Why this non-diet dietitian is impressed with Canada’s new food guide

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Today in Canada, we see the first update to Canada’s food guide since 2007. While the media is focusing on an unprecedented switch-up of food groups, and implications on meat and dairy and fruit juice industries, as a registered dietitian working on a daily basis with individuals and families, I see some of the more subtle changes. In fact, as a dietitian who takes a non-diet approach to helping my clients eat better, I see a lot of positive messages in the updated guide. I’m just so impressed! Join me as I walk you through the updates that I find the most applaud-worthy:

1. Bye-bye serving sizes

“What is an appropriate serving of cheese?” “How much bread should I eat per day?” Why does the package say a serving is 100g of yogurt, and Canada’s Food Guide says 3/4 cup?” “AM I EATING TOO MUCH?” “AM I EATING ENOUGH?” Or… the quandary that plagues picky eaters (and their parents) across the country, “I am not getting the recommended servings of vegetables per day! What do I do!?”

One of the most subtle changes in the new food guide is absence of recommended servings per day, which in turn eliminates the necessity for defined serving sizes. This drastically simplifies the messages to the public. With the previous guide, adults were cautioned to “eat 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day” (which begs the question, is this softball-sized honeycrisp apple count as one, or two servings? and what happens if I get full before I finish it?). In contrast, Canadians are now being told, “Have plenty of vegetables and fruits.” Other broad categories of nutritious foods such as fibre-rich whole grains and protein-rich foods are similarly treated. Simple.

Of course, there are plenty of situations where Canadians will need more help determining if their nutrient intake is adequate for health. That’s where dietitians come in! Consulting a registered dietitian is the best way to make sure you are “getting plenty” of the nutritious foods as suggested in the guide. For example, I offer nutrient analysis in my practice so that parents can be sure that their child is indeed getting enough nutrition for healthy growth, despite perhaps falling short of the fruit and vegetable intake suggested in the previous version of the guide. And medical nutrition therapy –  making sure food intake is appropriate for diabetes management, heart disease risk, diverticular disease or gout, as some examples  – is what registered dietitians are trained to implement.

But overall, the abandonment of recommended servings per day is a bold and timely move away from the type of prescriptive diet-mentality messaging that we are used to receiving about our eating. This change, coupled with other positive messaging sprinkled throughout the guide, results in the permission for Canadians to take back the decision of how much we should be eating in the run of each day. Which comes as a breath of fresh air for worried parents of picky toddlers, those living with an eating disorder, and chronic dieters alike.

 

2. Proportions, not portions

On the same lines, I noticed that in choosing to focus on proportions (not portions), the new guide allows for considerably more freedom to choose how much we eat… while still giving some guidance of how to get an ideal balance of nutrients.

If you look at the plate graphic that personifies the messaging of our new food guide, you’ll notice that foods are recommended in proportion to each other. Half your plate vegetables and fruits, one quarter of your plate protein foods, and one quarter of your plate whole grain foods.

The “plate model” is in no way new. Dietitians have been using the plate in diabetes education for many years, and more recently the USA adopted a version when it’s dietary guidelines were updated when Michelle Obama was first lady.

What I want to remind the reader is that although the visual is a plate, you may also choose to call to mind these proportions when you are planning meals. Aim to serve a variety of options from different food sources at each meal.  For example, making a turkey soup? Plan to include turkey, some whole grains (maybe brown rice or barley) and “plenty of vegetables”. Rather than a quarter cup of frozen peas for the whole pot of soup, try throwing in an assortment of vegetables that gets your total soup makeup to be closer to half vegetable. Plan on serving soup with salad? Don’t worry so much about pumping in the vegetables. Plan on having homemade bread on the side? Forget about the barley. My point here is that thinking about the proportions of nutritious elements of a balanced meal will help you plan your meals. Then you can eat how much your body wants at that meal. Which brings me to…

3. Beyond Food

“Healthy eating is more than the foods you eat.” AMEN! Previous to this release, Canada’s Food Guide was mostly about what Canadians ought to be eating for good health. It had very little to say about how we eat. You might be surprised to hear that as a registered dietitian, I will argue that how we eat is just as important (and in many cases more important) than what we eat! In fact, this is one of the reasons why our profession has embraced the holistic-scoped title “Dietitian” in place of the more limited connotations of “Nutritionist”.

The new food guide has guidance to “be mindful of your eating habits” including emphasis on taking time to eat and the importance of noticing your hunger cues. When it comes to knowing how much food is right for you, these skills are king. However, they  no longer come naturally to many of us. Growing up in a country where food policy was based on a serving-sized-based guide taught us to decide how much to eat using our heads, rather than our stomachs.  Relearning how to prioritize feeding ourselves (and prioritizing ourselves in the process) is part of what I help adult clients muddle through. Learning to distinguish feelings of hunger from feelings of wanting, fullness from love is another part. See, dietitians too are about more than just food!

We are being encouraged to eat together . A whole pile of research supports this recommendation. Even all the health benefits associated with the Mediterranean diet depend both on the foods chosen as well as the tradition of eating meals together (a far cry from our current North American reality). The “what” and the “how” are indistinguishable in dietary research. The evidence is clear: we know that eating together as a family helps our children grow up with better health, better eating habits and a more positive relationship with food. Older adults who eat alone are more likely to be socially isolated and suffer from undernutrition. All of these facts make eating together an integral part of healthy eating and I am so glad to see it included in the update.

The new guide also gives us permission (finally) to enjoy our food. I cannot count many times have I heard as a dietitian that “healthy food doesn’t taste good.” We feel pressure to eat certain types of food, and guilt if we enjoy foods that are not on that “healthy” list. The new food guide recognizes that food choices are based upon more than simply nutritional value. Taste, culture, and food traditions are included as important factors that influence our food choices and enjoyment of eating. And so they should be! If I may quote Ellyn Satter, a nutrition mentor of mine, “when the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”  Kudos for the government of Canada for recognizing this truth.

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A modern, relevant, evidenced-based tool for Canadians

Overall, I have a confession to make. As a dietitian, I haven’t used the (2007) version of Canada’s Food Guide as a educational tool in many years. Did I drop it from my resource repertoire because it included fruit juice as a nutritious choice? Because Canadian dairy farmers and meat marketing boards had their voices heard at the stakeholders table? Not really. Food politics aside, the reason my practice outgrew this tool was that my work with clients evolved beyond the food-measuring, portion-counting, diet-mentality-inducing framework that it was built upon.

If we look at the history of food guides in Canada, we see that back in 1942, “Canada’s Food Rules” were created to advise Canadians how to get enough during wartime. In the early decades of government food policy, guidance was designed for ensuring nutrition, not restricting it. Any guidance on portions was presented in minimum number of servings per day, and the quantifier “at least” were peppered throughout the guides. Only in the late 1970’s through 2007 did our food guides start trying to restrict, discourage consumption of certain foods, and place upper limits on serving sizes. By the time I studied nutrition at university, Canada’s Food Guide didn’t look all that different than the weight-loss diets one finds in the back of women’s magazines (the major difference, of course, being that our guide was more evidenced-based). In the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s, weight-loss dieting was the public health message.

What I look forward to in Canada is a national nutrition policy that encourages, above all, eating competence and healthy relationships between Canadians and our food. Today’s Canada’s Food Guide, with it’s absence of prescriptions of how much to eat, and great emphasis on how we eat and our enjoyment of the process, has impressed me. It’s a step towards a future where our kids will be raised knowing more about feeding themselves, and less about dieting. Bon Appetit!

 

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