half plate vegetables quarter plate protein quarter plate starch canada food guide 2019_angela hubbard dietitian

We’re all a-buzz this week over here in the nutrition world! The new Canada Food Guide 2019 was released on Tuesday and sparked so much discussion. It felt much overdo … was it worth the wait?

I’ll apologize now, this is a longer one than usual. It’s pretty exciting news and there’s a lot to say!


Much criticism over the years

Oh, the food guide *sigh*. I’ve heard many criticisms of the previous Food Guide that was released 12 years ago!

  • the portions are too confusing, too restrictive
  • it has too many servings, how can I eat all that food
  • the food I eat isn’t shown here
  • the food groups are in place to satisfy industry
  • should juice really be counted as a fruit serving?
  • I have no need to speak with a Dietitian, all they’re going to do is teach me about the Food Guide

Because of these reasons and a few others, I didn’t really choose to teach the food guide in the past beyond the few concepts I agreed with (more on that later).


Nay-sayers will be nay-sayers

The reception of this food guide is no different than in the past, from a consumer perspective. People love it, people hate it. Never will you please everyone.

Negative comments I’ve heard and read online in the past few days include:

  • there’s no portions to tell me how much to eat … I’m confused
  • everyone knows it’s the food industry pushing their agendas
  • what? no meats group and a focus on fruits and vegetables? but they’re so expensive, clearly the government wasn’t thinking about that; and I’m not changing to a vegetarian diet no matter how much you tell me beans are good for me

To which I have to say:

  • did anyone actually pay any attention to or follow the portions outlined in the Food Guide before?
  • there’s always been a push for more fruits and vegetables, and this hasn’t changed much over the years
  • this version of the food guide has maybe gone out of its way to be free of outside influences. Although there was reportedly push from certain industries previously, including Dairy Farmers of Canada, I think this is a tricky call
    • on one hand, dairy products are very present in a lot of Canadian’s diets – there should be the recognition that we are using foods from this grouping and therefore some guidance. Is it a disservice to completely brush the milk/alternatives group under the rug?
    • on the other hand, 1) there have been many misconceptions about the dairy supply in Canada, especially around the use of hormones and many people have been quite negative about using them for that reason 2) in practice, I usually included diary products into the ‘protein’ group anyway and this is now what the new Food Guide has done. Especially as someone who eats a plant-based diet (including diary and eggs, aka lacto-ovo vegetarian), I plan my meals around the amount of protein in my day vs servings of milk/alternative and meat/alternatives 3) people can and do get calcium from other sources that aren’t milk, but they will have to plan for it a bit better than currently. I think we’ll also need to pay attention to vitamin D which has been added to milk to help the Canadian population get enough.
  • the suggestion to eat less meat is based on multiple health as well as environmental benefits; eating more plant-based options gives you a healthier and more sustainable protein source … especially if you’re not having milk products
  • and lastly, WAS ANYONE USING THE FOOD GUIDE in any way at all? I’d say not so much, and it’s those same people who are complaining about it now, again


If no one was really using it, why do we need a revised Food Guide?

1) Nutrition-related diseases and conditions are a public health concern. These guidelines are meant to guide whole populations. Let’s break that down a bit:

GUIDE – used to make nutrition programs, policies and education material that will help give Canadians suggestions on ways of eating that consider the latest nutrition science. For example, these guidelines will form the foundation for school, hospital and long-term care menus. Or put importance back on learning to cook, plan meals and budget food costs in classes like Home Ec.

WHOLE POPULATIONS – like alllll of Canadians 2 years or older; the guidelines are looking at the health trends of the whole population of Canada, what diseases are common and how eating patterns might be linked or improved to help lower those numbers

Everyone is individual – what each person needs to or chooses to work on for their health still remains up to them and their healthcare team. But when it comes to systems, these eating recommendations play a larger role.

2) And to be real here … everyone else is doing it. Brazil was really the first country to make revolutionary changes to their guidelines for eating. They were the first to speak about the way people were actually eating and how that could be improved. To acknowledge the amount of packaged, ultra-processed convenience foods their population was using and how the people were getting sicker because of it. How people were losing their basic cooking skills and how eating alone can lead to poor health outcomes. Many healthcare people say they were surprised by Health Canada’s move toward this sort of model, though I can’t say I am.

3) We’ve come a far way since the first version, Canada’s Official Food Rules in 1942.

The reasons for needing a food guide have changed since the beginning. And a lot has changed even in just the past 12 years since the last new Food Guide (2007). Not only has science given us more information to base the guidelines on, but the environment has changed, the way Canadians view and use food has changed, the health problems we’re facing have changed.

In 2004, Health Canada did a survey of eating habits in Canada and they found that:

  • most Canadians had low intakes of fruits and vegetables, milks and alternatives, whole grains
  • 1/3 of calories came from highly processed foods that were high in fat, salt and sugar but low in many vitamins, minerals and fibre
  • the 2 groups of most concern were adults over 70 years and teen girls. People in these groups were not eating enough in general and were not getting enough important nutrients

Note: a more recent survey was done in 2015 however results are not yet available to see if there were any changes to the 2004 findings.


A summary of the new Canada Food Guide 2019

Enter … the revamped version.

canada food guide 2019 front page        canada food guide 2019 back page

The Food Guide gives people things to consider about eating. Especially this new version, which I’m pleased to see includes (and highlights) non-nutrition messages about the impact of our eating habits on the environment; the when, why, where, how of eating:

  • eat meals with others
  • cook more often
  • enjoy your food
  • be mindful of your eating habits

It is less prescriptive than the last version – gone are the numbers for servings and portion sizes. Instead it guides some important ideas about common eating habits that can either raise or lower our risks for health problems.

