By Carol Crenna

You probably heard that Health Canada revised the Canada Food Guide. And it should have been updated to give accurate advice, taking into account advances that we now know about nutrition and changes in our eating habits. But did it take those things into account? It’s been a few years after those revisions were made, and we now know that it definitely wasn’t worth the effort.


During the Food Guide update in 1992, the government secretly bowed to pressure from food manufacturers to make dramatic revisions. Documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by acclaimed public interest advocate Ken Rubin reported that the government redrew the chart to double the recommended servings of meat and eggs, alter recommendations on fat, and drop limits for sweets and coffee after complaints from the food industry.

Stakeholders had made the following complaints: “One daily serving of meat isn’t sufficient, even for preschoolers. It could reinforce the myth that meat is not good for you, or is a ‘bad food.’” (Beef Information Centre) “I get the impression the Food Guide is trying to accommodate a vegetarian eating pattern!” (Canada Pork Inc.)

The Canadian Egg Marketing Agency strongly protested the serving size of eggs, reduced from two eggs to one. The Dairy Farmers of Canada objected to a reduction in milk for teenagers. In each case, guide changes were made – recommending two to three servings of meat or alternatives daily, two eggs daily, and that teens drink up to four cups of milk per day.


For over 60 years, the Food Guide’s influence has been widespread. If you’ve ever eaten meals in schools, hospitals, retirement homes, or any other institution, the menu was directly derived from the guide, and many dietitians still follow its recommendations.

Yet key messages were and still are outdated. For example, there are many more vegetarians and vegans now, and in the new guide these segments are really only mentioned. In addition, immigrants have introduced many new foods to mainstream and they have widely varying diets, and these have been widely neglected.


The new guide has become a recipe for disaster say some health advocates. 


But where’s the rationale behind recommending lower consumption of fruits and vegetables (daily intake of five to eight servings instead of five to ten recommended in 1992) and more consumption of meat (four servings for men, instead of the two to three urged before)?

In the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff mentions several “deficiencies” in the guide: not recommending more polyunsaturated fatty acids or more whole-grain products; offering complicated serving sizes; lacking total recommended daily calories; and a vague “Others” category for treats that doesn’t warn against eating high-fat, high-cal foods (even though Canadians eat 600 to 800 calories worth of fried foods and desserts daily).


He calculated that the fewest calories women following it would eat daily is 1,700 if they drank only water, didn’t use salad dressing or have dessert. In the men’s category, the daily intake topped 3,200 calories. “What it means is that should anybody who is of average height and size follow Canada’s Food Guide, there is a very good chance it will lead to weight gain.”

He criticized Health Canada for failing to give scientific rationale for changes, and for still allowing industry representatives to make decisions. Producers should be given guidelines for what is healthy, not the reverse.


Some messages have never been understood by consumers, and are becoming even more confusing, like  serving sizes, exact number of servings, and whole vs. processed foods.

Servings have gotten really confusing.

Now, a young man of 21 should only have one serving of fish or chicken, which according to the calculation is only 1/2 cup or the size of a hockey puck, two times per day. But as soon as he turns 52  he can have three servings a day. Men and women can eat pretty well the same amount (until a woman hits perimenopause and then she needs to cut back to one less serving of most categories). After 51, men and women should eat fewer vegetables and fruit, according to the guide.

Serving portions are just as weird.

VEGETABLES AND FRUIT: 1 serving =125 mL (½ cup) fresh, frozen or canned vegetable or fruit or 100% juice OR 250 mL (1 cup) leafy raw vegetables or salad OR 1 piece of fruit.

SO what does that mean if your salad has a chopped-up fresh vegetable in it? Do you count that as a ½ cut serving or a 1 cup serving? If you chop up your large apple, it will likely fill 11/2 cups, which would mean 3 servings according to the first measurement, but if you eat it whole, it only counts for 1 serving. Hmmm.

GRAIN PRODUCTS: 1 serving = 1 slice (35 g) bread or ½ bagel (45 g) or ½ pita (35 g) or ½ tortilla (35 g) OR 125 mL (½ cup) cooked rice, pasta or couscous OR 30 g cold cereal or 175 mL (¾ cup) hot cereal.

Bread slices come in so many shapes and sizes it would be difficult to know how many grams one would be, and some nontraditional bagels have added sugar and oil, and so they should differ depending on type and ingredients. Should the size of the serving of cereal depend on what is in it: more if healthy whole grains, nuts and seeds, and less if a snack-type super-processed style with no nutrients?

MILK AND ALTERNATIVES: 1 serving = 250 mL (1 cup) milk or fortified soy beverage OR 175 g (¾ cup) yogurt OR 50 g (1 ½ oz.) cheese

MEAT AND ALTERNATIVES: 1 serving = 75 g (2 ½ oz.)/125 mL (½ cup) cooked fish, shellfish, poultry or lean meat OR 175 mL (¾ cup) cooked beans OR 2 eggs OR 30 mL (2 Tbsp) peanut butter

So this is saying that eating four eggs for breakfast is as healthy as eating one cup of plain whitefish for dinner, and that dolloping four tablespoons of peanut butter (interesting that raw tree nuts are offered here as a healthier substitution) on your sandwich is the nutrient-rich equivalent of one and a half cups of black beans or chickpeas?


 It advises to limit eggs and animal fat, but instead “use vegetable oils such as canola, olive, corn, soybean, sunflower and peanut.” It doesn’t differentiate between processed oils and pure, unrefined healthy omega-3 and omega-6 fats. 


It promotes eating “foods made from whole grains” – as processed breads and cereals make claims to be – rather than simply eating whole grains. In the Others category, high fat processed snacks are ranked the same as raw nuts, and there’s no advice about limiting commercial baked goods, pop and sweets, yet they contribute up to one third of the calories in the average diet.


There are 25 industry groups represented compared to six consumer groups, along with about a hundred others from health associations, government and universities. Those in the trade include Kellogg, Weston Bakeries, Dairy Farmers of Canada, Beef Information Centre, Brewers of Canada, Canadian Sugar Institute, Canadian Pork Council, and even Edible Oil Foods Canada (petroleum products).


Until we have unbiased advisers who sincerely try to both get back to health basics and include important advancements in science and culture, we’re in danger of having an ineffective and misguided guide.

Article by Carol Crenna originally appeared in Vista Magazine.


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