Update to Canada’s Food Guide 2017

Jul 15, 2017 · 7 min read

Disclosure: I am not a doctor or a dietitian. This blog post is intended only to point out what’s new in the Canada Food Guide, and should not be considered as advice for your personal diet.

The Government of Canada is currently running a national food guide consultation which is near completion. After reviewing ten years of evidence collected from 2006 to 2015, they recently released their new recommendations. So, what has changed? (For a short summary of changes, skip to the bottom.)

The previous version of Canada’s Food Guide is divided up into four different food groups, and each of these food groups recommends a specific number of servings for different demographic groups. The updated version of the food guide no longer divides foods into these familiar groups.

  1. Vegetables and Fruit
  2. Grain Products
  3. Milk and Alternatives
  4. Meat and Alternatives

Instead, the new guide defines some guiding principles of healthy eating, along with some specific recommendations.

Guiding Principle 1: A variety of nutritious foods and beverages are the foundation for healthy eating.

Status: mostly unchanged

This isn’t a big change from the current advice which suggests that Canadians “enjoy a variety of foods from the four food groups”. The principle continues to place an emphasis on variety, while at the same time acknowledging that rigidly defined food groups are neither necessary nor adequate for all people.

The recommendations in this section are primarily designed to support preventative healthcare and disease prevention through diet. The main focus is on reduction of cardiovascular risk (and associated LDL cholesterol) and colorectal cancer.

Regular intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and protein-rich foods, especially plant-based sources of protein.

Status: new emphasis on plant-based protein

The previous food guide did not specifically mention the word “protein”, but that was implied in the recommendation of 2–3 servings of meat and alternatives per day. The new wording “especially plant-baesd sources of protein” clarifies the older recommendation which encouraged us to “have meat alternatives often”.

There’s a new emphasis on whole grains, compared to the previous guide which only recommended that “at least half” of your daily servings should be whole grain. Refined grains are no longer implicitly condoned.

Inclusion of foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat, instead of foods that contain mostly saturated fat.

Status: new recommendation to limit saturated fat

The previous food guide only mentioned specific fats in a footnote saying “choose foods lower in trans and saturated fats”, and now the new recommendation doesn’t even mention trans fats at all. Why? Perhaps because trans fats are often found in foods that are also high in saturated fat, so reducing saturated fat also means reducing trans fats. The goal is to consume more healthy fats and crowd out unhealthy fats.

Not sure how to tell the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats? I’ll quote the explanation from ChooseMyPlate.gov.

Solid fats are fats that are solid at room temperature, like beef fat, butter, and shortening. Solid fats mainly come from animal foods and can also be made from vegetable oils through a process called hydrogenation. Solid fats contain more saturated fats and/or trans fats than oils. [Source]

This is a recommendation to primarily choose foods that are not derived from animals or animal products. Even dairy milk (from cows) is high in saturated fat, with more than half of the fat content being saturated. There are also two plant-based foods, that contain a high concentration of saturated fat: coconut oil and palm oil. Therefore this recommendation does not encourage consumption of coconut or palm oils. It can be interpreted as “limit consumption of coconut oil, butter, palm oil, and other animal fats including dairy.”

Regular intake of water

Status: no change

For comparison, this is what is written in the previous food guide.

Drink water regularly. It’s a calorie-free way to quench your thirst. Drink more water in hot weather or when you are very active.

Guiding Principle 2: Processed or prepared foods and beverages high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat undermine healthy eating.

Status: same as before, but with more emphasis

This advice is consistent with the previous food guide, but the way it is presented has been changed. In the previous guide, recommendations about fat, sodium, and sugar were presented as small notes in each category. Now, with the elimination of food groups, the advice has been combined into a major guiding principle.

Limited intake of processed or prepared foods high in sodium, sugars or saturated fat.

Status: same as before, except the word “salt” has been removed

This combined recommendation replaces several separate recommendations from the previous guide. For example, it suggested eating vegetables with no added fat, sugar, or salt and choosing grain products lower in fat, sugar, and salt.

One surprising change is that the word “salt” has been omitted entirely, and is now referred to only as “sodium”. Table salt only represents about one quarter of sodium intake, so perhaps the intent is to direct focus onto high-sodium foods like cheese and chicken (injected with saline solution) rather than on table salt.

The underlying evidence for this recommendation is a connection between processed meats and increased risk of colorectal cancer.

Avoidance of processed or prepared beverages high in sugars.

Status: new recommendation

This is the most striking change. Sugary beverages barely registered as a footnote in the previous food guide. Here’s a quote, emphasis added.

Limiting foods and beverages high in calories, fat, sugar or salt (sodium) such as cakes and pastries, chocolate and candies, cookies and granola bars, doughnuts and muffins, ice cream and frozen desserts, french fries, potato chips, nachos and other salty snacks, alcohol, fruit flavoured drinks, soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, and sweetened hot or cold drinks.

The new emphasis comes in the wake of proposed legislation to put a tax on sugary drinks, a senate recommendation to ban food and drink ads for children, and the World Health Organization recommending a high tax on sugary drinks.

The evidence presented in support of this guiding principle shows that prepared beverages high in sugar are linked to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and dental caries (cavities).

By elevating this message to a full recommendation, and by focusing specifically on beverages, Canada’s new food guide is clearly recommending that we stop consuming pop (or soda) and energy drinks.

Knowledge and skills are needed to navigate the complex food environment and support healthy eating.

Status: new wording, but not a significant change

This may be the most surprising change in the new Food Guide. The previous guide didn’t mention anything about knowledge or skills, or the complex food environment. Certainly it’s true that our food environment has become more complex since the previous guide was imagined. Compared to the first two principles, this one is much less precise, and puts more emphasis on our culture of eating as opposed to what we eat. This principle supports the first two principles.

Selecting nutritious foods when shopping or eating out.

Status: mostly unchanged

The previous guide only makes one comment about eating out:

Request nutrition information about menu items when eating out to help you make healthier choices.

Perhaps the updated recommendation reflects an increased emphasis on helping people make healthy choices while eating out.

Planning and preparing healthy meals and snacks.

Status: new focus on preparing food (ie. at home)

The key word here is “preparing”. We already saw that Guiding Principle #2 discourages the consumption of processed and packaged foods. This recommendation is a result of observations that Canadians are spending less time preparing food at home while spending more money purchasing take-out and ready-to-eat foods.

Benefit from eating vegetables and fruit at all meals and as snacks.

This short sentence was the only reference to “snacks” in the previous guide, so perhaps snacking now has an elevated place in our diet, as long as we’re focusing on healthy snacks prepared at home rather than purchased on-the-go.

Sharing meals with family and friends whenever possible.

Status: mostly unchanged

Very similar wording can be found in the previous guide.

Enjoy eating with family and friends!

Conspicuous in their absence

There are a few things that were present in the old food guide which do not make an appearance in the new summary of guiding principles.

  • Dark green and orange vegetables are no longer emphasized.
  • The recommendation to drink milk each day is totally absent.
  • Cooking methods (steam, bake, stir-fry) are no longer mentioned.
  • The recommendation for 2 servings of fish per week was removed.
  • No mention of activity or exercise.
  • “Take time to eat and savour every bite” didn’t make the cut.

Summary Of Changes

  • New emphasis on plant-based protein
  • New recommendation to limit saturated fat
  • Increased emphasis on avoidance of processed and prepared foods high in sodium, fat, and sugar.
  • New emphasis on preparing food at home.
  • Removed recommendation for 2 servings of dairy per day
  • Removed recommendation for 2 servings of fish per week

Nic Waller

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