The Sketchy, Storied Origins of Canada’s Food Guide

No More Food Groups?

A Serious Health Crisis Gave Rise to a Self-motivated Food Guide

In 1942, a series of health studies revealed that Canadians were collectively suffering from malnutrition. It was bad. These studies revealed that only  3 of 100 families were getting enough calories a day.

A good government cares about its people, sure, but when Canada launched what would become its “Food Guide,” it had an agenda: the malnutrition of so many Canadians was interfering in the war effort. While it didn’t take long for 50,000 military recruits to offer themselves up for the cause, 43% of them were turned away for being so malnourished.

Given the context the Food Guide was launched from, the purpose of the very first guide was at least in part to get Canadians healthy so they could be solid soldiers. That’s not conspiracy speak: what is now Canada’s Food Guide was initially called “Canada’s Food Rules.”Rules, not a suggested guide. Its headlines and mottos read, “Eat Right: Canada Needs You Strong” and there were slogans like “Good Food Will Win the War.” The drawing of a milk bottle in the Food Rules was wielding a military gun.

The Food Rules also discouraged people from eating goods needed for wartime export. It was a huge effort on the part of the Canadian government to drastically affect what and how people ate. There were radio spots, print ads, panic.

This is where and when the concept of “Food Groups” was coined. The rules laid out specifically how many of each group to eat, like “eggs: at least 3-4 a week” and “milk: 1 pint daily.”

Interestingly, as the need for wartime rationing changed, the food rules changed. Kidneys and hearts were removed due to their shortage. It is well documented that the Agriculture Department argued against promoting more milk consumption on account of a wartime shortage.

So, were the Food Rules born to get us healthy, or, to shape our eating habits to government’s whim … and eventually the desires of mega-food corporations who could lobby government to tell us what to eat?

It’s possible that the correlation between supply and suggestion was just government’s way of making it easy for us to find good, and readily available food. It’s also possible “Canada’s Food Rules” opened the door for sinister lobbying, and decades of misguided dietary suggestions.

It’s a job to say, but why potatoes were singled out as something to eat daily raises an eyebrow. Of all the vegetables, potatoes are among the most nutrient-deplete, but also the ones most readily available. This recommendation was dropped in the 1977 edition as other crops were easily sought and bought.

The Food Industry, Not Science, Swayed Our Food Guide for Decades

While it’s suspected our food guide has always been swayed by players in the food industry looking to make a buck, it is well documented that the 1992 guide was forcibly edited by industries lobbying for more recommended servings.

Over time, The Food Rules become a more suggestive “Food Guide.” Once every decade or so, the food guide is updated. During  the lead up to 1992’s new guide, The Canadian Meat Council whined that the “meat and alternatives” group had far fewer recommended servings than fruits & veggies. So they were bumped up from 2 servings a day, to 2-3 in the new guide.

It’s simply not good for your body to eat meat 3 times a day. “But what about protein!?!” What about it? It’s near-impossible to not get enough protein in a plant-based diet. Where do you think protein comes from? It comes from plants, which can miraculously synthesize proteins; proteins cows and pigs and chickens eat, and incorporate into their own meat, when they eat plants. Science!

The Dairy Bureau of Canada and the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency similarly kicked up a fuss, and that fuss was rewarded with more suggested servings being added in to the food guide.

CBC Reporter Bill Paul quipped in 1993, “The outcry was enough to make one think that the four food groups should be renamed the four lobby groups.”

… But Science is Finally and More Prominently Guiding Our Guide

By 1949’s iteration of the Food Rules (this was the 3rd edition), science started to play a bigger role in the guide. Overconsumption was singled out as a concern, because studies were determining that too much of certain food groups (like meat and dairy) had deleterious health effects.

Fact 1: Saturated fats hurt us. Fact 2: Saturated fats basically only come only from animal meat. Fact 3: Saturated fats clog arteries the way bacon grease clogs kitchen sinks. You don’t wanna eat a lot of saturated fats.

Another fact: during our evolution as a species, we primarily ate plants, while meat was something we came by less often. It is for this reason that “less often” is how our bodies are designed to process meat. The proof is in our jaw structure (our jaws can swing left to right and back again for macerating plants; true carnivores mostly chew open and down with more rigid jaws), or the length of our colons (it’s not good to have meat sitting in there (causes cancer for example) so carnivores tend to have shorter colons than us.

During the evolution of “The Food Rules” into the modern day “Food Guide,” Health Canada took over purview of the food guide. As you might know, healthcare is the biggest strain on our province’s budget, and one of the country’s biggest financial strains. It makes sense to produce something to keep us healthy and away from expensive doctors and medical tests.

The Shift in the Seventies Towards Eating to Avoid Disease

The late 1970s’ iteration of the guide fused fruits and veggies into one category, recommending 4-5 servings a day, the highest of all groups. Meat/Fish was renamed to meat and alternatives (like eggs, cheese, nuts, legumes). Clearly, what they meant to call it was “Protein,” but then we wouldn’t be scared into thinking we had to eat red meat to get protein, and beef sales would plummet?

