Are your eating habits up to date?
In January 2019, Health Canada unveiled Canada's New Food Guide, a radical departure from the four food groups most of us followed since childhood. With the refreshed guide, Health Canada hopes to communicate new research and promote healthier lifestyles for all Canadians.
If you were unaware of the new guidelines, the path to improved well-being will likely be a surprising change of pace. We'll help you understand the recent science on eating healthy, so you can start making better decisions today.
New Guide, New Direction
Canada's Food Guide from 1977 gave us the colourful diagram of the main food groups that became the standard for several generations.
The penultimate food guide, the 2007 version, had expanded directions for different age and sex groups. For the most part, it stayed true to the decades-old wisdom centered around eating the appropriate servings of the four major food groups:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Grain products
- Milk products
- Meat and alternatives
In 2019, all of that was more or less discarded in favour of looser food guidelines. Rather than focus on so many servings from each of four food groups, the new meal should consist of three parts:
- 50% fruits and vegetables
- 25% protein-rich foods
- 25% whole grain foods
What do you use to wash it all down? Skip the milk, and go for a plain glass of water instead.
The revised meal plan takes a much different approach to organizing food groups, but there's a refreshing emphasis on variety. The new arrangement offers plenty of flexibility to fit personal and cultural tastes for all Canadians.
Why We Needed an Update
As new evidence emerges on healthy and harmful foods, the government needs to release updated food guidelines. The food guide helps direct many government policies, and its promotion in school is a valuable tool for establishing better eating habits early.
The hope is that the new food guidelines will inform dietary decisions in daycares, schools, nursing homes, and other public institutions. In a general sense, the guide is a thoroughly researched and unbiased resource for any Canadian trying to live healthier.
Who Determines the Guidelines and How Are they Made?
The history of the food guide began in 1942, when the federal government's Nutrition Division launched the first edition against the backdrop of WWII. In a time of rationing, it was developed as an aide for maintaining health and avoiding malnutrition.
Over the years, the guide would be updated when new science or food supply changes gave the government reason to make new recommendations. Five food groups were whittled down to four in 1977. These endured three more updates until Health Canada made the comprehensive overhaul in 2019.
The current edition focuses on the three food groups — fruits and vegetables, proteins, and whole grains — as well as at-home food preparation and more awareness around healthy eating practices.
The new food guidelines were created based on the review of scientific studies covering over 100 food-related topics. To avoid any bias, the government did not look at any industry-commissioned reports.
Along with the updated dietary rules, Canada's new food guide includes more convenient ways to get help with eating healthy. An extensive online, mobile-optimized resource library gives the public and professionals a hub for healthy eating habits, with content including recipes, videos, and research.
What Foods Are Recommended for Healthy Eating?
Canada's new food guide aims to improve the country's overall food environment through three key initiatives:
- Recommending healthy foods and beverages
- Describing unhealthy foods and beverages to avoid
- Underscoring food skills as a crucial aspect of healthy eating
The guide highlights the "how" of eating with the "what" to eat. Along with food skills, Canadians are encouraged to develop eating rituals around culture, friends, and family. Rather than acting as a strict set of do's and don'ts, the idea of the food guide is to inspire healthy habits that align with personal tastes.
Healthy Fruits and Vegetables to Enjoy
The fruit and vegetable group should now take up half of the plate, which is perhaps the most significant update from the prior 4-group food guide. Whether you prefer fresh mixes for salads or frozen berries for smoothies, fruits and vegetables are the healthiest food to eat every day in any way you prefer.
Vegetables and fruits provide essential vitamins and minerals, but the main reason they are highlighted in the new guide is their high levels of fiber. Fiber has been found to have many essential benefits, including:
- Reducing cholesterol
- Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels
- Managing weight
- Supporting regularity
By eating fruits and vegetables, the new guide points out that you greatly reduce your risk of developing heart issues down the line. Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in Canada, and updating your diet can be a key factor in avoiding problems.
The guide recommends including a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables to fill your plate. Picking any of the following healthy foods can provide the essential nutrients to get you through the day:
- Leafy greens
If you opt for canned or frozen fruits, pay attention to labels and try to avoid products with added sugar. Many fruit juices also have a lot of extra sugar, so drink with water with your meal instead. Otherwise, you can find plenty of creative ways to add fruits and vegetables to breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and snack time.
The Importance of Proteins and Whole Grains
Fiber is an overarching concern in the new guide. For this reason, whole grains and plant-based proteins are now showcased alongside fruits and vegetables. The guide prioritizes food for heart health, but the rougher fiber of these categories can also help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and Type II diabetes.