  • ½ plate fruits and veggies, ¼ plate grains, ¼ plate protein (also known as ‘The Plate Method’ or Health Canada’s ‘Eat Well Plate’, popular teaching tools of dietitians)
  • replacing items that we know can increase health problems – use water as first choice of beverage to replace sugary drinks, use plant-based protein choices more often to replace meats high that often have saturated fats
  • limit or leave out highly processed foods – because these can be in all the food groupings! These are the foods that are high in salt, sugar and unhealthy fats (trans fats, saturated fats) as well as having a lot of missing nutrition
  • use food labels to help you make healthy choices
  • be aware that food marketing messages can (and do!) influence your choices

It takes into account the top health concerns of Canadians – heart disease – and shows an eating pattern that is in line with other popular heart healthy eating patterns such as the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.

It looks more realistic, simpler and takes some focus off weight:

  • make water as your drink of choice – gone is the previous message that water is a calorie-free choice to help with weight management and now makes that message more clear for the actual benefits of drinking water – that it is not a sugary drink like many of our choices are
  • picture of how to set up a meal on the plate – we know a picture speak a thousand words!
  • pictures of real food, dishes that look delicious and simple and like something many people could do with even simple cooking skills
  • format is 2 pages with very clear messages compared to the last one with 6 pages of messages all over the place
  • encourages us to use food in a good way, eat with others, eat well to be well – today and tomorrow

At this time there is no way of ordering printed versions of the food guide – for good or bad, this is probably one more step toward using and wasting less paper; we’re all on devices much of the time these days anyway! Health Canada is calling this a ‘suite of resources’ as a web application. As you can see on the website (see bottom of this article), you can a click on links for recipes, resources and tips for eating well.

2-part release

According to Health Canada, there will be a second release later in 2019 that is meant for health professionals and policy makers. That second set of information will include more specifics on how to help Canadians use these guidelines and will include some recommendations for types and amounts of food. So perhaps some of my remaining questions will the answered then.


But what do the Dietitians have to say?

Dietitians across Canada have generally had praise for the latest version, and I expect that many will go back to using it. Many have come out already to say that they approve, after years of being critical of it. Dietitians have been mixed in the past about using the Food Guide that was available to us as a tool in our toolbox for helping Canadians eat and be well. Some loved the structure and had patients/clients who found that helpful for meal planning. Many found it too generalized, yet too specific at the same time, and not helpful for the people they were counselling … and I include myself in this group.

I liked certain ideas that the previous guide focused on, and did teach on the concepts of:

  • variety: within each food grouping and across the different food groupings, such as planning for at least 3 groups in each meal
  • alternatives: options for plant-based diets
  • portion sizes for some items: 2 common examples
    • fruits and vegetables: when clients realized that 1 portion looked like, how small it actually is, they realized how easy it actually could be to fit in 5-10 a day
    • grains: when clients could see how small a portion of pasta or rice actually is, that it’s not meant to be the main part of the meal, they can better see how they can replace some of that grain with a different type of food and improve the variety of their plate


What I think of the Canada Food Guide

At the end of the day, I’m not sure how I’ll end up using this new tool. Can I say that I’ve personally followed the food guides of the past? No, not exactly, though I did use it as ONE part of my thought process on how I planned my meals, especially as a guide to getting variety. I certainly never planned out a day or a week based on the Food Guide – it was simply too much food for me … and I’ll say for most people. Will I personally use this one? Well, I did already before this guide was released.

The messages have been things that I, and many dietitians around the world, have been saying to people for years now and it’s nice to finally be backed up by a set of national guidelines, based on science. I feel we are closer now to all being on the same page with how to best approach building a healthy diet and using food in a good way.


Should you use Canada’s Food Guide?

So is it a myth or not that Dietitians Just Teach the Food Guide? I know that in the past it was a myth that we spoke only about the food guide. The government did not hold us to teaching it, nor was it ever the expectation throughout our training. Now? I think this guide opens up some really important conversations. And I think that a lot more Dietitians will use this tool as part of coaching … along with the variety of tools we have in our toolbox to help you!

So should you use it? Anyone who’s worked with me knows that my first answer to most questions is “it depends”. I won’t tell you what tools might help you until I understand better why you’re asking and what you’re hoping to get from the answer!

I think that many people can gain some insight from these new messages. I think that this new version of the guide will help people shift away from focusing on questions of what should I eat toward a view of how food fits into my whole life. I think that on the surface, these messages seem obvious – are you reading this article and thinking “of course, that’s just common sense!”? But … Are these things that you’re already doing. that you’re actually deciding to do, that you’re making a regular part of your eating habits? How could these messages change the way you grocery shop, meal plan, cook, eat?


Where can I get the new Canada Food Guide 2019?

Canada’s food guide downloadable PDF and links to the other information online: Health Canada website, https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/


Note: This post refers to Canada’s food guide. Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide – First Nations, Inuit and Métis (2007) has not been changed. As per Health Canada’s website, Canada’s food guide has been designed to include Indigenous people but that new tools will be created for this group and will be available in the future.


Many of the ideas I’ve talked about in this article are talked about in my free downloadable Nutritional Well-Being Self Check-In worksheet. With this worksheet you can do a quick check-in of your own eating habits to find out what areas you might consider making changes in. How can you get access to this tool? Just sign up to become an Email List Member.

Myth of the Month: Dietitians Just Teach the Food Guide