Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The Food Guide needs to rise above dietary dogma

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A while ago I remember reading an article by some doctors about how the updated Canada’s Food Guide should be promoting a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet. Then last week there was another article about a “prominent Ontario doctor” who asserts that the new Food Guide is being based on “very bad science”. And I’m just so frustrated that doctors, who we all know receive minimal nutrition education, are getting so much press for their self-serving misinformed opinions.

First of all, these doctors all serve to benefit if their particular dietary dogma is promoted. The doctors pushing the LCHF agenda make a living by putting people on this diet. The doctor who said the new Food Guide is based on “very bad science” and should instead contain specific diet recommendations (e.g. low-fat, DASH, LCHF) has received money from the Dairy Farmers of Canada in the past (and as we know, they are highly opposed to the potential shift from the current Food Guide food groupings).

Secondly, they seem to have a poor grasp of population health and the purpose of a national food guide. When we’re talking about population health we’re talking about improving the health of the entire population. We are not trying to address specific medical concerns of illnesses. We’re also not trying to put the entire country on a weight loss diet, which seems to be the perspective that these physicians are taking. Similar to the daily recommended intakes for vitamins and minerals, which are based on the average amount that a healthy person requires each day, the food guide is intended to promote a healthy dietary pattern for most healthy Canadians. Obviously we are all different and our needs and optimal diets will vary, hence the fact that this is called a guide. It’s not a prescriptive diet, it’s one size fits most with some personal tweaking, not one size fits all straight off the rack. It’s not meant to address every, or actually any, disease states. That’s why we have dietitians and doctors and primary healthcare to help individuals with specific health concerns. It’s meant to promote a healthy pattern of eating among as much of the population as possible. It’s not at all, “picking a specific dietary plan for all Canadians is the wrong approach and that, like all clinical processes, treatment should be considered based on individual patient needs” as the doctor in the second article said. It’s providing general guidance on healthy food choices for those who aren’t in need of clinical treatment.

The narrow focus on clinical care and treatment in the realm of healthcare does a disservice to us all. As does the medicalization of eating. In order to promote health and wellness in our communities and country we need to move back upstream and start preventing the need for many doctor visits, hospital stays, and medications. That sort of thing is achieved through population-based measures that address the social determinants of health and general guidelines such as Canada’s Food Guide.

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Why we need to stop with the meat and alternatives

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Ever since the new Food Guide consultations began the dairy and beef industries have been pushing back hard. They’re afraid that if the traditional food groups are dismantled, and if the food guide encourages people to consume more plant-based sources of protein, as has been put forward in the consultation, that there will be decreased consumption of dairy and beef. It’s understandable that they would want to protect their interests. After all, going from being featured prominently in the current (and previous versions) of the Food Guide with food groups named: Milk and alternatives and Meat and alternatives, to receiving little-to-no mention is a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, it’s a hugely positive step for the health and wellness of Canadians.

You see, words matter. “Alternative” is generally different than the norm. According to the dictionary, the definition of alternative is, “one of two or more available possibilities.” By naming food groups “Meat and Alternatives” and “Milk and Alternatives” we’ve positioned animal products as the norm and plant-based sources of similar nutrients as differing from the norm or abnormal. This positioning makes it sound like meat and milk are the front-runners and the “alternatives” runners up. This does a disservice to the health and budgets of many Canadians, particularly those living on low incomes, as meat is positioned as something to aspire to and the “alternatives” (which are often more affordable options such as beans, lentils, and tofu) as inferior.

I think that the standard Canadian home-cooked meal is often some variation on meat and potatoes. Having taught cooking classes for people living on low incomes for the past few years I have found that even if participants are open to trying new foods and recipes they are often unable to sell their family members on beans and lentils and other more affordable sources of protein. One of the few negative pieces of feedback we receive is that participants would like more meat in the meals we prepare. For many reasons we emphasize vegetables and “alternative” sources of protein in our classes. Among those reasons are: nutrition, food safety, variety, and affordability. Meat is generally one of the more expensive foods at the grocery store. By creating the impression that meals centred around meat are something to aspire to we’ve really done a disservice to Canadians. The majority of us don’t consume even the minimum recommended servings of vegetables and fruit each day and don’t consume enough fibre.

Milk is widely encouraged as a beverage with meals, on cereal, with snacks, and for sports recovery. It’s been positioned as the beverage for growing children and for seniors for bone health. While not quite as costly as meat, serving for serving, it’s still a pricey beverage in comparison to water and many other drinks. Setting aside vitamin D, which milk is fortified with, there are many other sources of the nutrients we commonly consume milk to obtain. Calcium is found in many leafy green vegetables, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds. Protein is found in beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and tofu.

All this to say, that despite the push-back, I think that (if Canadians pay attention to the new Food Guide when it’s released) ditching the current configuration of food groups, or even just the current naming of food groups, will be beneficial to the health and pocketbooks of most of us. If we stop seeing plant-based sources of protein as “alternative” and start recognizing them for their delicious value then maybe we can get out of that meat and potatoes mentality and start enjoying a wider variety of nutritious meals.


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Who would you rather have as your nanny: Ronald McDonald or Justin Trudeau?

I just read an article about the proposed revisions to Canada’s Food Guide and an article about the predatory tactics of the food industry in Brazil back-to-back and was duly infuriated by both.

