Looking to the future and understanding the past

We have looked to Canada’s Food Guide for tips on eating right since Health Canada published the first version – then called Canada’s Official Food Rules – in 1942. From managing war resources in the 1940s, to working toward preventing obesity and related diseases (such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes) in the 21st century, the Food Guide has undergone several revisions to suit the changing nutritional needs of Canadians. Health Canada created the current edition in 2007, but with continuous updates to nutritional research, it’s time for a new Food Guide, one that considers the variable dietary needs of diverse Canadians.

Health Canada is planning on unveiling a new version of the Food Guide in early 2018. Their aim is to create a guide that works for everyone, including those of various cultural backgrounds, and those who have special dietary needs, such as food allergies and intolerances, as well as vegans and vegetarians. They will also dissuade people from eating unhealthy foods, by explaining why these foods should be avoided. This edition of the Food Guide will also urge Canadians to start looking at the big picture impact of food choices, such as sustainability, environmental impact, and food waste.

Before deciding on the new Food Guide content, Health Canada reviewed recommendations and evidence from many sources. You can find this information at www.foodguideconsultation.ca.1


History of Canada’s Food Guide2

When the Nutrition Division of the Canadian government (the early version of Health Canada) released the first official Food Rules in 1942, World War II was depleting resources, and they were trying to find ways to make sure Canadians at home, as well as overseas soldiers and allies, got enough to eat despite poverty and the complications war brings to trading. At the time, many individuals were receiving medical rejections from Canadian military service due to the effects of malnutrition, and more than half of Canadians likely had some type of nutritional deficiency.3 The Nutrition Division launched radio, newspaper, and school campaigns to disseminate information on healthy eating, using the slogan “Eat right, feel right – Canada needs you strong!”. The government instituted food rationing coupons, to make sure no one went hungry, and universal price freezes, so that Canadians could afford necessities.3

Canadians worked together to create an effective food system, with many individuals working on community gardens in their yards and in any empty lots they could use. In addition, women and children spent their summers doing low-pay work on farms to grow more food to send to the allies, and many women created innovative recipes using the foods they had available, and published these in newspapers across the country for others to learn.3

With these efforts in place, most Canadians actually ate considerably better during the war than they had before it. They went from diets deficient in many nutrients, and often too low in calories, to diets that contained all the nutrition they needed, although it was more difficult to access certain ‘luxury’ foods people enjoy, such as sugar and tea.3

After the war, the Nutrition Division focused on making sure Canadians were getting enough to eat, while still being careful not to waste anything, to allow more food to go to those in Europe and Asia who needed extra help. The dietary recommendations were quite different in the 1940s, suggesting that individuals should eat a serving of potatoes each day and a minimum of three to four eggs and a serving of liver, heart, or kidney each week. These were all lower cost items, rich in vital nutrients, that were easily sourced.

In 1944, the Food Rules stopped recommending regular servings of heart and kidney, due to a limited supply of these, but they continued to recommend liver because of how nutritionally dense it is. But in 1961, they reduced the serving suggestion for liver consumption from frequently to occasionally, and listed eggs, cheese, and legumes as acceptable substitutes for meat. This publication was also the first edition named the Food Guide instead of the Food Rules.

By 1977, Health Canada established the early version of the four primary food groups that we still use as of the 2007 Food Guide: fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy and alternatives, and meat and alternatives.

In the early editions of the Food Guide, they included fish oil as a daily requirement for children, hoping it would ensure adequate vitamin D intake and prevent rickets. However, fish oil didn’t work as well as they hoped. So, in 1949 they began recommending that children take vitamin D supplements, which were much more effective. Today, the Canadian government mandates that liquid dairy products be enriched with vitamin D. Milk is a primary source of this important vitamin, especially during the cold winter months when obtaining enough vitamin D through sunlight is nearly impossible for many individuals.4

Not much has changed since the 1970s. We still use similar food groups, but newer versions recommend different serving sizes and serving amounts. In addition, guides from the 21st century emphasize whole grains over refined products, whereas earlier editions allowed enriched white grains, and more recent editions allow for more plant-based proteins, whereas the earlier versions focused more on animal proteins.


