Is Canada’s Food Guide good for you?

Canada’s official "food rules" change and evolve with the times and latest research. But there is still room for improvement in the newest version

Is Canada's Food Guide good for you?

Source: Best Health Magazine, September 2009

If you thought following Can­ada’s Food Guide would help you lose weight, think again; that’s not what it was intended to be used for. Its rainbow motif ‘with fruit and veg making up the largest band, and meats the smallest’is a clear guide to what to eat for optimal health. (In fact, following it could, at worst, lead to weight gain and, at best, maintain weight.) BH asked experts for their opinions on this latest version.

What is the Food Guide for?

‘The Food Guide is not designed as a diet or weight-loss tool; it promotes a pattern of healthy eating over a lifetime,’ explains Health Canada spokesperson Paul Duchesne. That’s crucial for reducing your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other conditions.

The latest overhaul, the first in 15 years, was launched in February 2007 after four years in the making. It aimed to incorporate current science and got input from 7,000 stakeholders, including dietitians, doctors, scientists, food industry representatives and public health organizations.

The revamp ushered in some major improvements, including more customized advice on how much you should eat. It advises four to 10 servings of fruit and vege­tables, three to eight servings of grain products, two to four of milk/alternatives and one to three of meat/alternatives‘but it narrows down the exact numbers you need even more, by age and gender. Here’s a primer on what has changed and how to use the guide.

What’s in the guide?

‘ Daily serving amounts are tailored by age group (children age 2-3, 4-8 and 9-13; teens; adults 19-50 and 50+) and gender.
‘ There’s an emphasis on fruit and vege­tables (7-8 servings a day for women 19-50).
‘ It offers tips on making healthier choices within food groups: ‘Eat at least one dark green and one orange vegetable each day.’
‘ It gives explicit guidance on physical activity (30-60 minutes of moderate physical activity daily for adults).

‘There are definitely differences in [caloric] requirements across age and gender groups. The guide recognizes this and gives people more specific targets for their own food planning,’ explains Rena Mendelson, professor of nutrition at Ryerson University. She also commends the revision for using visuals‘illustrations of items, such as half a pita, as well as measuring cups that are partly or fully filled’to clarify how small a ‘serving’ really is. It also includes written quantities, such as ‘125 mL (½ cup).’ ‘If you have a cup of rice, that’s two grain products. Some people might think it’s just one.’

‘I think it’s a significant improvement,’ says Lindy Kennedy, a registered dietitian with Preventous Collaborative Health in Calgary who uses the guide with clients. She is satisfied with the revision, particularly how fruit and vegetables now make up the largest band on the rainbow, but she acknowledges the guide isn’t designed for weight loss.

Of all the changes in the new Food Guide, ‘the single best piece of advice is to encourage us to consume fish at least twice a week,’ says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bari­atric Medical Institute in Ottawa. In his view, that measure alone, if followed, would likely do more to prevent cardiovascular disease than any other intervention in public health history.

Room for improvement

If there is a flaw in the revision, it’s the lack of direction on caloric intake, according to Freedhoff. While Health Canada doesn’t explicitly mention calories, it did a lot of modelling of ‘test diets’ to ensure users would get, on average, adequate calories for a sedentary lifestyle. But, Freedhoff says, there’s a problem: In developing the test diets, Health Canada relied on the 1997 Nutrient File, an ‘outdated database’ that ‘grossly underestimates the calories in common foods.’ As a result, he believes following the guide could lead to weight gain.

Freedhoff also points out that the guide doesn’t account for ‘other foods’ (those that fall outside the four food groups, such as high-fat snacks), which make up a big part of Canadian diets. While it advises limiting these extras, it doesn’t say how much is allowable or excessive in a good diet. A 2004 Statistics Canada survey found that 22 percent of calories consumed by Canadians came from these ‘other foods.’

Explains Susan Barr, professor of nutrition at the University of British Columbia, who served on the 12-member Food Guide Advisory Committee, caloric recommendations were left out because depending on individuals’ activity level and physiology, even those who are the same age and gender can differ in their needs by over 1,000 calories. ‘We considered this extensively, ‘ she says. ‘The idea that a food guide could give a precise level of calories for everybody is problematic.’ Instead, the guide was designed to provide, on average, the number of calories required by a person of normal weight who is sedentary.

Plus, it’s easier to plan meals with serving sizes in mind, rather than meticulously tracking calories, says Mendelson. Still, she admits, ‘maybe there’s room for describing how one might be more attentive to caloric intake given that 60 percent of the population is overweight or obese.’ In her view, the U.S. Healthy Eating Pyramid, built by the Harvard School of Public Health’s department of nutrition, takes a much more focused approach to tackling obesity by giving recommendations for different caloric intakes and addressing the idea of discretionary calories.

