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Blog: What we learned from following Canada’s Food Guide

WATCH ABOVE: Canada’s Food Guide. For most, it’s that colourful poster many of us remember hanging on our grade school walls.  But the Food Guide is also the country’s model for proper eating. So how practical is it?

We put two reporters, James Armstrong and Heather Loney, to the test: eat nothing but the foods from Canada’s Food Guide for one week. This is what happened.

James

I spent the last five days living by the servings standards set out by Health Canada in the Canada Food Guide.

For those wondering, the Food Guide recommends eight servings of grain, three servings of “meats and alternatives” (think peanut butter, eggs, fish), two servings of milk, and eight servings of fruits and vegetables.

The change in diet was huge for me. I usually try and eat 3,000 calories a day, the Food Guide kept me around 2,000. My diet is usually made up of mostly protein and fats; the Food Guide reversed that.

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I expected the weight loss (a total of ~5 pounds). I’m a tad bigger than average and the caloric intake isn’t anywhere near what I would have needed to maintain my weight. The Food Guide is made for the average person and I knew that.

But what was difficult was eating the amount of grains recommended. I often had to search out grains – whether that was bread, quinoa, or oatmeal – throughout the week just to hit my servings.

And the servings can be fairly difficult to get a handle on. A serving of steak isn’t just what you buy in the store. It’s close to half that, sometimes.

A serving of steak, according to the Food Guide is 2.5 ounces – far less than what I’m used to. When I did have steak this week, I had to more than cut it in half before weighing it again and getting close to 2.5 ounces.

I felt tired most of the week, would rebound for a brief period following meals, only to come to a full stop by 5 or 6 p.m.

Figuring out serving sizes was a readily apparent problem as soon as the week started – the serving sizes are smaller than I thought, and moreover, they don’t always match what’s on the back of the package.

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The problem was compounded as soon as I tried to cook anything that wasn’t “whole food” like a steak or chicken breast. On Wednesday, I made chicken burgers with oatmeal and quinoa mixed in. Now, I could have made the patties 2.5 ounces at a time, but who actually does that? I mixed the pound of ground chicken with a half cup of oatmeal and a half cup of quinoa (for the cooks out there, I ran out of quinoa, I didn’t want to mix the two).

Separating it out then became difficult, as I had to weigh and mostly eyeball each serving. Was it still 2.5 ounces of meat, or more? Exactly how much of a grain serving was in each burger?

While Heather and I followed the Food Guide (as best we could) to the letter, the fact that we found it cumbersome to follow says something about the recommendations of the Guide – they aren’t sustainable in the long-term.

Heather

After nearly a week of following Canada’s Food Guide (as closely as I could manage), it quickly became clear to me that the criticisms of the nation’s guide to eating well certainly felt justified.

Going into the week I was worried that the number of overall servings of food required would be too much. While the Guide aims to make sure I’m meeting my nutritional needs, it’s not tracking my calories or level of activity. If it wasn’t for the fact that I avoided servings of grains (increasingly so as the week went on) and really tried to only eat within the four food groups, I would have gone way over my daily recommended amount of calories.

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What about all the other stuff?

As experts have pointed out, one quarter of the foods we eat aren’t part of the Guide’s four food groups.

Beyond recommendations like ‘drink water’ and ‘limit alcohol and sweetened drinks’ there was little guidance as to what makes a certain beverage a good choice or a bad one. I knew drinking black coffee should be fine, but if you’re looking to the Guide for answers on those specific things, it’s not there.

Same goes for condiments. Not a ton of info and therefore not a lot of guidance. “When adding sauces or spreads, use small amounts,” the Guide recommends, but there’s a big difference in nutritional value between a tomato-based sauce versus a cream-based one, for example.

Another issue critics have with the Guide is that it only says to limit certain foods – for example, cakes, pastries, chips, French fries – rather than say to avoid them. It says to make sure at least half of your grain servings are whole grain, whereas some would say all of them should be.

I tried to stick to the healthiest options available, whole grain products, lean meat alternatives – but I didn’t have to. I could have had plain, white bread made with refined white flour half the week, or chose peanut butter loaded with sugar rather than the all-natural stuff.

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Variety is great, food waste is not

I received many helpful tips from dietitians and friends on ways to add variety to my meals – but in only doing the experiment for a week, I was worried about buying too much food and having to throw some of it out before getting to it. To that end, my meals were fairly monotonous – but to be honest, I didn’t mind that too much.

So very tired

Throughout the week, the change in eating habits left me feeling lethargic and foggy, both mentally and physically.

Perhaps that was because I was anticipating to feel that way coming into the challenge or perhaps because I was paying such acute attention to something that normally is just a part of my day. Maybe those feelings of exhaustion are normal, but this week I attributed it to what I was eating, rather than not getting enough sleep or being stressed or any of the things that can make a person tired. It’s hard to say for sure, but I felt pretty terrible.

From measuring to a more holistic approach

I’ll admit it, I’ll often weigh and measure food. I like to know how much I’m eating, because portion sizes these days can be way too big. Where it got tiresome this week was marrying the serving sizes on the Guide with serving sizes on food packages, there was a lot of math this week and that’s not something I generally like to do when whipping up a healthy meal in the kitchen.

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Restaurant food was especially problematic, because you can’t weigh and gauge the serving sizes of everything, and you don’t know all of the ingredients they’re using.

Health experts often point to Brazil’s new food guide as a model that Canada could look to adopt. It focuses more on healthy eating in a holistic way – it’s about food, tradition, family, vitality, community, and so on.

The guide reminds people to cook more, eat fewer processed foods – more general guidelines that look at the bigger picture, not every bite of food. The guide’s top 10 tips incorporate not just ingredients, but also advice around shopping, eating at restaurants and food advertising.

Many of these tips are also offered in Canada’s Food Guide and on the Food Guide website. But some recommend the whole Guide move to a more holistic approach, focusing less on servings of specific foods than it does now.

Why the Guide matters

Despite feeling tired and uncomfortably full all week, it must be said, I might not be the ideal candidate to benefit from following the Food Guide.

I already had pretty established eating habits, set (almost) in stone. The foods I eat, when I eat them, what gives me energy, what saps it away – all of these things I’ve figured out after years of trial and error. And I liked my routines. So I may not have benefited from following the Food Guide as much as someone who was eager to change their lifestyle and diet, and was looking for nutritional guidance along the way. If you ignore some of its shortcomings, the Guide at its core wants Canadians to eat nutritious food (even if some foods listed as nutritious might be a touch incorrect or out of date, ahem juice).

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Below: Our Food Guide Diary

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