure, improved blood lipid levels and decreased risk of obesity in kids.

But while not all fats are created equal, not all saturated fats are created equal either! There is research supporting some dairy fats (like conjugated linoleic acid or CLA) in preventing colon cancer and decreasing obesity.

If your family enjoys skim milk, it still contains the same amount of protein and calcium as milk with more fat. For kids over age 2, it's fine. But I'm not going so far as recommending to eat low sodium/fat cheese. Food need to taste good and provide enjoyment - another tenant of the food guide!

2) Another item of discussion is how we can meet calcium needs with the focus off of dairy (and fortified alternatives). Calcium is also a main source of vitamin D (keep supplementing!). The recommended daily intake of calcium for adults is 1000mg per day. For kids aged 1-3 it's 700mg. Ages 4-8 years 1000mg and age 9-18  years calcium recommendations are a whopping 1300mg.

I know many of you are feeding 9-13 year olds at home, as am I. So what does 1300mg of calcium look like?

  • 4 servings of dairy/fortified alternative (2 cheese strings, 3/4 cup yogurt or 1 cup milk or fortified alternative) OR
  • 5.5 cups of almonds OR
  • 5 cups of tofu OR
  • 30 cups of broccoli

So calcium IS widely distributed in the diet, but generally in small amounts. I would still recommend 2-3 cups of milk per day for kids ages 12 months and up (if not breastfeeding). Kids are laying down bone mass that is needed for the rest of their lives! Supplementation is also something to consider.

3) I'm torn on the lack of direction on how much to eat of various foods. I do like that the guide is simple, and the last guide was overwhelming to most people. Focusing on food is easier to understand than a focus on vitamins and minerals.

But The Centre for Heath Science and Law has an interesting point in their position on the guide: we know the amounts of  specific foods like whole grain sand nuts that need to be eaten to decrease disease. And the guide it too imprecise. We will see if there are more detailed patterns and portion sizes recommended later this year, when the health professional guidelines are released.

The guide is basic. It's just a "guide." If you're looking for more detailed advice on nutrients and portions for you or your child, it's best to contact a Registered Dietitian who can give you individualized advice.

Jennifer House is a Registered Dietitian, author & mom of 3. From Baby-led weaning to picky eating and meal planning, she helps you to make feeding your family easier

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