When choosing whole grain foods, make sure you look for ingredients like whole grain oats or whole grain wheat. Try the following whole grain foods to create different dishes:
- Whole grain bread, cereal, and pasta
- Brown rice
- Barley, farro, and buckwheat
Meat isn't completely rejected in favour of plant-based foods, but they certainly aren't at the top of the list of appropriate protein sources. Meats, especially processed products, are more likely to cause colorectal cancer and raise LDL cholesterol levels. Still, you can incorporate lean meats like wild game, turkey, chicken, or grass-fed beef.
Instead of meat, try to focus on the following proteins in your meals:
- Nuts like almonds, cashews, and peanuts
- Legumes like beans, chickpeas, and lentils
- Low-fat, low-sodium dairy products
- Fish and seafood
- Soy products like tofu and soy beverages
Foods and Drinks to Avoid
The commitment to science that drove the new Canada food guide pleased everyone except the dairy industry. The milk products that had their special place on the plate don't even belong in the glass next to it anymore.
Most beverages are removed from consideration, with water being the recommended drink of choice. With so many drink options having too many sugars, sodium, or calories, water is by far the best way to stay hydrated and stay healthy. And you can still spice up water with fruits and herbs to add some much-needed flavour.
When water is no longer cutting it, you can opt for unsweetened low-fat milk, coffee, or coffee alternatives. Unsweetened plant-based milk alternatives like oat milk or almond milk are also excellent choices.
The limited drink options are an appropriate sign of the food guide's focus and the three main enemies of a healthy diet — sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.
Where do you find these the most? Processed foods.
To reduce the risk of heart disease and cancers associated with processed foods, these are the five foods to never eat:
- Sugary food and drinks
- Processed meats like sausages or hotdogs
- Fast food
- Frozen meals
- Bakery products like cakes and rolls
Although most are fine, you should also limit certain fruits and vegetables. You must avoid eating too many ripe bananas, for example, because they have higher calorie and carb counts. To make the best choices, the guide stresses reading food labels and mixing up your dishes.
Are Plant-Based Proteins Better?
There's a noticeable change in focus with the new food groups, with plant-based foods taking over nearly every category. Meat and milk categories that used to be included as important sources of protein have been replaced with a focus on getting the benefits of protein from different places.
Health Canada changed the emphasis to more plant-based protein sources like nuts, seeds, and soy.
Plant proteins are an excellent source of fiber, and they let you build muscle like animal protein but without the added saturated fat. Saturated fat is a primary contributor to cardiovascular disease, higher LDL levels, and type II diabetes.
The one key reason to eat a varied diet is to get all the amino acids you need. Animal products contain scores of these protein building blocks, but plants carry specific ones. With a variety of plant-based proteins, you will likely have a more consistent intake of the nine essential amino acids.
You must also reconsider protein powder. Whey protein, which is derived from milk, is a complete protein, but it contains the sugar lactose. Lactose can cause stomach pains and commonly leads to bloating and gas.
Plant-based protein powder can supply the essential nutrients you need while being easier on your body. You can have more protein shakes a day with plant-based protein powder with fewer adverse effects.
Whole vs Refined Grains
Whole grains are a new distinction in Canada's new food guide. Unlike refined grains, whole grains have their kernels intact, meaning they keep all their nutrients. Examples of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Whole grain cornmeal
Refined grains are milled, so many nutrients get removed when the bran and germ are taken away. They have a longer shelf life this way, but they lack the fiber, iron, and other minerals of whole grains. Common refined grains include:
- White bread and flour
- White rice
Studies also show that whole grains may help with inflammation, possibly explaining why they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancers.
Cutting Back on Sugar
Lowering sugar intake is a critical lesson from the new food guide, especially regarding added sugars in processed foods. The updated guide is full of cavity-reducing foods, but there are numerous other benefits to cutting back on sugar, including:
- Lower cholesterol
- Weight loss
- Reduced belly fat
- Better concentration
- Mood elevation
- Avoid disease
- Improve skin
After cutting back on sugar, your mental and physical energy will quickly improve. You may feel nauseous or agitated while detoxing from sugar, but after about a week, you should start to feel the positive effects of a healthier diet.
What Are the Best Portion Sizes?
There are no recommended portion sizes, as every person will have unique dietary intake needs. Instead, the new food guide offers the visual representation of the plate to make sure you get the right proportion of each group. For weight loss and metabolism, follow food labels to ensure that you avoid exceeding your daily limits.
Follow Canada's New Food Guide
The refreshed look to Canada's new food guide offers the opportunity to explore more cuisine and take ownership of our health. The key takeaways from Health Canada's latest effort are to cook more often, be aware of your eating habits, and simply take time to enjoy the experience.
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