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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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: Canada’s Food Guide Revision

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FINALLY Health Canada has announced plans to update Canada’s Food Guide. I know that you all have opinions about it so now’s your chance to make them heard. Go complete their survey now so that your thoughts will be considered.

There are many criticisms of the Food Guide but it really is a useful tool for group nutrition education. Let’s make it a better, evidence-based tool to guide Canadians in making healthy food choices in the future.


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The relationship between dietitians and the Food Guide

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I spend a lot of time explaining the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist to people. I’ve done it on this very blog. I was doing this recently when someone jumped in to say that dietitians go by the Food Guide. It’s funny because I would never think to mention Canada’s Food Guide when explaining the difference between RDs and RHNs to anyone. It’s true that we are taught about the Food Guide during our degree but it’s not something I’ve used much in practice. I can understand why RHNs (and others) would sound a little disdainful when claiming that dietitians follow the Food Guide. After all, I’ve voiced disdain toward the Food Guide myself.

Perhaps some dietitians use Canada’s Food Guide as a bible but I think that most of us, if we use it at all, it’s as a guide. It’s a tool, albeit not a great one; designed to help people make healthy food choices that will meet their nutrient needs. Unfortunately, the government allowed industry to have a voice at the table when the Food Guide was being developed. Industry has the goal of boosting profits. This is generally incompatible with the goal of boosting Canadians health.

Dietitians have many different roles and I certainly can’t claim to speak for all members of the profession. However, in addition to being taught the Food Guide in University we were also taught to think critically. I would hope that this would translate into the Food Guide not being a factor when comparing dietitians and nutritionists.