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MARTHA MUZYCHKA: Digesting Health Canada’s new food guide

Various vegetables are on display at the Jean Talon Market in Montreal. A newly-overhauled Canada Food Guide will be released today highlighting a modern  approach to encouraging healthy eating in Canada. - Paul Chaisson
A newly-overhauled Canada Food Guide highlights a modern approach to encouraging healthy eating in Canada. - Paul Chaisson - The Canadian Press

Health Canada released its new food guide this week after years of discussion. There’s no rainbow, or pyramid, or grid. There aren't food groups, and there are also no recommended serving (portion) sizes.

What do you get? A plate, half of which is filled with examples of fruits and vegetables, and the other half, now divided into two, showing different proteins in one quarter and whole grains in the other.

You also get four guiding principles: be mindful of your eating habits, cook more often, enjoy your food, and eat more meals with others.  

But wait there’s more. These principles are supported by three key actions: use food labels; reduce sodium, sugars and fat; and be aware of food marketing.

Not surprisingly, there’s been lots of commentary since the new guide’s release. I learned a couple of new things. The four food groups we are used to originated with ration policies arising from shortages in the Second World War. The Food Guide offered options to boost nutrition in a population whose food choices were limited by availability. 

In short, where the original iterations of the food guide were prescriptive and limited to one notion of diet (largely Western, middle class and urban), today’s new food guide is aspirational, and it reflects the diversity of our country and also the diversity of food options including ingredients.

As someone who grew up in a time when corn and pineapple came from a tin, broccoli was often frozen solid in a paper box, and pale tomatoes languished in a white plastic basket, our new food guide reflects today’s interest in whole foods, usually locally sourced and in season.

The 100-mile diet and its proponents notwithstanding, having affordable and convenient access to things like oils other than corn, whole grain and other flours, as well as what we used to consider exotic foods like chickpeas are important to celebrating our beautiful multicultural society. Seeing them reflected in our Food Guide is tremendously affirming.

 However, the new Food Guide does share one thing with its predecessors. The Guide still aims to increase food literacy on the kinds and amounts of the foods we eat. In that way, the Guide also reflects the same flaw exhibited by its forebears.

The Guide does not address food insecurity. The new plate Health Canada is recommending is socially affirming yes, but it also costs money. Beans and root vegetables are usually cheap; salmon, almonds, quinoa and wild rice are not.

While Jack Munro, the UK’s Bootstrap Cook has demonstrated you can eat well on a limited income, it does take a lot of mental energy, time and money to eat reasonably well and nutritiously. When you are poor, living precariously with limited options re accommodations, work and transportation, food goes low down on the hierarchy of needs.

We are also a very large country and outside of populous urban areas, we also have to depend on transport to bring food to other markets where it cannot be grown easily, if at all (let’s not forget the $45 watermelon in Canada’s north). We can't always eat whole foods cheaply — remember the winter of $8 cauliflowers? – but fresh frozen ones are a nutritionally acceptable substitute.

The new Food Guide is different and aspirational. That means there is great potential to influence not just our individual choices but also our institutional ones. Yoni Freedhoff, author of “Weighty Matters,” nailed the key value of the new Food Guide: its potential to change public food policy positively by shifting our focus on why and how we eat.

While there have been great steps taken to reduce the numbers of donuts offered at conference breaks and to rid schools of over sugared juices, more work needs to happen in our schools still but also nursing homes, hospitals, workplace cafeterias etc. 

Remember those principles and guidelines? Being mindful about what we eat matters. So does eating with others and making our own meals. 

The most important for me though is the last one: be aware of food marketing.

The power of marketing in dictating food choice is tremendous and while I hope to see more about food security as it affects our ability to use the food guide, dealing head on with food lobbies is a great step forward.

Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living in St. John’s. Email: socialnotes@gmail.com

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