“Don’t see a lot of meat or dairy!”
That tweet from a University of Guelph food expert summed up the reaction of many farm groups in the country following the unveiling of the revamped Canada’s Food Guide.
As expected, Health Canada’s new edition of the guide — last revised in 2007 — recommends Canadians eat more protein-rich foods derived from plants, and also urges them to “make water their drink of choice.”
The cover of the guide is particularly striking as the plate suggests the relative proportions of food that Canadians should have in their diet. Half the plate is covered by fruits and vegetables with the section for protein containing three small cubes of beef, three small slices of chicken, and a wedge of hard-boiled egg.
It’s a major shift from previous guides (which debuted in 1942), as the recommended diet also mirrored the economic interests of Canadian agriculture. For the past four decades, the guide has had four food groups — dairy; meat and alternatives; grains; and fruits and vegetables. The new guide reduces that to three: fruits and vegetables; whole grains; and proteins. The latter includes meat and dairy but also plant-based protein such as lentils and tofu (there are two pieces of tofu on the plate on the cover of the guide). Water is recommended “to help reduce the amount of sugars people consume and help protect teeth from frequent exposure to sugar.”
Not surprisingly, the change isn’t sitting well with farm organizations representing the meat and dairy sectors.
“There is abundant research that demonstrates that milk products with various fat content can be a part of (a) healthy diet,” Alberta Milk said in a tweet about the new guide.
“Although meat is featured in Canada’s Food Guide, we are concerned that Canadians might interpret this new version as a recommendation to reduce meat consumption in favour of plant-based proteins” said Canada Pork chair Rick Bergmann.
Canada Pork took issue with the science behind the guide’s recommendations, saying eating less red meat “could have very serious repercussions” for some people.
“Some Canadians — especially women and older adults — do not consume enough important nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, the latter only being found in meat,” the council said in a release. “Further reductions in red meat consumption by these individuals may lead to deficiencies affecting mental health, energy levels, and infant birth weight.”
The Canadian Federation of Agriculture took a more neutral stance.
“It is unfortunate that the revised food guide does not specifically promote Canadian agri-food as part of their core recommendations,” it said in a release. “However, the diversity of foods outlined in the food guide are all agri-food products that Canadian farmers grow and produce daily.”
For its part, Health Canada said the guide is based on evidence from “respected health authorities.”
“Although we live in an era of conflicting nutrition messages, the totality of evidence is clear,” the department said.
When it comes to protein, the department said it recommended eating more plant-based versions because they provide more dietary fibre (which lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes) and that there are additional health benefits from eating more vegetables, fruit, nuts, and soy protein.
It said it is also recommending people reduce their consumption of processed meats (because they have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer) and foods that contain mostly saturated fat.
That means eggs “make the cut,” the Egg Farmers of Alberta said.
“It (the guide) recommends to choose protein rich foods and did you know whole egg protein has the highest biological value of protein from any other food — making whole eggs a source of the highest quality protein available,” the group tweeted.
The guide also heads onto new ground by urging Canadians to spend more time in their kitchens and sitting down at the table with friends and family — and less time at the fast-food takeout window or eating highly processed foods.
“When food is prepared and cooked at home, people can reduce the amount of highly processed foods they use, which can help them lower their intake of sodium, sugars, or saturated fat,” Health Canada said.
As well, it promotes “mindful eating.” That includes taking more time to consider what you’re eating, reading food labels more closely, and avoiding “distractions such as eating in front of a screen.”