Sunday, November 12, 2006

Canada's Food Guide to Unhealthy Eating

Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating is an oxymoron.

Everything the Food Guide should be - an evidence-based, easy to understand and implement guide to lead Canadians to follow a pattern of eating that will minimize their risk of developing chronic diseases (including obesity) - it isn't. What's worse is that the proposed revision to the Food Guide, which as we speak is ready for it's release on an unsuspecting public, is still horribly flawed.

[NOTE: Original post updated to include information on the final, disappointing product]

I testified on some of the Food Guide's deficiencies in the House of Commons back in September. Since then Health Canada was recalled to the Standing Committee on Health, and on Halloween, the Standing Committee passed a motion to have the proposed revision to the Food Guide tabled before the Committee.

The next week I was asked to speak to the Canadian Medical Association regarding my concerns (Health Canada was also invited to present their case). My understanding of the outcome is that the CMA has expressed their concerns directly to Tony Clement, the Minister of Health.

Please follow the links below to explore the bizarre revision process, the involvement of the food industry, the dismissal of evidence-based research and the end results of 3 years of "work" at Health Canada.

  1. Big Food Has a Seat - Health Canada's bizarre inclusion of the Food Industry in the shaping of the Guide
  2. Broken from the Get Go - Get this, the revised Food Guide is based off of current Canadian dietary patterns....where 40% of all vegetables consumed are potatoes with over half of the potatoes being consumed coming from french fries or potato chips
  3. At Least You'll Get Enough Zinc - Health Canada cares a lot about nutrients...not so much about foods. Last time I checked, I eat foods, not nutrients.
  4. Consultation? What Consultation? - I suppose if by consultation you mean what fonts you like then yes, there was an extensive consultative process
  5. Please Eat White Bread - Why Wonder Bread's more in touch with the evidence on whole wheat than Health Canada.
  6. All Fat is Bad - Fat phobia still runs rampant at Health Canada.
  7. All Meat is Good, and Please Eat More of it - Beef farmers rejoice, Health Canada recommends Canadians eat more beef and still doesn't tell us fish is a healthier choice.
  8. Eat Less Fruit and Vegetables - Amazingly that's part of Health Canada's new recommendations
  9. Drink Lots and Lots of Milk - Don't worry about all that research that suggests that in fact it might not be so good for you.
  10. A Match NOT Made in Heaven - The 1997 Nutrient File and Canada's Food Guide working together to increase obesity.
  11. Oh, and you Can't have Ketchup - How Health Canada has ignored 25% of your dietary energy intake.
  12. Guidance? What Guidance? - The sage advice of the Food Guide on how to manage your weight
  13. Health Canada's Quobesities - My favourite quotes from Health Canada officials on the matter of the Food Guide.
  14. What Can You Do? - Some ideas about how to make your concerns known, and where can you turn to for sound dietary advice?
  15. Epilogue - A Grading of the final February 2007 version of Canada's Food Guide.
  16. The Bad Joke they Call "My Food Guide" - Did you know Health Canada thinks Chocolate Milk, Pudding and Muffins are healthy choices?
  17. Why the Food Guide Matters - How the Food Guide impacts the average Canadian, including those who don't read the Food Guide.
  18. Who Won the Food Guide Sweepstakes - Which of the many Food Industry interests squeezed the most out of their involvement in the revision?
  19. ? = 88.5 - (61.9 x age [y])+ PA x { (26.7 x weight [kg]) + (903 x height [m]) } + 20 - Health Canada's almost unspeakably useless means of helping you determine your personal Calorie needs
At the very base of this post there's a little envelope icon. Please click it. Send the post to yourself and then use your own email account to cut, paste and forward that enclosed link to all of your friends and family. If you're a blogger, please link to it. If you're a medical student or a dietetic student, please forward it off to your listservs. I will be updating this post with links to the entire series as it gets published. With enough public concern something can be done before the Food Guide is released.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates that every year in Canada 21,000-47,000 Canadians die from diet and weight related illnesses that cost taxpayers between $6.6 and $11 billion dollars a year.

I believe that Canadians deserve a Food Guide that reflects medicine's best understanding of the effect of diet on chronic disease prevention.

I also believe that Canadians deserve a Food Guide that will not make them gain weight if they follow it.

Tomorrow: Big Food Has a Seat - Health Canada's bizarre inclusion of the Food Industry in the shaping of the Guide.

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  1. Anonymous2:16 pm

    Hi Yoni,
    I can't believe some of the proposed changes. I am definitely no expert but its interesting because I just finished reading that new book by Dr. Oz (it was on Oprah), who pretty much says the same thing as you do. So you would think that Health Canada would know what seems to be common research.
    cheers, Jackie L.

