Canada’s Food Guide: Cultivating change

Diets, the environment, and health are a tightly linked trilemma. The food production system is rife with problems, as other posts here have noted. The current condition of the global food system has serious implications for future agricultural production, inflicts wide-ranging detrimental impacts on ecosystems, and is failing to adequately nourish the global population.

At the same time, we live in an era of problematic nutrition transition into unhealthy and unsustainable dietary practices (i.e. increased ultra-processed, pre-made, sweetened, and animal-based food intake). To address the manifold environmental, social, and health challenges both caused by and affecting food systems, we need to understand the connections between what we eat and the world around us. Dietary change has been put forth as one of the key solutions to address issues related to environmental impacts and lack of public health. Yet, the global challenge of sustainable and healthy diets needs to be tackled from the bottom up through individual choice to move away from the nutrition transition and towards a radical (i.e. from the roots) new sustainability transition. Starting with individual choices, improvements can be led by national health and governance through dietary guidelines.

Food guides around the world are starting to include sustainability considerations aligning the health of people and the planet when recommending diets. Canada has recently updated the Dietary Guidelines for Canadians and has joined other countries explicitly including sustainability in dietary guidance. This is a very important step forward, especially considering that food guides which do not address sustainability do not go far enough in considering the externalities of dietary choices. As an example, if the population of each country were to eat according to the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines, we would dramatically exceed the planet’s current capacity to sustain life and require an extra gigahectare (the size of Canada) of additional viable farmland to feed the current population.

Dietary recommendations can promote “healthy diets from sustainable food systems” and can foster policy and institutional change.

This increased demand for agricultural land will be likely associated with enormous social and environmental trade-offs due to the expansion and intensification of production systems. Reducing agricultural crop demand through sustainable diets that also offer health benefits could reduce land clearing, water use, and associated species extinctions while lowering global greenhouse gas emissions and excess nitrogen pollution.

Developing and disseminating dietary guidelines is a key mechanism for federal governments to advocate a shift in consumption behavior and to support sustainable, healthy diets. The resonating consensus of the global EAT-Lancet Commission asserts that “dietary guidelines that integrate health and environmental sustainability considerations could be one tool for nutrition education.” The Commission asserts that dietary recommendations can promote “healthy diets from sustainable food systems” and can foster policy and institutional change. Yet, more critical research is needed on the environmental and sociocultural impacts and economic trade-offs of future ‘sustainable’ diet shifts such as those outlined in the EAT-Lancet report (see other posts here).

Food guidance is a hot topic in Canada, especially since Health Canada released the new Canadian Dietary Guidelines in January 2019, an updated version of the 2007 Canada’s Food Guide. There is broad use of the food guide in Canada, including Provincial and Territorial school boards, educational programming, and public health initiatives. Nutrition monitoring and evaluation studies and tools of public health practitioners have utilized the Canada’s Food Guide to assess dietary quality as measures of health and wellness. Citizens and consumers also use the national guidelines in Canada through the myriad demographic, socioeconomic, and education factors that come into play in awareness and use of the food guide.

Canada’s 2019 food guide (1).

In a novel development for Canada, the 2019 Canadian Dietary Guidelines showed their recognition of the connections between diets and the environment beyond their primary directive of guiding the health of Canadians: “While health is the primary focus of Canada’s Dietary Guidelines, there are potential environmental benefits to improving current patterns of eating as outlined in the new guidelines. For example, there is evidence supporting a lesser environmental impact of majority plant-based diets.” Further, the new guidelines have de-emphasized animal proteins and dairy products in favor of plant-based proteins. The overhaul of the 2007 version of the guidelines has been lauded as “better for the planet” and acknowledging the challenges indigenous and Northern populations when it comes to food security.

Canada’s new food guide, which has integrated sustainability or environmental messaging for the first time, is in-line with other countries who have developed national food guidelines in recent years. The newest, 2015 Brazilian food guide emphasizes fresh foods in their sustainable dietary guidance, recommending citizens “always prefer natural or minimally processed foods and freshly made dishes and meals to ultra-processed foods.” Brazil’s guide categorizes processed foods as less healthy and sustainable. Brazil, in a novel manner, does not recommend food groups or servings, but focuses on the social context of eating and how environmentally-friendly and healthy minimally- to un-processed foods are, while recommending diets relevant to traditional Brazilian culture.

