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A little insight into Canada's new food guide (from a future islander)

Canada's new food guide was released this week but before that happened, Susan Swift and Elaine Cameron got the chance to interview a key player in the new publication - Dr. Hasan Hutchinson.
Hasan and Rabia
The force behind Canada's new Food Guide, Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, is moving to Bowen Island this year. Hasan is pictured with his wife, Rabia Wilcox, a member of Bowen Island Food Sovereignty.

The Canada Food Guide has been a staple on classroom walls and in doctors’ offices since 1942.

We were fortunate to get an interview with the director general of nutritional policy and promotion at Health Canada, Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, about the newly-revised guide. (An aside: Hasan is soon to become a Bowen resident.)

What can we expect from a new Food Guide in the era of high dietary concerns and food industry marketing? Here’s a sneak peek, including some of the controversies behind the new guide’s recommendations.

Health Canada issued the last Canada Food Guide in 2007 and a lot of food and nutrition research has been done since then. Dr. Hutchinson stressed that the new guide is based on science.

“We reviewed the evidence and it became clear that there are strong associations around higher consumption of plants and grains and lower consumption of meat and lower cardiovascular risks,” he said. This led to a greater emphasis on a plant-based diet in the new guide.

Hasan tells us that the approach in the new guidelines will be to say, “This is what a healthy eating pattern is. Eat a lot of these things.” Along with a caution that processed and prepared foods are usually high in sodium, sugar and saturated fats, which undermine health. “Be careful of these things.”

“We’re not talking about moving towards a vegetarian diet here but we are talking about lower-fat dairy and leaner meats. They are still good sources of protein,” he said.  

And, while the guide will recommend eating less processed foods, Hasan made sure to note that healthy eating patterns are affected by culture, cost, and availability. He said that “frozen, canned and dried foods like legumes are really good, convenient options and they can be high in nutrition.”

In addition to the tools, resources and web-based guides designed to help individuals develop healthy eating patterns, Health Canada is publishing a 60-page policy report. According to Hasan, the development of policy is one of the Food Guides most important roles.

“Health Canada is developing initiatives that address labelling and marketing to children. It is also foundational for other areas of the federal government, for example, First Nations and Inuit health programs.” 

Potentially, the most influential role of the new guide, according to Hasan, is that “many other stakeholders – provinces, territories, municipalities, public health units and health professionals like dietitians, health care providers, family docs – take the policy and implement it.” 

The anticipated changes, including the emphasis on plant-based eating, already have some farmers, along with meat, dairy and juice industry representatives, nervous about losing revenue from potential shifts in Canadians’ eating patterns.

Earlier versions of the Food Guide had been criticized because of the widespread view that they yielded to the demands of the food industry. This time around, there is hope that the guide will avoid this criticism. Hasan assured us that no one who worked on the new guide held meetings with or accepted research from members of the food industry.

“This was deliberate,” he said.  

“This is not to say that they can’t give good recommendations,” he said. “We have an open and transparent process for meeting with groups, for example Diabetes Canada.  All meetings that we have with any group are posted openly on our website.

“We have academic experts, national and international, who look at drafts and review evidence. They have to sign a declaration saying they are not being funded by industry. We’ve had two online consultations and they are open to everyone. The last one we had over 6,000 contributions.”

Of course, dietary recommendations will affect consumer spending habits and the budgets and buying trends of larger groups and institutions. As noted, there is already some backlash in the dairy and meat sector. At the same time, environmental activists may applaud aspects of the new guidelines and their policy implications.  

Among the merits of a shift toward plant-based foods is the potential reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG’s), released during production of animal products. While the guide does not directly address climate concerns, it does mention the impact of diet on the environment under “guiding principles and recommendations” in the Food Guide’s 2017 consultation summary.

“In general, diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact, when compared to current diets high in sodium, sugars and saturated fats," it reads.

While it’s not an objective of the food guide, there is evidence that shifts in diet, when multiplied by millions of people, can significantly affect GHG levels. In fact, a publication of the Food Climate Resource Network, based at Oxford University, concludes that, “a systematic review of studies shows GHG reductions are possible by switching to different diets.”

So, it looks like healthy eating patterns aren’t just good for us, they are good for the planet too.

For more information, visit the government website dedicated to the Canada Food Guide. It will soon to be updated with more user-friendly and audience-specific resources.

The force behind Canada's new Food Guide, Dr. Hasan Hutchinson, is moving to Bowen Island this year. Hasan is pictured with his wife, Rabia Wilcox, a member of Bowen Island Food Sovereignty.