  2. I agree.

    Certainly none of what I will be discussing is a secret.

    The fact that the recommendations aren't consistent with best evidence begs to questions either the expertise of those involved OR the influences put to bear on those experts' recommendations.

    Either way, it's not impressive.

  3. Michael.R.Harris4:59 pm

    It has always been a mystery to me that it is almost impossible for me to eat all the daily servings recommended by Canada's Food Guide and thus long ago I ignored it assuming that the people who compiled it were arithmetically and/or horizontally challenged.


  4. Probably a great call on your part.

    As I've been quoted as saying before, anyone of average height and weight who faithfully follows our current Food Guide (or the proposed version I've seen for the next one) will almost certainly gain weight.

    1. Anonymous9:39 pm

      haha, our tax dollars at work...again!!

  5. Anonymous11:32 am

    Unfortunately the government is more responsive to the strongest lobbiests and does not necessasrily take care of the greatest interest for the greatest number of its people - who are the largest contributors to Members campaigns? Special interest groups compromise democracy to the detriment to us all. Perhaps it is the governments intention to serve the medical profession by trying to make us sicker!It may be the new guide will be a guide to what not to do.

  6. A very interesting and helpful collection of posts. Thanks.ww

  7. Anonymous8:09 pm

    some of the changes are just plain stupid...Yoni you make me laugh so hard with your comments that i almost crapped myself...thank god because im not getting enough fiber from the guides recommended amount of fiber ie veggies, so im glad something made me move down there!!!


  8. Anonymous1:10 pm

    Who in their right mind recommends less fruits and veggies? The guide is a joke.

  9. I never cared much about the food guide, I just try to eat the best I can. I rarely eat French Fries, and I haven't had any fast food in a long time as well. I exercise, and I do truly feel more energized when I am able to get a full nights sleep. People do not need a guide as much as they think. If everyone was properly educated about how unhealthy eating effects the body, we wouldn't really need a guide. Though it helps, just know what you are eating. Motivation to eat better, will to follow through, and discipline to make it to the end. If we are to follow the new Food Guide, we may as well trust every false comment made on internet pages! Cheers mate.

    "What can you do, eyes can only see what is presented to them until they have seen it all." - Marco Vetere

  10. Muffled in Montreal6:57 pm

    I just stumbled upon this website and while I have little to add vis a vis the Food Guide, I've recently, as a journalist had dealings with Health Canada. There is something strange going on there which has very little to do with the health of Cdns. For one, you can't talk with a scientist without some official big brother PR person listening. (How honest are they going to be if they want to trash something?) 2) Someone there got a hold of an article I wrote, and had a PR flak call me with a bunch of semantic stupid gooble-de-goop. Mr. Anonymous didn't dispute any of my facts, just tried to manipulate what I should be saying according to him. I told Ms 20-year-old PR flak, if Mr. Anonymous wanted to address any of these issues directly to me, I would be more than happy to discuss them, but I didn't respond to people who were to afraid to talk to me with a name.

    I think ever since Bovine Growth Hormone and that scandal Health Canada is as responsive to the needs of Canadians as the Tobacco industry is.

    Personally, after my two little encounters, I have little faith in the organization. After reading this blog, now I KNOW I shouldn't trust them.

    Muffled in Montreal

  11. Anonymous12:50 pm

    I work in a continuing care centre and under the new requirements we are legally bound to follow the food guide when compiling our resident menu. (Menu must meet food guide recommendations) Tell me what mobility challenged 85 year old is going to eat all of this every day. I emailed health canada to see if there was a food guide designed for seniors and they insisted that this food guide is appropriate for seniors.


    No wonder continuing care costs so much. We are forced to provide and cook all of this food when a very small portion of our resident population actually eats all of it. So much waste.

  12. Thank you for this post. I've been looking into the USA's Food Pyramid and was wondering if Canada's Food Guide was as messed up. Clearly it is, and probably due to the same Big Food influences. I can't imagine eating as many grain products as either recommends. I certainly eat far more fruit and vegetables than they recommend. On meat, I'm probably in the 2 servings area, though I don't eat meat every day. I think the most important thing is to avoid food products as discussed at length in recent books by Nina Planck and Michael Pollan. At least you don't have our high fructose corn syrup problem. I've put a lot of effort into making sure our household is eating food instead of food like products. Thanks again.

  13. Anonymous12:13 pm

    Hi there,
    I think this is a good article, but not updated

  14. Anonymous10:42 pm

    It is wonderful to see others with the same insightfulness.... It took 3 pages through "Google" to find info scrutinizing the "almighty" Food Guide.
    I am a Holistic Nutrition student writing a presentation - where I plan to critique Canada's Food Guide! Thank-you for fighting for the future health of Canadians...


