Many countries around the world—from the U.S. and Mexico to Cambodia and Fiji—issue food guides in the form of simple graphics to help people improve their eating habits for better health. Invariably, these accompany a more comprehensive set of dietary guidelines based on the latest research findings. Earlier this year, Health Canada released a major update of its food guide, the first since 2007. It depicts a plate, half filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables (from berries to broccoli); one-quarter filled with whole grains (such as whole-grain bread and quinoa); and another quarter filled with protein foods (including meat, eggs, and legumes).
All this looks similar to the MyPlate food guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which replaced the MyPyramid (remember that?) in 2011 and depicts a plate with these same general food groups—but with one notable difference: Rather than showing a circle off to the side for “Dairy” as MyPlate does, representing a glass of milk or cup of yogurt to complete the place setting, the Canadian food guide shows a circle that’s labeled “Make water your drink of choice.” That is, Canada has done away with the dairy category altogether (instead including dairy as just one of many sources of “healthy protein foods”) in favor of reminding people that water is the best beverage overall. Its previous guide advised two to four servings of milk (or milk alternatives) a day, depending on one’s age.
Advocates of vegetarian diets, including many nutrition experts, environmentalists, and animal-rights advocates, applauded Canada’s move away from designating dairy as a separate food group (as well as the reduced emphasis on meat in the new guide). Dairy can be a healthful component of one’s diet, providing protein, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and other important nutrients that help maintain bone strength and lower blood pressure. And it is a part of the evidence-based DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. But dairy is not essential, since these nutrients can be obtained elsewhere.
For instance, dark leafy greens, almonds, canned salmon (with the bones), and most tofu are all sources of calcium, and there are many calcium-fortified foods as well. And many people avoid dairy due to lactose intolerance or out of humane concerns or other reasons without compromising their health. Moreover, like the production of meat, the production of dairy foods leaves a bigger carbon footprint than that of plant foods—a point the Canadian guide notes: “Diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact.”
Milk still on the plate in the U.S.
So why does the USDA’s MyPlate, which is based on recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, continue to accentuate dairy foods as “one of the building blocks of a healthy diet”? Though the Dietary Guidelines are supposed to be based on current scientific evidence, the dairy industry, food companies, and other special interest groups exert powerful influence on what gets included in them—and their objectives are often at odds with those of nutrition experts and other health authorities. (The same is true of the meat industry, which is why meat also figures prominently in MyPlate.)
Consider, too, that unlike Health Canada, whose sole mission is to improve the health of Canadians, the mission of the USDA is not only to safeguard the health of Americans but also to promote agriculture production (including meat and dairy foods)—which is a conflict of interest.
When the USDA last updated its Dietary Guidelines in 2015, the International Dairy Foods Association was quick to report that the guidelines affirm “the unrivaled contribution made by dairy foods” and remind Americans “that they will continue to benefit from three daily servings of low-fat and fat-free dairy.” Canadian dairy farmers were opposed to the dropping of dairy in their country’s food guide, but they apparently lost the fight. In the U.S., the dairy industry won. It will be interesting to see what happens in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which are currently being developed.
Why else go Canadian?
Other things we like about Canada’s food guide that either differ from those in the U.S. or are at least featured more prominently: It advocates choosing plant-based protein foods (such as nuts, tofu, and beans) more often; being mindful of your eating habits (take time to eat, notice your hunger cues); cooking more often (to have more control over what you eat and save money); limiting processed foods (such as fast foods, processed meats, and frozen entrées); being aware of food marketing (in particular for kids); using food labels (to make informed choices); and enjoying your food (keeping in mind one’s culture and food traditions).
We look at some salient features from the food guides of the Bahamas, Benin, Fiji, Japan, and Qatar—plus some idiosyncratic advice from Germany, Cyprus, and several other countries.
The Canadian guide also recommends sharing meals with friends, family, neighbors, and work colleagues as a way to connect with others (especially important for many seniors).
To get more information about Canada’s food guide, plus recipes and useful tips about meal planning, healthy eating on a budget, and more, go to food-guide.canada.ca. The USDA’s MyPlate can be found at ChooseMyPlate.gov.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
Also see 14 Keys to a Healthy Diet.
Published September 05, 2019