How to make it work for you

First, see how your current diet stacks up. Kennedy asks clients to keep a meal log and then look at the guide to see how closely they meet the recommendations. (Download our handy printable food journal template to get started.) ‘It’s an eye-opener when people write out their food intake,’ she says. Nearly 80 percent of the time, she finds her clients have been falling short on fruit and veggies.

There are also online tools to help you interpret the guide. My Food Guide by Health Canada lets you customize it with your favourite foods, while the Dietitians of Canada’s EATracker keeps tabs on your food intake and compares it to the Food Guide.

Although it can’t solve everyone’s diet dilemmas, the guide is a good way to brush up on the basics of healthy eating. As Kennedy puts it, ‘If we didn’t have Canada’s Food Guide, there would be nothing authoritative and evidence-based for Can­adians to get an idea of what they should be eating. So just to have a food guide is a great start. And that’s essentially how it should be looked at: as a start.’

What eating according to the guide looks like

One guide can’t fit all, so BH asked Vancouver registered dietitians and sisters Reisha and Rebecca Harper, owners of Harper Nutrition & Lifestyle Consulting, to customize menus for two women’one who exercises regularly and one who’s sedentary. (Both are for a woman who is five foot five and 132 lb., and wants to maintain her weight.)

The Food Guide recommendation for women age 19-50 is 7-8 servings of fruit/veggies, 6-7 of grains, 2 of milk/alternatives and 2 of meat/alternatives.

Menu One: For a woman who exercises 2 to 3 times a week

The Harpers recommend about 2,100 calories and eight cups (two litres) of water daily. If you’re lightly/moderately active, your calorie and protein needs are slightly higher than a sedentary woman’s.

‘ Fruit smoothie: 1 cup (250 mL) fat-free soy milk, 1/2 cup (125 mL) blueberries, 1/2 cup (125 mL) strawberries

‘ Apple, medium
‘ Low-fat banana bran muffin

‘ Whole-wheat wrap, with 75 g white turkey meat, 1 cup (250 mL) lettuce, 2 Roma tomatoes, 50 g low-fat cheese, 1/2 avocado, 2 Tbsp (30 mL) fat-free dressing
‘ Green tea, 1 cup (250 mL)
‘ Oatmeal cookie

‘ Pear, medium
‘ Popcorn, air-popped, plain, 1 cup (250 mL)

‘ Brown rice, 1 cup (250 mL)
‘ Grilled veggies (broccoli, carrots, red and green peppers), 1 cup (250 mL)
‘ Grilled shrimp, 75 g
‘ Extra-virgin olive oil (on veggies), 1 Tbsp (15 mL)
‘ Non-hydrogen­ated margarine (for rice), 3/4 tsp (4 mL)
‘ Fat-free tropical sorbet, 3/4 cup (175 mL)

Menu provides 8 Food Guide servings of fruit/vege­tables, 6 of grains, 2 of milk/alternatives, 2 of meat/alternatives

Menu Two: For a woman who is mostly sedentary

The Harpers recommend about 1,800 calories and eight cups (two litres) of water daily. A sedentary lifestyle requires fewer calories, so choose low-fat options when possible.

‘ An all-bran cereal, 3/4 cup (175 mL)
‘ 1% milk, 1 cup (250 mL)
‘ Blueberries, 1/2 cup (125 mL)
‘ Raspberries, 1/2 cup (125 mL)

‘ Whole-grain toast, 1 piece
‘ Honey, 1 Tbsp (15 mL)
‘ Non-hydro­genated margarine, 1 tsp (5 mL)
‘ Orange juice, 100% pure, 1 cup (250 mL)

‘ Half of a whole-wheat tortilla wrap, filled with 3/4 cup (175 mL) three-bean salad, 1/2 cup (125 mL) couscous, 50 g low-fat cheese, 1 Tbsp (15 mL) low-fat ranch dressing, 1 Tbsp (15 mL) extra-virgin olive oil
‘ Low-fat fruit yogurt, 3/4 cup (175 mL)

‘ Baby carrots, 8
‘ Whole-wheat herb crackers, 5

‘ Brown rice, 1/2 cup (125 mL)
‘ Grilled chicken, 75 g
‘ Grilled veggies (red peppers, onions, broccoli, eggplant), 1 cup (250 mL)
‘ Extra-virgin olive oil (on veggies), 1 Tbsp (15 mL)
‘ Strawberries, 1/2 cup (125 mL)
‘ Fat-free vanilla pudding, 1/2 cup (125 mL)

Menu provides 8 Food Guide servings of fruit/vege­tables, 6 of grains, 3 of milk/alternatives, 2 of meat/alternatives

This article was originally titled “Dissecting the Food Guide,” in the September 2009 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health.