  15. Anonymous8:48 pm

    It is meant to be a "Guide" so don't over do it and your article is pretty biased. It does say to eat fish at least 2 times a week. 2 1/2 cups servings of beef(or any other meat or meat substitute) would not really be much and and milk does not have to be drinked as they gave alternatives. It is meant to be a guide to get adequete nutrition and not a "Weight loss plan". Nice site, I guess not slamming the government wouldn't get hits. If you believe the "health industry" good luck. Hey they have a supliement to help me pee better now!

  16. Anonymous6:42 pm

    I agree with the previous comment. This is a guide and not an individually tailored plan for everyone. I follow many aspects of it and tailor it to my needs. If you are really concerned about your diet, talk to you doctor etc. Concerning the involvement of industry, what did you really expect? I'm not surprised that they were involved.

    1. Anonymous8:31 pm

      I'm really sorry to hear that some people are so cynical that they think that it is to be expected to have "involvement of industry", in a food guide. to tell you the truth, it's comments like that that I find really freaky.

  17. Very good summing-up of the deficiencies of the Pyramid. The Big Lobbyists have too much power.

    BTW, just a *very* small correction-- the possessive form of "it" is "its," without an apostrophe.

  18. Anonymous11:42 am

    i believe that the canadian food guide should not have to be shoved into kids minds. They should Teach it in a more choicefull way.

  19. Anonymous7:31 pm

    I agree that there seems to be too much dairy. However, I seem to be the opposite of some people on here on other things. I struggle to get down 4-5 servings of veg per day - the idea of eating more than that just makes me want to gag. I feel gross if I eat too many veggies even though I try to eat as many as I can.

    I eat whole grains like quinoa and buckwheat and so forth. Wheat bran or whole wheat makes me nauseous all the time though I'm fine with the refined stuff. Go figure.

    I'm also confused with potatoes - I always considered them to be a starch - as in grains/cereals but some classify them as a vegetable. And where do things like string beans or peas fit in?

    "On meat, I'm probably in the 2 servings area, though I don't eat meat every day." Don't forget that it's meat and meat substitutes which include nuts and legumes. Seriously - just 4oz a day altogether? WTH?

    I really wonder sometimes that this one-size-fits-all approach is part of the problem and that different people have different nutritional needs.

  20. Oh, Yoni. If only you knew the way the Canada's Food Guide was being used to mislead already disordered individuals in eating disorder treatment. Maybe you already know.

    Apparently the best way to cure anorexia is to have the patient eat 7-11 servings of grains, only 5 of fruit and veg, and even less of meats, veg and fat. But wait! Inside a booklet I have, there's also a recommendation to include fat at every meal (canola oil is rec'd, surprise surprise.) Is it low fat or not? Who knows!

    Don't misunderstand -- in this case, anyone underweight SHOULD gain weight and broaden their food choices. No question. And the body does need a higher amount of calories to repair after severe starvation if that is the case. But I'm dismayed at the things I'm hearing dieticians tell patients. Have Fudgesicles and count it as a dairy?!?? wtf! And don't count almond milk as a dairy because it's... made from... almonds. Yeah. Never mind that it has calcium and there are indeed better sources than cows milk for that. Don't worry, any "allergies" you think you have are either temporary or just made up.

    I just don't understand the logic of questioning *anyone* for eating more fruits and veg in a day and fewer grains (The old carb debate. Duh, you can get carbs from fruits and veg!), yet I see it often in my work. Disordered framework aside, if someone is eating that much and becoming healthier, why tell them what they're doing is wrong?

    The food guide, when followed to a t as many dieticians (not just ones specializing in eating disorders) would suggest, is a guide to weight gain. The red tape that binds health care to the government gets tighter every day and it's difficult to watch. I was wondering if you might be able to blog about the possible pitfalls of advising people to follow the food guide when recovering from an eating disorder. I'd love to hear your take.

    1. Anonymous5:38 pm

      Many dietitians do not use the food guide in their practice. There's a lot of 'anti-dietitian' comments in this thread and I'm wondering why this is the case. If you've had experience working with a dietitian (on an ongoing basis) you would know your statement is untrue.

      Also - dietitians DEFINITELY do not tell their patients that fudgesicles count as a dairy... you are absolutely wrong with that one and it's obvious you have not worked with RD's. Maybe you are confusing dietitians with 'nutritionists' which are very different professions.

      As for your comment on canola oil - oils are not low in fat... they are low in TYPES of fats such as saturated fat. They have the exact same amount of fat as butter, margarine, etc. but the type differs. You say you're not surprised about using canola oil as an example - but if you used butter or any other fat, the argument would be that the dairy industry benefits. So what types of fats do you recommend being listed?

