Unlocking Food’s Potential

March is “Nutrition Month” according to the Dietitians of Canada – 31 days dedicated to helping Canadians unlock the potential of food. 

Always eager to do our part, we asked St. Michael’s Hospital dietitian, Liza Luu, for help understanding Canada’s recently revamped food guide. Luu has worked at St. Michael’s hospital for past 15 years and currently works with the Family Health Team, counseling patients on all sorts of nutritional issues. 

Canada’s Food Guide is now recommending we eat more plant-based protein and less dairy or meat. What do you think?

Research and evidence has shown us that eating certain kinds of foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy and legumes/beans – lead to reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. These foods provide more fibre, vitamins and minerals.  When people eat more plant proteins in place of animal proteins, they get less unhealthy, saturated fat and more healthy, unsaturated fats. That helps improve blood cholesterol and reduces risks for heart disease.   

The guide also talks about how eating more plant-based proteins and fewer animal-based proteins can conserve our natural resources and reduce our food waste. This is important because it promotes a reliable food supply for future generations.  

Lastly, by emphasizing more plant-based proteins, the guide is much more inclusive of the many cultures that eat plant proteins on a regular basis.  

The new guide removes fruit juice and encourages Canadians to drink fewer sugary beverages. It says we should make water our drink of choice. What prompted this? 

Fruit juice is not the same as eating an actual piece of fruit because it has less fibre. Plus, a lot of juices have added sugars.  

Water is ideal because it’s good for hydration and doesn’t add calories.  

The guide encourages cultural and traditional eating. What’s the importance of this?

We know food is about more than just nutrients. Highlighting how our traditions and cultures shape our eating experience can help connect generations through shared traditions.  

The guide also extols the benefits of being mindful of our eating habits and “taking time to eat.” Why do you think the guide’s authors felt it was important to emphasize this?

It’s no surprise that the new guide focuses on how we should eat, along with what to eat. Living in a fast-paced society, many people mindlessly eat – out of boredom or as a distraction from emotions. Mindful eating means being thoughtful about what we eat, how much we eat, and listening to our hunger and fullness cues. 

Some critics suggest the new guide does not take into account the predicament of low-income Canadians. It could have featured more affordable alternatives — for example frozen produce beside fresh varieties. These critics point to research showing frozen produce is not only cheaper but is just as packed with nutrients as fresh produce. How valid is this criticism? 

We need to keep in mind that the released food guide is a one-page summary of general healthy eating recommendations. The rationale and policy decisions around those recommendations can be found in more detail at Health Canada’s website: food-guide.canada.ca/en/guidelines 

The detailed recommendations do, in fact, include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables – fresh, canned and frozen. And of course, a dietitian can tailor food guide recommendations to each person’s needs and circumstances.  

Despite seven changes to the guide since it was first published in 1942, there have been no suggestion to eat less. What do you make of this in light of rising levels of obesity? 

The picture of the plate – with half the plate taken up by fruits and vegetables and the other half split evenly between whole grains and proteins – suggests a balanced meal and good portions. Given that this is a general guide for people aged two years old and up, it can’t meet everyone’s specific requirements. In some cases, it doesn’t make sense for people to eat less.