Got milk? Not so much. Health Canada’s new food guide drops ‘milk and alternatives’ and favours plant-based protein

By | January 25, 2019

Drink water. Go light on the animal products. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Fruit juice is liquid sugar, not fruit. Avoid processed foods. Limit booze.

Canada’s new food guide is being praised for its simplicity, for doing away with confusing, “idiotic and ridiculous” recommended portions and serving sizes and for promoting a plant-heavy eating plan that’s more in line with dietary guidance from other countries, where the smallest section in the grocery store is the dairy aisle.

Health Canada released its new food guide. Health Canada

But the guide is also being criticized for being too simple and fuzzy, for including “healthy eating” tips that sometimes border on the mildly patronizing, and for demoting dairy and beef — foods that, until now, enjoyed almost miracle food status in one of the country’s most venerable documents.

The new guide, the first rewrite in more than a decade, recommends Canadians choose proteins that come from plants— not animals — more often.

Health Canada’s 2007 food guide. Health Canada

Gone is the rainbow of the old four food groups, replaced by a single plate, half of it filled with fruits and vegetables, and a quarter each to whole grains and proteins. “Milk and alternatives” and “meat and alternatives” have lost their status as official, standalone food groups and have been lumped into the protein-rich category instead.

At a technical briefing in advance of Tuesday’s release of the updated food rules, Dr. Hasan Hutchinson was asked why anything dairy appeared to be largely absent from the composite plate and snapshots of “healthy eating.”

“Certainly in the picture of the composite plate you’ve got, ah, yogurt — that’s right there in the protein group,” Hutchinson, director general of Health Canada’s office of nutrition policy and promotion, told reporters. And, while it may have been hard to see, there was milk in a bowl of porridge and berries.

Hasan said the long-awaited rewrite is based on a rigorous scientific review using the best available evidence, and that industry-commissioned reports were intentionally excluded to reduce any perception of conflict of interest — real or perceived — and to maintain “the confidence of Canadians.”

Among the changes:

The previous four food groups — vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and meat — are history. Instead, food is now separated into three groupings: vegetables and fruits, whole grains (such as whole grain pasta, brown rice and quinoa) and protein foods (lentils, lean red meat, fish, poultry, unsweetened milk and fortified soy beverages, nuts, seeds, tofu, lower fat dairy and cheeses lower in fat and sodium).

It’s really about nutrition and quality of life, much more so than providing a pamphlet for Canadian agriculture

Also gone are recommendations for specific portions or daily servings. No one wanted the old measures, said Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor in the department of family medicine at the University of Ottawa.

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“Nobody weighed and measured their foods. Nobody really followed it, nobody knew what a serving size was. They were ridiculous and idiotic,” said Freedhoff, a bariatric medicine specialist. “But they provided the food industry with something really powerful to market — especially the dairy industry, which talked about how many servings of dairy you needed to have per day, and how Canadians were doing a poor job with that.”

The new guide instead focuses on proportions, with an emphasis on a high proportion of plant-based foods. It also recommends replacing foods that contain mostly saturated fat (cream, high fat cheese, butter and the like) with foods that contain mostly unsaturated fats, like nuts, seeds and avocados. A diet higher in vegetables and fruits is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, eating more nuts or soy protein can help improve blood fat levels, and processed meat has been linked to higher risks of colorectal cancer, Health Canada says.

While some have accused Health Canada of pushing an environmentalist agenda, the agency says the food guide’s primary focus is health, though it does acknowledge eating more plant and fewer animal-based foods can “help to conserve soil, water and air.”

In fact, water should be our “beverage of choice,” the guide says. It’s essential for digestion and keeps us hydrated without adding empty calories with “little to no nutritive value.” Water can include water from fruit, vegetables and soups. But the guide recommends moving away from fruit juices and other sugary drinks (100 per cent fruit juice has been unceremoniously struck from the “fruits and vegetable” grouping to the delight of many nutritionists). And, it warns of the health risks of drinking excess amounts of alcohol, including certain cancers, hypertension and liver disease. Booze can also be a significant source of free sugars and saturated fat when mixed with syrups, sugary drinks or cream-based liquors.

Canadians are also being advised to limit our consumption of highly processed foods and to prepare meals and snacks using ingredients that have little to no added sodium, sugar or saturated fats. It offers lifestyle advice: Cook more often. Eat meals with others. Take time to eat. Notice when you are hungry and when you are full. Be aware of food marketing.

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The Dairy Farmers of Canada maintains that there is “no scientific justification to minimize the role of milk products” in the Canadian diet, and warns that lumping milk products together with other protein foods will lead to “inadequate intakes of important nutrients.” The industry had warned that any drastic change to the guide would harm a sector already reeling from concessions granted in recent trade agreements.

However, scientists such as Dr. Walter Willett, a Harvard nutrition expert (who comes from a long line of dairy farmers) has argued humans have no nutritional requirement for animal milk whatsoever. Last week, a team of international scientists said a plant-leaning “planetary diet” — one drastically low in red meat and high in legumes (beans and lentils) — could save millions of lives and the planet.

Hutchinson, of Health Canada, said the agency still recommends lower-fat dairy as part of a nutritious diet, and that the intention is not to reduce total fat in the diet, but saturated fat.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, sees trouble for the dairy sector ahead, “since you are now seeing a federal agency discouraging consumers from drinking more milk or eating dairy products.”

“We have a very protectionist system in Canada and domestically we have a federal agency that doesn’t necessarily endorse the nutritional role of dairy products as much as they used to,” he said.

Even if we had the advantage of another century of research, we’re probably going to be recommending the same thing

He called the revamped guide an “historic” and positive change. “It’s really about nutrition and quality of life, much more so than providing a pamphlet for Canadian agriculture.”

Freedhoff, of the U of O, said the new food guide can be adapted to multiple different approaches to eating (except perhaps the carnivore diet) and no longer gives a “wishy-washy” pass to refined grains, “the grains that tend to populate the ultra-processed foods in the world.” The old guide said people should make at least half their grains whole, which suggested they could also make half their grains refined.

He and others were surprised the dairy lobby failed to win the day in the food debate, though the jig for dairy is hardly up. “The food guide doesn’t recommend you shouldn’t eat dairy, but it also doesn’t suggest dairy is a magical food, in and of itself,” Freedhoff said. In previous iterations, “every single Canadian was told to drink two glasses of milk each and every day — that was a coup for dairy.”

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Charlebois, of Dalhousie University, said the food guide was a severe point of tension between Agriculture Canada and Health Canada. “It appears this time Health Canada won. It’s not supply driven — it’s very much about food demand. The paradigm shift is clear to me, which is actually quite refreshing.”

“You go to any grocery store in Europe, the dairy section is very small — you can barely find milk.”

The fact alcohol is included is further evidence the latest guide “is more free of industry influence than any other before it,” said David Hammond, a professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo.

Hammond said the food guide is a bit more holistic, a bit more inclusive and extends a “more explicit nod” to the growing numbers of Canadians going vegetarian or vegan.

“Even if we had the advantage of another century of research,” he said, “we’re probably going to be recommending the same thing, which is that we should eat more fruits and vegetables, limit processed foods and don’t drink too much sugar.”

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