      Your comments about anorexia - anyone can tell you that using the food guide when dealing with 'curing' eating disorders is inappropriate so unsure what you meant by your statement as it does not make sense...

      Dr. Freedhoff - from one professional to another, I do hope you can shed some light on these comments.

  21. Anonymous2:37 pm

    I was told by a dietician that it would be unethical of her to discuss any other dietary approach to "healthy eating" than the Canada Food Guide. If this is the case, what are dieticians supposed to do?

  22. Anonymous1:45 pm

    Well, here it is the place of absolute truth, let me ask you one question sir; are you the end of all discussion on the matter of nutrition science? If you were to be the only one consulted for recommendations on healthy food choices, would it be without criticism? You seem to imply that the advisory commitee's only interest here is industry profit, this is the farthest thing from the truth and anyone who cares to take the time to investigate will find that this committee is also comprised of highly educated professionals. The CFG is not a wieght loss program,it is a guide for healthy eating patterns and is based on a 2000 cal/day diet (why is this point missing in this blog) so adjust accordingly. Mr Freedhoff maybe you should explain the science of nutrition and where it's leading. Evidence based research is telling us that in N.America, on a cellular level, we are in a state of malnutrition(micronutrient deficiency)in addition to macronutrient excess which results in metabolic syndrome(obesity,diabetes,hypertension etc), this all leads to low level chronic inflamation and oxidative stress which now being strongly associated to a number of disorders ranging from cancer to alzhiemers. By focusing our diet on nutrient dense foods outlined in the CFG we will meet our requirements for vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals(very important antioxidents)and also meet our energy requirements for daily activities(macronutrients). Dr Freedhoff I am currently a student at Mount Royal University in Calgary and I do respect the fact that you are a professional but I find that the education I'm receiving is consistant through a wide range of diciplines including anatomy, exercise physiology and nutrition. These points I'm making are based on evidense based scientific research and I feel that your blog should be more complimentry to this understanding rather than a position of critisism as this only serves to further confuse the public. The CFG might not be perfect but is an excellent guideline to confront the metabolic epidemic our society now faces and I will continue to vigorously defend this position untill science tells me otherwise, not to serve myself or any other special interest group, but to serve the common good and health of our society!!

    Brad H.

    1. Yoni,
      What does your food guide look like?

  23. Anonymous4:39 pm

    Yes, Canada's Food Guide is not perfect and is obviously subject to criticism. But what guide would be perfect? There is no 'one size fits all' here and I feel like that has been significantly missed throughout your posts.

    I do not agree with agri-business' influence over the guide but with that being said - it's a GUIDE, not the only thing to consult with regards to nutritional adequacy of a person's dietary habits. Along with the guide, comes education and balance with lifestyle. It obviously does not apply to everyone. Yes, if someone weighed 100lbs and ate according to the recommended servings, they MAY gain weight but that's not what the purpose of the guide is. It's not a weight gaining tool but something to provide GUIDANCE around nutritional adequacy. I'm a Registered Dietitian practicing in Ontario and only use Canada's Food Guide as one tool in my practice. It is not the center of my nutritional counselling and may only use it 20% of the time. I tend to use it more for those who lack education surrounding what a healthy choice is as it creates discussion. It provides general guidelines around this. Working with people on an individual basis and creating a plan that's individualized for them to achieve their goals is the most important thing.

    I think you are assuming the guide is aimed at all Canadians, which in fact it's not applicable for many different groups.

    Like Holly said, what does your food guide look like? Regardless of your recommendations, you could argue you are supporting various industries.

    I respect the fact you are a professional but you are not the only professional who has an opinion on this topic. If you were considered an 'advisor' to the development of the new guide - what aspects of your recommendations were adopted?

  24. I think I recall my granddaughter bringing home a kids version of the guide from school. This included the advice to eat less butter and more margarine. I guess your point #1 explains why.

  25. Anonymous4:54 pm

    Yoni: What should Canada's guide to healthy living look like?

  26. Anonymous4:57 pm

    12 servings of grains daily? What the hell. I eat only 2 servings of grains, 1 serving of meat/poultry and 3-4 servings of fruits and vegetables.

  27. Anonymous12:33 am

    I think you need to seriously update this article for the 2007 edition of the CFG. Most of your complaints about the rough draft were fixed for the 2007 edition and are no longer relevant. And as many people pointed out, the guide is meant to maintain an healthy lifestyle, it is not a weight loss plan (unlike your book, which I see is for sale at the side of this page. It makes me question the legitimacy of your claims, when there's money to be made off of scare tactics about the food guide).

    Also I'd like to point out that people do not realize how small a FG serving is. If you make wise food choices, it is easy to get the majority of the servings within your recommended caloric intake.