With all that’s happening in Canada right now — the rise of populist politics; a heated diplomatic war with China; an energy crisis that’s shaking the national economy — it may seem surprising that a simple document outlining healthy eating habits would grab so many headlines. But then again, Canada’s Food Guide has always been about much more than what’s for dinner tonight.
Official Food Rules
“Canada’s Official Food Rules” were introduced in 1942 as an effort to ensure the health of Canadians during wartime rationing…and to ensure a steady supply of fattened-up soldiers-in-waiting should there be a need for more arms on the battlefront (spoiler alert: there was). Revisions made throughout the 1940s toned down the authoritarian language, and over the following decades Canada’s Food Guide as we know it began to take shape.
The increased influence from food industry lobbyists became obvious with every revision. In 1961, Canada’s Food Guide recommended one serving of meat per day; by 1992 that recommendation had tripled. The media wasn’t blind to this manipulation. In a 1993 episode of Marketplace, CBC reporter Bill Paul suggested that “the four food groups should be renamed the four lobby groups”. A joke, yes, but one that speaks to the lack of faith and general apathy many have towards this pamphlet.
What would Bill Paul say about this latest revision, the one that’s causing vegans across the country to rejoice? Gone is the emphasis on meat, dairy and eggs, replaced by the more accurate recommendation to simply eat protein-rich foods. Plant proteins like beans, soy, as well as nuts and seeds are now getting the love they deserve. Has the voice of one lobbyist group replaced another? Perhaps. But if that means a shift towards a healthier society that respects the lives of animals and considers the environmental impact of our food choices, so be it.
Food — a reflection of values
The foods we choose to eat reflect all sorts of influences, from cultural and religious views, to environmental realities. I’m careful when counselling clients on their diets because of my respect for these influences. I don’t offer rigid meal plans based off of my preferences, and I don’t chastise those who still think milk does the body good despite the mounting evidence that indicates otherwise.
What I provide for those who ask is a general framework, one that allows for individual choice while maximizing health. Given how fraught the debate is over Canada’s Food Guide, now’s the perfect time to share this system.
(Sharp readers will notice that my “system” isn’t unique at all. In fact, it shares a lot of similarities with the updated food guide. That’s because nutrition isn’t complicated. Everyone pretty much has the same needs. Athletes need more protein than the sedentary, and some people perform better with a greater emphasis on fats over carbs. But aside from that we’re generally all the same.)
Vegetables first, vegetables always
At every meal pile the vegetables on your plate first. Choose a wide range of colourful veggies, emphasizing dark leafy greens like collards and spinach. Toss a handful of greens in your breakfast smoothies. Snack on baby carrots and cherry tomatoes. Eat all the vegetables!
Fiber is your friend
This one’s a corollary to the previous recommendation; if you focus on vegetables first your fiber needs will be taken care of. What’s so special about fiber? Aside from keeping you feeling full longer (good-bye body fat!), fiber helps to control blood sugar levels (good-bye type 2 diabetes!) by slowing the absorption of glucose into the body. Fiber also lowers cholesterol levels in the blood (good-bye heart disease!) and keeps your gastrointestinal tract clean and healthy (good-bye colon cancer!). Aim for 30-45 grams per day from whole foods.
Respect — but don’t worship — protein
North Americans are obsessed with protein. It’s an important nutrient, especially if you lift weights, but most people can meet their needs without supplementation. After you’ve loaded up your plate with veggies, add a palm-sized portion of whatever protein source you prefer. I recommend plant sources such as tofu, tempeh, lentils, and beans, but the choice is yours.
Don’t fear fruit
Somewhere, somehow, someone managed to spread the bald-faced lie that fruit is bad for your health. It’s not. Yes, fruit contains fructose, and fructose is a form of sugar, but so what. No one has ever developed diabetes because of a fondness for fruit. I eat fruit before the gym for a quick energy fix and after meals to satisfy my sweet tooth. You should too.
Water, water everywhere
I’m slowly becoming convinced that water is the magic health bullet we’re all so desperately seeking. Water makes up anywhere from 45-60% of our body mass (depending on age, amount of muscle mass and gender). It’s responsible for our most vital functions. Even mild dehydration can reduce energy levels and impair mental cognition. Drink between 2.5-4 litres per day for optimal performance.
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