While scientists have yet to uncover the perfect, one-size-fits-all diet, Health Canada has worked hard to develop the Food Guide, a set of dietary guidelines intended to work for most Canadians. First developed in the 1940s and very recently revised by Health Canada, the new Food Guide offers updated insights into how to make healthy eating choices and which types of foods should make up your diet.
So, what’s out and what’s in? Taking into account the advances in nutritional research over the past decade, the guide’s previous focus on food groups and portion sizes have been replaced with a strong emphasis on:
- getting more protein from veggies and plants
- choosing foods that have little to no added sodium, sugars or saturated fats
- avoiding highly processed foods
- cooking more often and eating with others
- being mindful of your eating habits.
Looking to keep your healthy New Year’s resolutions and get on board with the new Food Guide? You can start with these seven tips:
1. Incorporate whole-grain foods
It’s no secret that whole grains are healthy and Canada’s new Food Guide states that eating foods higher in fibre can help reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colon cancer. “[Whole grains are] a great source of fibre, which is severely lacking in most Canadian diets,” says Kristen Yarker, a registered dietitian based in Victoria. “I recommend aiming to get as close to 100% of your grains from whole grains, and to use refined grains, like white bread, more as a treat.” Look for breads and pastas labelled “whole grain whole wheat,” and include other whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, amaranth and millet in your diet.
2. Choose whole fruits over juice
Whereas the old guide allowed up to one cup of juice per day for adults, its updated version no longer treats whole fruit and juice as equivalent. “If you squeezed one orange, how much juice would you get? Not very much,” says Yarker. “If you drink a glass of juice, that might be six oranges’ worth. We probably wouldn’t sit down to eat six oranges.” Juice not only packs in more calories per serving than fruit, but it’s higher in sugar and lower in fibre, so those natural sugars hit your bloodstream faster. Stay healthier by treating juice like a treat, and turn to whole or cut-up fruits in your day-to-day diet.
As for beverage selection, the new guide suggests making water your drink of choice, stating that it’s a great way to stay hydrated without consuming extra calories. However, if you’re in the mood for something other than water to quench your thirst, Health Canada recommends reaching for a glass or cup of plant-based milk like almond or soy, low-fat dairy milk or unsweetened tea and coffee.
3. Lean in to plant-based eating
Have you gotten on the plant-based eating trend? The new Food Guide is all for it as it encourages Canadians to start incorporating more nuts, seeds and pulses — lentils, beans and peas — in their diet to help reduce their risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Not only are they environmentally friendly, but pulses in particular are also great for you. “[Pulses are] real rockstars on fibre, they have protein, and their carbohydrates have a low glycemic index, so they’re absorbed slowly and they’re easy on the system,” says Yarker. “They’re fantastic choices.” Whip up a batch of veggie burgers using lentils, mushrooms, whole-grain breadcrumbs and salsa, or add a serving of black beans and brown rice to your favourite leafy green salad.
4. Focus on veggies over fruits
Canada’s Food Guide previously grouped fruits and veggies together. After all, they do share some nutritional similarities, like dietary fibre and antioxidants. But with the food groups removed, there’s now a heavy focus on veggies. “You should place more emphasis on the veggie side of the group as you age,” advises Yarker. “Most kids can handle lots of fruit just fine, but as we get older, our bodies often can’t manage that much natural sugar.” Limit your fruit intake to two or three daily servings, she recommends, and get the rest of your intake from vegetables.
5. Look at the whole food, not just the nutrients
The new Food Guide also looks at how food marketing can affect your body. Many food manufacturers add nutrients to packaged foods to make them seem healthier, a phenomenon experts dub a “health halo.” But don’t be fooled: It doesn’t mean they’re necessarily nutritious. “Marketing plays such a funny trick on our minds, and you have to dig a bit deeper with packaged foods,” says Toronto-based registered dietitian Daniella Wolf. “Packaged foods are usually higher in sugar and salt, while whole foods are more nutritious in general.” Cook with convenience foods sparingly, and keep batches of homemade soups and sauces in your freezer to keep healthier alternatives close at hand.
6. Opt for healthy, unprocessed fats
While fat was once thought of as unhealthy, we now know it’s crucial to our wellbeing. Fat helps boost vitamin absorption, promote brain function and even maintain heart health. But you need to choose good fats, notes Wolf. Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and sardines, which reduce inflammation and may help lower the risk of chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and arthritis. And include avocado oil, olive oil, nuts and seeds in your diet as sources of unsaturated fatty acids. They also help keep your cholesterol levels in check to help manage your risk of heart disease. And if you love butter, you don’t need to give it up. Just use it sparingly, recommends Wolf.
7. Consider how you eat
There’s more to healthy eating than just what’s on your plate. The new Food Guide recognizes that and advises people to practise mindful eating habits. “How we eat is just as important as what we eat, and there’s a disconnect in terms of understanding the value of enjoying food with family and friends, and together in the kitchen,” says Wolf. “The research shows that when families eat together and make time for dinner at the end of the day, their children grow up to have much healthier eating habits and much better relationships with food compared with families who primarily eat on the go.” Use mealtime as an opportunity to help your children develop cooking skills and develop a taste for healthy foods. Not only will you enjoy the inherent benefits of quality time as a family, you’ll also be teaching them healthy living skills that will stick with them for life.
If your employer offers a wellness program as part of your workplace health and benefits, you might be able to take advantage of nutrition seminars or counselling that will help you and your family kick-start new healthy eating habits.