The 2019 edition of Canada’s Food Guide: A vegan perspective

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» The 2019 edition of Canada’s Food Guide: A vegan perspective

After a long consultation process, the new revised edition of Canada’s Food Guide has finally been released. It is a collection of dietary recommendations prepared by Health Canada, a department of the Canadian government. It's used by many schools, hospitals, and some dietitians and individual Canadians.

Canada’s Official Food Rules, a predecessor of the current guide, was first introduced in 1942, and the food guide has been updated several times since then. Compared to the previous version of the food guide (which was published in 2007), the new 2019 edition contains significant improvements and is more vegan-friendly; however, it does not actually mention veganism and does not promote a vegan diet, and for this reason, the food guide still needs to be improved.

In this blog post, I will comment mostly on the aspects of the food guide that relate to veganism and plant-based diets. I will also discuss the animal rights implications of the food guide’s recommendations.

The 2007 edition of Canada’s Food Guide categorized foods into four food groups: Vegetables and Fruit, Grain Products, Milk and Alternatives, and Meat and Alternatives. (Prior to the 2007 guide, the third food group was simply called “Milk” and did not mention soy milk as an option.)

The 2007 guide included the statement “Drink fortified soy beverages if you do not drink milk”, while the “Meat and Alternatives” food group also included legumes, tofu, nut butters, and nuts and seeds. However, even though plant foods were mentioned on the 2007 food guide, there was still a large emphasis overall on meat and dairy products, which were presented as though they were supposed to be dietary staples.

Many people, including myself, have pointed out the flaws of the “Four Food Groups” model. For one thing, the fact that one food group was called “Milk and Alternatives” and another was called “Meat and Alternatives” normalized and emphasized the consumption of animal flesh and milk, which is seriously problematic for ethical reasons.

For another thing, such food groupings do not make logical sense. There is no special quality about milk that should make it a food group. Even if one chose only vegan foods from each category, there is no sense in categorizing tofu in one food group and soy milk in another food group—they may be prepared differently, but they’re basically the same food!

Happily, the new food guide no longer uses these four food groups to convey dietary advice to Canadians. The new dietary recommendations are presented through an interactive website and are spread out over various webpages. Under the heading “Healthy Food Choices”, Health Canada advises:

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods. Choose protein foods that come from plants more often. 

  • Choose foods with healthy fats instead of saturated fat

Limit highly processed foods. If you choose these foods, eat them less often and in small amounts.

  • Prepare meals and snacks using ingredients that have little to no added sodium, sugars or saturated fat

  • Choose healthier menu options when eating out

Make water your drink of choice

  • Replace sugary drinks with water

Use food labels
Be aware that food marketing can influence your choices.

Clicking on the first line of these recommendations leads to a separate webpage. This webpage (which unfortunately mentions some animal products as well) includes the following statements about plant-based diets:

Many of the well-studied healthy eating patterns include mostly plant-based foods.

Plant-based foods can include:
•    vegetables and fruits
•    whole grain foods
•    plant-based protein foods

Eating plant-based foods regularly can mean eating more fibre and less saturated fat. This can have a positive effect on health, including a lowered risk of:
•    cancer
•    heart disease
•    type 2 diabetes.

Another page is entitled “Choose foods with healthy fats instead of saturated fat”. In Health Canada’s opinion, “healthy fats” include mostly plant-based sources of fat such as nuts and avocados—unfortunately, however, fishes are also included on the list.

Another page on the website, titled “Eat protein foods”, lists plant-derived foods and animal products as examples of “protein foods”. It does encourage Canadians to choose plant-based sources of protein more often, and it gives a few practical tips for this, such as “Spread hummus on the inside of a whole grain pita and fill with vegetables such as romaine lettuce and shredded carrots.” It also lists some ideas for “meatless meals”, such as bean burritos. Alas, many of the recipes listed elsewhere on the site include animal products.

Overall, my feelings about Canada’s new food guide are mixed.

On the one hand, the emphasis on plant-based eating and particularly “plant-based protein” (and the elimination of the Four Food Groups model) is a step in the right direction. I receive Google Alerts for news items that contain both the terms “Canada’s Food Guide” and “vegan”, and in the weeks following the release of the new food guide, the news seems to have exploded with articles proclaiming that Canada’s Food Guide has shifted its focus towards plant-based foods.

Unfortunately, the food guide doesn’t specifically mention the word “vegan”, but it is indirectly giving veganism a lot more publicity and is increasing the credibility of veganism in the eyes of the public, the media, and politicians. If hospitals, schools, and other public institutions (which may use the food guide to decide which foods to serve) start serving more plant-based options and fewer animal products, fewer animals will suffer and die in the food production system.

Additionally, vegan food will be introduced to people who otherwise might not have tried it, leading them to realize that vegan food can be delicious and nutritious. It will also become easier to live a vegan lifestyle because more vegan options will be available. As a result, more people will decide to go vegan. This will save more animals and improve human health.

Blueberries in a bowl.
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

On the other hand, the food guide is still problematic. Veganism doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere on the website. Some types of animal flesh and products are considered to be “healthy” options by the guide, while no consideration appears to be given to the plight of the animals who are killed and exploited in animal agriculture. And even though we vegans have evidence that the animal products listed on the guide (such as “low-fat milk” and “lean meat”) are not truly healthy choices, these products are included in the guide anyway.

The next time that Health Canada decides to revise Canada’s Food Guide, Canadians must continue to advocate for veganism (yes, specifically the words “vegan” and/or “veganism”) to be recognized officially by the food guide as a healthy way to live. Furthermore, we must encourage the Canadian government to address the ethical reasons to live vegan, beyond the health and environmental implications. Although I don’t know how long it will be until this happens, I ultimately would like Health Canada to actually recommend a vegan lifestyle.

In revising the food guide, the Canadian government held extensive public consultations to discover how the public perceives and uses the guide. Many of us Canadian vegans submitted our input. We may not ever know whether our words had any impact, but it is still definitely worthwhile to let the government know that we care about the vegan lifestyle.

Our movement has been making a lot of progress over the last few years in particular, and we need to ensure that the animals always have a fundamental place in our discussions. It’s heartening to see that countries around the world are becoming more vegan-friendly in so many ways. At the same time, there is still more advocacy that needs to be done.

Carolyn Harris is a university student majoring in the History and Theory of Architecture and minoring in Art History. She formerly served as the Vice-President of the National Capital Vegetarian Association and is now an active member of Vegan Option Canada. She also has her own vegan advocacy blog.

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