Canada’s Food Guide Promotes Obesity — We Need Change Now

 Professor Mary L’Abbé and retro food adPhoto by Jackyln Atlas.

Op-Ed by Professor Mary L’Abbé


Canada’s Food Guide needs a facelift. The blueprint that informs our relationship with food fails to help people make the healthiest choices. In the midst of an obesity crisis that threatens our health and our health care system, this document is obesogenic. We need to do better.

The Food Guide emphasizes all the wrong things — namely, meeting our daily dietary requirements for vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. But getting enough nutrients is not Canada’s most important nutritional problem — eating too much food is the real issue. 

Last updated in 2007, the guide still focuses on how many servings of different types of foods are needed to meet our vitamin and mineral needs. This forces Canadians to think in terms of numbers of required servings of various food groups but not about the balance and quality of what they eat. For example, you would need a whopping 10 “servings” of cheddar cheese, more than 500 calories’ worth, to get all of your daily calcium. Nobody would recommend you eat that much cheese in one day, so why are we breaking it down in this way? 

Getting the Food Guide right matters a lot. This is the blueprint for the meals that are served in school lunches, nursing homes and other places. It’s the second most used government publication after the Income Tax Guide. Updating it would be a golden opportunity to educate Canadians, not just on how much to eat, but also on how to eat healthier. Right now, the space for this advice within the document is only about a quarter of the space devoted to the number of servings we should eat. 

There’s a much better way, supported by research in countries like the US, Australia and the UK. It’s about shifting the focus to whole dietary patterns and, importantly, teaching Canadians how to interpret nutritional knowledge and messages so they can eat better. We have to make the healthy choice an easy choice for Canadian consumers.

Beyond overhauling the Food Guide, we need coordinated federal-, provincial- and municipal-level policy changes to turn the tide in our fight against chronic diseases and obesity caused by poor diets.

Take, for example, nutrition labelling on supermarket products. Statistics show that Canadians are familiar with the nutrition labels, and the majority of people say they consult them when making purchasing decisions. Most of us would be able to identify a healthier choice between two similar products based on the Nutrition Facts tables on the back of packages. But are most of us really doing it? 

I doubt it. The Nutrition Facts table is complex, and we make purchasing decisions in seconds. It’s absurd to think shoppers are adding up all the per cent daily values of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, and tracking their daily intake of calories, sugars and sodium. The nutritional information on our labels is excellent, but useless if people aren’t using it. We need to help people understand this information at a glance — and quickly and easily understand a product’s nutritional value in the context of their whole diet. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do it: Australia and the UK already have rating systems for quickly interpreting the nutritional quality of food in stores, using simple star ratings and traffic lights that show red for the worst choice, green for the best and so on. These simple innovations make the healthy choice very clear, and they’re already showing a vast improvement in the foods people buy. Unfortunately, the Canadian government has not yet shown even a willingness to try something similar. 

However, we’re seeing some bright spots. The Eat Well Plate, a Health Canada tool, helps consumers visualize food proportions so they easily understand what a meal balanced in vegetables, grains and proteins looks like. Health Canada’s new My Food Guide mobile application is another example of a practical and easy-to-use tool that makes nutrition information more accessible to Canadians. 

This June, the Government of Canada proposed changes to nutrition labelling regulations to promote healthier food choices. Most of the proposed changes are excellent, and, in many cases, are long overdue. Calories would be displayed more prominently, and sugars would be listed as a percentage of the recommended daily limits (although some argue these are too high). Serving sizes would be standardized, so that the same size yogurt would show the same suggested serving size — making it easier for consumers to compare calories between two products, and harder for manufacturers to hide the extra calories with smaller serving sizes. 

Unfortunately, this proposal doesn’t go far enough: we still won’t see the total number of servings per container — a requirement in the US since 1993. With almost a third of Canadian kids now overweight or obese, we need to do much better than simply catching up with the 1990s. We also lag years behind in the area of regulating nutrition labelling on menu items in restaurants. Laudably, the Ontario government has announced plans to introduce menu labelling legislation in the province, but the rest of the country remains a black hole in this area — despite evidence that menu labelling has worked in the US.

There is no doubt that we have a long way to go in terms of updating our country’s Food Guide and food policy in general, at all levels of government, to make the healthy choice an easy choice for Canadians. Everyone in our society needs to shift their thinking about this paradigm as soon as possible. For our part, as academics, we will continue to study and further improve the science behind how we understand the food supply and how we should be eating. Increasingly, though, academics such as myself are recognizing the need to use our research results to actively advocate for change. 

Professor L’Abbé is Chair of the Department of Nutritional Sciences.