Opinion: December 6, 2016

Health Canada is missing the mark on new food guide revision process

It doesn’t need a revision – it needs a re-do

By: Amy Henderson, Newcomer Program Coordinator

It’s time to overhaul the document that is meant to guide everything nutrition-related in this country, including the food that is served in homes, schools, daycares and hospitals.

Canada’s Food Guide was created in 1942, in close consultation with the food industry, as a way to ensure that Canadians were getting enough vitamins and minerals. But our days of getting scurvy are over. Seventy-four years later, our eating habits and access to good, healthy food has evolved, and now it is time for our food guide to adapt. Today, Canadians need an approach to healthy eating that helps us avoid chronic disease.

Canada’s Food Guide has failed to steer us on a path to healthy eating. Diet-related diseases are the main cause of death in this country. Canadians spend tens of billions of dollars each year treating diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Today, even children are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes – something unheard of until recently. Fewer than half of Canadians are eating enough vegetables, food skills are declining, and most people are consuming diets that contain a dangerous amount of processed food.

So, how is Health Canada missing the mark with the food guide? For one, the guide tends to ignore diversity.

The recommendations in the food guide are not based on the needs of Canada’s varied population, and often overlook needs based on ethnic background. Evidence suggests dietary needs are influenced by genetics and physiological differences, such as age, sex and ethnicity. Despite this fact, Canada’s Food Guide – including the Indigenous version – continues to prescribe a diet that seems to reflect the nutritional needs of only one segment of the population in Canada.

A new food guide needs to include sound research and eliminate food industry influence, both past and present. Food industry-led research is biased and rarely reports any findings that could be bad for business.

It is not enough to minimize food industry involvement in the current revision process. We need to look critically at how the food industry has shaped the food guide to date, and why things like juice and red meat have remained in the food guide for so long, despite evidence that both have negative impacts on our health.

The focus on individual nutrients, along with the influence of certain food industry sectors, has made it too easy for us to be fooled by carefully-worded food packaging and expensive (and effective) marketing. Just because a powdered drink has vitamin C added to it, does not mean it is healthy.

Last month, Health Minister Philpott announced that Canada’s Food Guide would be revised, but the short timelines for providing feedback and for project completion leave little room for the kinds of changes that are needed. Without proper consultation, we will be left with an ineffective food guide that ignores the diversity of Canadians and our diets.

Canadians need a food guide that reflects our varying needs and makes healthy eating as simple as it should be – eat whole, unprocessed foods, lots of fruits, vegetables and pulses, prepare food from scratch, and celebrate food in homes and communities.

Not only should the food guide encourage us to read nutrition labels, but it should also promote buying whole foods that don’t have labels. It should prompt us to understand where our food comes from, what’s in it, and how it impacts our health.

Canada should look to other countries for best practices and new strategies to help people eat food that is healthy for their bodies, communities, and the planet. Brazil, for example, has created a world-renowned food guide that focuses on eating plant-based foods, the importance of traditional food, and the relationship between the environment and the food we eat.

We need your voice. Take a few minutes to participate in the current food guide consultation and push Minister Philpott to initiate a brand new approach to Canada’s Food Guide that better considers the needs of Canadians.

Health Minister Philpott has taken an important step with the food guide – but now it is our job to ensure the guide reflects our needs. Let’s work together to do it right, because the health of all Canadians depends on it.

Amy Henderson (BSc. HNS) is a program coordinator at Food Matters Manitoba in Winnipeg. She also chairs the Newcomer Food and Nutrition Network and is a Masters Student in Human Nutritional Sciences at the University of Manitoba.

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