The 1982 version focussed on training Canadians to avoid diseases associated with poor diet, like heart disease and cancer. It also advised we not eat more calories than we’d burn off in a day. Health Canada itself says this focus on the link between food & disease was a major shift in the goals of the food guide, which outright advised Canadians on not just what to eat, but what to avoid too much of: saturated fat, sugar, salts.

If our food guide was born to tackle malnutrition during WWII, it was now evolving to an education campaign to combat diseases and obesity associated with poor diets, like heart disease, diabetes, and strokes.

The New, Forthcoming Food Guide is a Total Revolution

After an ongoing suite of consultations with both the public and relevant food organizations, Health Canada is currently overhauling Canada’s Food Guide to better guide us towards longer, healthier, less costly lives.

For example, the “Food Groups” we grew up on will be gone. There’s no more dairy food group, which is a win for cultural inclusivity given that so many ethnicities are lactose intolerant.  The powerhouse legume (veggies in pods, like green beans and snap peas) has been elevated above animal foods.

Most notably, it’s looking like the guide will really push a more plant-based diet on us. Plant-based foods are now the preferred source of protein. The recommendation is for “regular intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods, especially plant-based sources of protein.”

This shift away from animal foods is being led by a desire to guide people towards “foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat, instead of foods that contain mostly saturated fat.”

We’ve been heading this way for decades. For example, in The Guide’s early days, things as varied as cheese, eggs, legumes, and nuts were lumped into the “Meat” category, on account of their high protein. It was a rudimentary food guide then, not well enough thought out to tease apart different proteins, at least into animal proteins (that come with a lot of cholesterol) and plant proteins (that come with a lot of vitamins).

In fact, the early food guides were so rudimentary that butter was listed in the bread group, even though it’s a dairy or animal fat item. As far back as the newly revised 1961 Food Guide, we were saying that replacing meats with other proteins was fine. Now we’re saying it it’s good.

Processed Foods Aren’t Nourishing Your Body’s Needs

The new guide will come down hard on processed foods. We live in a new world. Where Nan ate bolied root veggies straight from the yard, a millennial is shopping from a grocery store filled with mass manufactured  food stuffs, from companies concerned more about profit margins than nutrition. That profit-driven command over what’s on our grocery store shelves is nothing but bad for us.

You would not find a bottle of Cheez Whiz or a microwave dinner full of strange chemical preservatives and additives in the wild. It’s unnatural eating, it confuses the body. If the ingredients listing of what you’re about to eat contains things you have never heard of, and can’t pronounce; things that don’t exist in the wild, it’s best not to eat it.

So the new Guide will focus on addressing public confusion over the impact of processed foods, which foods are “processed foods,” and the importance of limiting or eradicating processed foods in our diet.

Its Three New Guiding Principles/Recommendations Are …

In the forthcoming guide, draft guidelines mark a dramatic improvement over the origins of the Food Guide, putting Canada alongside countries like Brazil who are taking back control of its eating habits from corporations with a vested interest in what we eat.

Guiding Principle 1: Eating a Variety of Nutritious Foods is the Foundation of Healthy Living

Eat a steady stream and diversity of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods (especially plant-based sources of protein). All foods have fats, but all fats aren’t equally bad for you. Eat foods that  contain mostly unsaturated fat, over foods that contain mostly saturated fat.

Guiding Principle 2: Processed and Prepared Foods Undermine Healthy Eating

If you’re shopping only in the fruit, veggie, butcher, and deli sections of the grocery store, you’re in the clear. Processed or prepared foods in boxes, cans, and plastic packaging tend to be less nutritious and higher in salts, sugars, saturated fat, and strange chemicals that undermine healthy eating. Avoid processed beverages high in sugars. Have a glass of water.

Guiding Principle 3: Think about What You’re Eating: What Are You Getting Out of It?

A bag of chips might fill you up, but your body isn’t getting nutrition from it, so why eat it? Hungry? Eat something good for you; something that fights cancer not something that triggers it. Plan your week’s meals and snacks and you’ll eat better, versus eating impulsively.

Yes, We’re Still Eating Poorly Enough to Need Guidance from a Guidebook

It pays to keep us healthy. More accurately, it saves taxpayer dollars. You are what you eat, and Mr. Carrot cost us less taxpayer dollars in healthcare services than Mrs. Bologna.

While you should want to keep yourself healthy for a better quality of life, our government needs you healthy to stay afloat financially. The Canadian Institute for Health Information stated that in 2016, total health expenditure in Canada was $228 billion, or $6,299 per person. That’s 11% of Canada’s GDP!

The Institute has verified that per-person spending on healthcare in Newfoundland ($7,256 in 2015) is higher than any other Canadian province.

When Health Canada looked over the most recent national survey data available to assess the food and nutrient intakes of Canadians, it was clear that the majority of Canadians had low intakes of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. The three things we should be gorging on.

Inadequate intakes of certain nutrients from food sources were prevalent across many age groups. These included calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin D, potassium, and fibre.

Think about all this as you eat this week. Especially since its prime season for veggies here. Would Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod approve of your lunch? They’re definitely doing backflips over this new, no-nonsense, science-backed guide.

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