Specific connections to environmental sustainability are highlighted in the German food guide from 2013 (e.g. when recommending an active lifestyle the guidelines say “to reduce unnecessary packaging waste” use ingredients that are fresh, and eat a diverse range of foods for “health promo[tion] and [to] foster a sustainable diet”). Notably, one of the main guidelines in the 2015 Qatar food guide is to “eat healthy while protecting the environment.” The most recent, 2015 version, of the Swedish food guide starts on page one by stating that “what you eat isn’t just important to your own personal well-being; it’s important to the environment as well.”

2015 Qatar food guide dietary recommendations to protect the environment (2).

These food guides with explicit sustainability messaging have consistent key recommendations. This congruent guidance, found in Canada’s new food guide as well, may indicate that there is some consensus on what a sustainable diet might include and how to recommend sustainable diets in food guides.

Diet change is part of a suite of solutions for moving toward a sustainable future; prominent research often reiterates the same messages found in the most recent Canadian food guide and the handful of others noted above. This new framing of Canada’s Food Guide presents a transformative alternative to the ‘business as usual’ recommendations for dietary practices. How can we make meaningful, macro-level change in consumption habits? Through a confluence of strategies that starts with including sustainability in recommendations, policies, and education. System-wide changes start with systemic thinking that recognizes and integrates the connections among agents and their actions.

Swedish food guide summary recommendations with explicit environmental sustainability statement (3).

Yet, the shift to more plant-based diets has received criticism in the media and from proponents of sustainable food systems. Recommendations of diets with more plant-based proteins have been criticized for their social and environmental trade-offs, some by other posts here (i.e. the inability to grow enough nuts to meet future global protein needs by shifting production patterns) and in the media as well. Recent media attention of the new Dietary Guidelines of Canada has indicated that the recommendations might be hardest to follow by poor, food insecure Canadians who may also lack food literacy and access to the more-expensive, less-processed foods recommended. So, in essence, following the recommendations of the new guide might be a “privilege of wealth,” with the guide not connecting the environmentally sustainable recommendations with current social issues.

There is potential for food guides to support policy symmetry to deliver systemic ‘win-wins.’ As healthcare costs burgeon internationally, national and local governments should support more sustainable food guidelines to reduce the costs of populations not following healthy diets. For example, the current population of Canada not following the 2007 national food guide has been estimated to cost CAD$13.8 billion per year, with CAD$5.1 billion in direct health care costs and CAD$8.7 billion indirectly. Further, in order to overcome resource scarcities from environmental damage that threatens status quo business models globally, food business and industry should support sustainable food guidance. Eaters should espouse sustainable guidelines for the convenient information these guidelines provide in combating pervasive product advertising and unfounded adherence to food fads.

We need to start being fulfilled in improving our lives and feeling satisfied with making sustainable choices instead of feeling relegated to making sacrifices.

Food guides need to be a part of moving toward larger, systemic changes. With food guides aligned in a suite of solutions, they might be able to facilitate thinking beyond guidelines to develop a country or global ethos that moves past the technical fixes which adroitly allow constant, continuous consumption. Not through food guides alone, but in concert with other means (e.g. shifts in food production, policy, manufacturing, transportation, etc.), humanity might start to see the opportunities we have to create ways of living that are better for both the environment and enjoyable for us. In other words, we need to start being fulfilled in improving our lives and feeling satisfied with making sustainable choices instead of feeling relegated to making sacrifices (e.g. eating less meat, buying more expensive local or organic food).

There are limitations of food guides to address these complex issues of what a sustainable diet might be, yet food guides have started conversations in our current Canadian context and worldwide. Canada’s new food guide has, if nothing else, started to reframe the question of “what should I eat to be healthy?” to “what could I eat for the environment?” and also “what can the environment sustainably produce for us all to be healthy?”

Canada has started down a path guiding their population to see a diversity of ways of eating. A path that shows how one can enjoy the flavors of a complex lifestyle simultaneously making decisions for their own benefit and the benefit of the environment around them. We are updating and connecting our worldviews to ignite the larger systemic revolution needed for sustainable and healthy individuals, populations, and the planet.

With thanks for edits and comments from Chelsea Gowton, Julie Fortin, and Christian Levers. Thanks to the LUGE Lab for inviting me to write this piece.

References

1. Health Canada. Canada’s Dietary Guidelines, 2019 January.
2. Supreme Council of Health. Qatar Dietary Guidelines 2015.
3. Swedish National Food Agency. Find your way to eat greener, not too much and be active 2015.

Further reading

· Global nutrition transition and the pandemic of obesity in developing countries
· Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers
· Re-fashioning food systems with sustainable diet guidelines: towards a SDG2 strategy
· The economic burden of not meeting food recommendations in Canada: The cost of doing nothing