I was annoyed by the Food Guide article’s pitting of vegans against dairy farmers and the creation of drama where none is needed. The new Guide is going to be based on science, not industry, not special diet groups. There is nothing to indicate that dairy will be removed from the guide. Just relax. And so what if it takes the environment into account? The original food guide was intended to help prevent nutrient deficiencies during wartime rationing. Why not try to protect our planet while trying to promote healthy eating habits? After all, if we destroy the earth, nutrition won’t really be all that much of a concern. But I digress…

I read the comments on the divisive Food Guide article. I know, I know I should never read the comments. As a dietitian though, I like to know what I’m up against and what the public response is to a tool that I will likely have to promote and use in a professional capacity. Here are a few of them:

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There were people refuting this nonsense but the fact that so many people think that the government should play no role in promoting a healthy diet is baffling to me. Most people agree that diet-related chronic diseases are a significant concern in Canada but think that the government should do nothing to help people prevent them.

Then we have Nestle and other major food companies promoting unhealthy choices everywhere we go. The story of Brazil is particularly egregious but if you think that these companies care any more about residents of Canada, the US, or any other country, you’re sorely mistaken. Junk food marketing is ubiquitous, and it’s everywhere. From use of fast food as fundraisers for health charities to cartoon mascots on food products, to product placement in movies and tv shows, to sponsorship by food companies of athletic teams and events, to paid product placements in stores, and so on.

People complain bitterly about not wanting the government in their grocery carts or kitchens yet they gladly throw open their doors for the food industry. So many would rather have a company that only cares about profits telling them what to eat than a government that cares about improving the health of its citizens. The government isn’t forcing people to eat certain foods and never eat others. Even if milk was removed from the food guide entirely, it’s not like you’d have to start buying black market milk on the dark web. It’s just trying to provide guidance to people to help them make healthy choices.

You’re opposed to the nanny state are you? Well, we already have a nanny state and the food industry is running the show. It’s time for the government to take back some control and put industry in time-out.


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Why industry shouldn’t have special input into the food guide

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With the recent public consultation on the new Canadian “food guide” just coming to an end I’ve been noticing a lot of push-back from industry. There was a letter from a MP voicing concern about the new food guide as the new guiding principles seem to be steering people away from animal-based sources of protein and encouraging the consumption of more plant-based proteins. “I am concerned that the guiding principles released by Health Canada for Canada’s new food guide may have significant negative impacts on Canada’s meat and dairy sectors, and also the health of Canadians,” said Miller.

There was also a news clip featuring a spokesman from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association voicing “concern” that Canadians will be nutrient deficient if they replace meat with chickpeas.

There’s been an entire website set-up by Canadian Dairy Farmers entitled “Keep Canadians Healthy” with the message being that people need to drink more (cow’s) milk and that the new food guide is going to “discourage Canadians from consuming dairy and meat products”. They go on to say that, “Left unchecked, Health Canada’s recommendations will not only cripple an important Canadian industry, but have long-term health consequences for all Canadians.” 

These examples are exactly why so many of us dietitians, doctors, and others have been complaining about the direct involvement of industry in developing previous iterations of the food guide. I can understand why those whose livelihood depends on the sale of dairy and beef would be concerned that the new food guide will (likely) not continue to serve as free advertising of their products. Although nobody really pays the food guide much heed anyway when they’re deciding what to put in their mouths.

The purpose of the food guide is to help Canadians to eat healthy. The food guide should be based on the best possible evidence. If you think that the dairy and beef (or any other food industry for that matter) has your health at heart you are sorely mistaken. Their goal is to make more money by selling more product.

As a dietitian, it’s my professional goal to help people to eat better. I don’t have any products to sell. I consume dairy products and meat (although I don’t consume much meat). I’m not trying to destroy the beef or dairy industries. I can honestly tell you that most Canadians would benefit from consuming less meat and that it’s not necessary to drink milk to meet specific nutrient needs. Most of us could stand to consume more plants and more plant sources of protein. It’s highly unlikely that anyone in Canada is going to suffer from nutrient deficiencies because Health Canada finally grew a backbone and stopped allowing industries to shape the food guide. Also, the food guide is not going to be telling people to become vegan or vegetarian, it’s hopefully (and rightfully) going to encourage people to consume less meat and more plants.

No food guide is ever going to be perfect. It’s never going to satisfy everyone and I’m sure that I’ll find something wrong with it when it’s released. However, as I’ve said before, it’s a guide, not a bible. It’s a tool to help people to make healthier choices. By using current evidence to inform the content, we’re already a step closer to a better tool.


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Follow Friday: @HealthCanada consultations

TGIF fellow Canucks and happy early Canada Day!

Want to contribute to helping to make our country healthier? Now’s your chance to have your say. Health Canada has a couple of consultations open until July 25th.

Not a fan of Canada’s Food Guide? Make it better. Give your feedback on the new healthy eating recommendations at foodguideconsultation.ca. I know that I had lots to say but lucky for you, I can’t remember it anymore so you’re on your own.

Think we should stop marketing to kids? I sure do. Give your feedback at healthyeatingconsultations.ca. Pretty much every response I gave was that they should not allow any marketing to kids. I approve of the age range they give (17 and under) but I don’t think that the ban goes far enough. Marketing of “healthy” foods is problematic as it can promote overeating. It also raises the issue of how to appropriately define healthy. I definitely don’t agree with the proposal to allow marketing of things like goldfish crackers and potato chips and french fries – WTF Health Canada!? For more about my thoughts on marketing healthy foods to kids check out this older blog post. For more about marketing to kids in general, check out stopmarketingtokids.ca. Also, I love the campaign by Irish Heart. The video at the start of this post is just one of their great ads.