As the federal government prepares to unveil its long-awaited update to Canada’s Food Guide, newly published public-opinion research is giving Canadians fresh hints about how it might be structured and what it will contain.
As previously reported, the new guide is expected to completely upend the established food “rainbow” that Canadians have relied on for decades to inform their dietary choices, putting a bigger emphasis on plant-based foods, less emphasis on meats and dairy, and better reflecting Canada’s cultural diversity.
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Health Canada has just released the results of focus-group work done earlier this year by Earnscliffe Strategy Group. During the sessions, Canadians were asked for their opinions on a series of “foundational statements” that are designed to translate the government’s overall advice on what to eat (and how much to eat) into simple, concise messages for Canadians.
The statements presented to the focus groups may be tweaked before they are rolled out to the public in 2018, but regardless, they seem to confirm many of the expected changes. It’s unclear if they’ll be accompanied by charts, graphics or measured proportions to help guide Canadians.
Here are the statements, in the order they were presented:
- Many foods fit healthy eating, choose those that you enjoy and that reflect your culture and traditions.
- Choose mostly plant-based foods.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit, whole grains and some protein foods, especially foods that come from plants.
- Include foods that have healthy fats.
- Limit processed and prepared foods high in sodium, sugars, or saturated fat. If you choose these foods, eat them less often and in small amounts.
- Cook with foods that are lower in sodium, sugars and saturated fats.
- Make water your drink of choice.
- Plain milk, unsweetened fortified plant-based or soy beverages can also be healthy beverage choices.
- Be mindful of your eating habits. Enjoy your food. Take time to eat. Notice when you are hungry and when you are full.
- Plan what you eat. Cook more often. Eat with family and friends often. Share your foods skills, food traditions and culture.
Reaction to the statements was, overall, fairly positive. Participants in the eight focus groups, held in four different cities across the country, generally felt that the advice was clear, practical and relevant to them and their families.
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The researchers also noted that the participants didn’t get the sense that the statements would make them feel guilty about unhealthy food choices when they occasionally fall off the wagon, as most of us tend to do.
“The general consensus was that the guidance was applicable for all diets (i.e., vegan, vegetarian and omnivore) although some, particularly omnivores, had the sense the guidelines were encouraging Canadians toward a vegetarian diet,” the study results note.
“While most agreed that a diet based primarily on plant-based foods was appropriate, there was a sense that guidance relating to the consumption of meat was diminished and not exactly in line with their preferences. For a small number, the perception of being encouraged to eat a vegetarian diet undermined the overall effectiveness of the collection of messages.”
The current guide was last updated in 2007, and it has been criticized by dietitians and researchers on a number of fronts.
It has been suggested that the guide, among other things, recommends too much food overall on a daily basis, that it shouldn’t include dairy as a separate required food group, that it counts fruit juices as a serving of fruit or vegetables, and that it doesn’t adequately reflect the wide diversity of Canadian dishes and palates.
It’s also long and, some say, way too complex to be practically useful. The current guide relies on specific serving sizes that can be hard for people to track and follow (one serving size of meat or alternatives, for example, is equivalent to half a cup of cooked fish, shellfish, poultry or lean meat, or three-quarters of a cup cooked legumes, or three-quarters of a cup of tofu, or two eggs, or two tablespoons of peanut butter, or a quarter cup of shelled nuts and seeds).
The focus groups were somewhat divided on the question of proportions, with “one or two” people in each group who would prefer strict guidance in terms of quantities, the Earnscliffe report states.
“Others tended to argue that they preferred that there were no metrics that they needed to try to live up to and preferred the advice to choose or limit one type of food over another,” the document adds.
The total cost to conduct the focus group research was $54,525, including HST.
The research is part of a broader effort being undertaken by Health Canada to consult the public about the new guide and to improve overall eating habits. The department estimates that four out of five Canadians risk developing cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and a plethora of other health issues as a result of unhealthy eating.
But the government has had to contend with pushback from the dairy and meat industries, who could see their profits fall if the new guide places less emphasis on things like meat-based protein, milk, butter and cheese.
There have been particular concerns about the possibility of lumping various types of protein (meat, dairy, etc) together in the new guide, rather than dividing them up to ensure people get other nutrients they need, like calcium.
Representatives from industry were not given the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Health Canada, instead submitting their feedback online like every other member of the public.
Separate from the food guide, the government is also working toward establishing a broader “Food Policy for Canada.” On Monday, a coalition of more than 50 food industry, civil society and farming groups issued a public statement calling on Ottawa to create what they call “a National Food Policy Council” that could work collaboratively with the government on that bigger project.