There is no shortage of advice about what we should eat or put in the kids’ lunch boxes. While it is relatively easy to ignore the latest headlines advocating the current dietary trend, most people feel some confidence in relying upon the good old Canada’s Food Guide. Indeed, national food guides play a significant role in determining dietary choices and a country’s overall health. Not only does Canada’s Food Guide influence diet policies and programs in public institutions, but it is also taught to children and health professionals and is utilized by the food industry to buttress claims pertaining to the health and nutrition of their products.
What’s more, the influence of Canada’s Food Guide on the food industry extends beyond our own borders. Food choices govern food production, which has environmental impacts in a time of global climate change. Since Canada is a major food exporter, Canada’s Food Guide affects the health and environment not only of Canadians but of citizens around the world. Given the importance of this publication, it is critical that we get it right. And getting it right means recommending not only a wholesome, nutritious diet but also a sustainable one. Our food choices should not only support vibrant, healthy bodies but also help safeguard the ecosystems upon which we depend for clean air, water and soil as well as contribute positively to healthy communities.
That is why the October 2016 announcement that the government is revising Canada’s Food Guide is good news. Canada’s guide to healthy eating was last updated a decade ago, and much has changed in the Canadian food environment in the interim. For example, rising food prices —partly attributable to the effects of climate change — have caused noticeable changes in buying patterns, with the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables putting increasing strain on tight budgets. The transformation of food into an internationally traded commodity — its production industrialized, commercialized and increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small group of companies — also raises a variety of public concerns, including food safety, allergens, pesticide residues, antibiotic use in livestock, the treatment of animals, and food security and justice from the local to the global scale.
The problem with the current food guide revision process is that it is being led exclusively by the minister of health and driven by concerns about obesity and other growing public health issues. The sustainability of our food choices remains conspicuously absent from the food guide equation. Overlooking sustainability is counterintuitive, considering that diets with low environmental impacts are generally consistent with good health. Indeed, the double pyramid in Figure 1 clearly illustrates that the foods that are best for our health are also best for the planet — it is not a trade-off but a win-win situation.
Figure 1. The double pyramid of health and sustainability.
With the environmental footprint of food production or consumption left out of both the existing food guide and the process for updating it, we are missing an opportunity to ensure that two important policy objectives — healthy eating and protecting the long-term viability of our food sources — are advanced concurrently.
Other countries have recently taken a very different approach to national dietary guidelines. Five countries — Germany, Brazil, Sweden, the UK and Qatar — now explicitly reference sustainability in their food guides. Rather than using a prescriptive model, Brazil’s revised dietary guidelines, launched in 2014, offer 10 guiding principles for a healthy diet, many of which revolve around limiting the consumption of processed foods, while making natural and freshly prepared foods the basis of one’s diet. A varied, largely plant-based diet is advocated as the foundation of a diet that is “nutritionally balanced, delicious, culturally appropriate, and supportive of socially and environmentally sustainable food systems.” The 80-page Brazilian food guide not only provides great detail to educate and support consumers in their quest for healthy and sustainable diets but also emphasizes the social aspects of preparing and consuming food. Eating well is about more than just nutrition. The conviviality and cultural connections that can be nurtured through food are as significant as the environmental and social harms that can be avoided through a more conscious redirection of food choices.
Similarly, Sweden’s national dietary guidelines, which were revised in 2015, explicitly encourage consumers to eat less meat and meat products and more plant foods, for health as well as for sustainability benefits. The development of the revised Swedish guidelines integrated the insights gathered at open hearings with the support of an array of stakeholders, including the general public. Aptly titled Find Your Way to Eat Greener, Not Too Much and Be Active!, the publication declares: “When it comes to food, it’s easy to concentrate on individual nutrients or foods to the exclusion of everything else. But all aspects are interlinked, so it’s important to maintain a holistic approach.” Sweden’s new dietary guidelines demonstrate how the substantive and procedural aspects of policy-making can be leveraged to embed shared cultural values into institutional frameworks, thereby generating positive change.
It is also interesting to note which institutions were responsible for various national food guide revisions. In Brazil and the UK, as in Canada, the changes were led by the ministry of health. However, in Sweden, the changes were led by the National Food Agency. Canada should consider creating a body like this. Having a dedicated national agency to focus on food-related issues would reduce fragmentation and overlap while ensuring that health and sustainability concerns could be addressed in a comprehensive, coordinated manner. To ensure sustainability issues are incorporated into the new Canada’s Food Guide, Environment and Climate Change Canada must be an equal partner with Health Canada in the revisions.
Canada’s Food Guide can help inculcate a more sustainable way of eating that can benefit individual consumers, local food producers and the environment, but in order to do so, the process of revising it must be more transparent and more holistic and must take into account a range of concerns, including environmental ones. Let’s all do our part to make sure Canada’s Food Guide leads not only to healthier eating but also to sustainable food for people and the planet.