Canada’s Food Guide – 20185

The new Food Guide will be based around three Guiding Principles:

  1. foods and beverages to encourage
  2. foods and beverages to limit or avoid
  3. knowledge and skills (such as planning, cooking, and preparation)

The new Food Guide will continue the trend of encouraging ample consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein-rich foods (especially plant-based proteins, such as legumes). On the flip side, Health Canada is pushing for a reduction in red meat and processed foods, especially those high in sodium, trans fats, saturated fats, and sugar. They also want to steer Canadians away from the less-healthy options traditionally listed in the Food Guide. For example, fruit juice isn’t really a good substitute for whole fruit, and heavily processed grains aren’t as nutritious as whole grains. Just as importantly, they want Canadians to understand why certain choices are better than others.

A new aspect of this edition of the Food Guide is an emphasis on how food choices affect more than just your health. Choosing foods that are sustainable in a growing global population, reducing food waste, and understanding the effects of food choices on the environment are some important areas to consider. Food waste is a massive problem, with researchers estimating it caused a loss of $31 billion in Canada in 2014 alone.6 Health Canada is also considering encouraging Canadians to buy local or participate in community gardening, and to cook more meals at home, rather than go to restaurants or consume fast food on the go, because people tend to make more nutritious choices at home.

Many of the environmental concerns are in line with health: eating more plant-based protein rather than red meat is recommended for both health and environmental reasons. Diets containing many processed foods high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat are also more environmentally taxing than diets focused on vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. In addition, cooking food at home can greatly reduce food waste.

Another focus is ensuring that the ideal diet is accessible to all Canadians. For instance, frozen vegetables can offer a nutritious alternative to fresh vegetables, and are affordable and available year-round, even in remote parts of the country.


Health First

Health Canada agreed not to meet in private with food-industry representatives when deciding what will go into this Food Guide.7 There has been controversy in the past in which various groups claim that instead of looking out for the health of Canadians, Health Canada had been looking out for the interest of certain industries. For this edition of the Food Guide, they have eliminated this source of conflict. Food lobbyists were required to submit comments through the same portal as other groups and individuals.

This has led to some contention from some food industry lobbyists, who claim that Health Canada’s potential new classification of food groups will cause harm to Canadians who already have an adequate diet. However, Health Canada’s response is that they aren’t eliminating any foods from the Food Guide, just recommending that Canadians choose foods more frequently that research shows are healthful, and they are most interested in ensuring that the Food Guide is free of conflicts of interest.


Other Changes

In addition to the Food Guide overhaul, Health Canada is looking at ways to improve food labelling. This could include more nutritional information on the front of the package, or symbols to mark products that meet certain requirements as good choices.

We might also see the end of manufacturers of sugary cereals and fast food restaurants advertising their products to children.8 The government is considering putting laws in place to prevent these unhealthy food sources from creating ads aimed at kids less than 13 years-of-age. Producers of foods deemed healthy (such as fruit and veggies, whole grains, and some dairy products) would still be allowed to advertise to children.



In 2018, we might see some changes to the ubiquitous Food Guide. However, these changes will reflect modern science and dietary requirements, and will continue to focus on a foundation of nutritious vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and proteins. For updates, and to see the current version of Canada’s Food Guide, visit www.canada.ca.

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 204 – 2017
Image Credit: © bigstockphoto.com/sonyakamoz
1. Summary of Evidence Base for Guiding Principles and Recommendations. Government of Canada. Available at: https://www.foodguideconsultation.ca/evidence-base. Accessed 2017-08-25.
2. Canada’s Food Guides from 1942 to 1992. Government of Canada. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/canada-food-guide/background-food-guide/canada-food-guides-1942-1992.html. Accessed 2017-08-25.
3. Food on the Home Front during the Second World War. War Time Canada. Available at: http://wartimecanada.ca/essay/eating/food-home-front-during-second-world-war. Accessed 2017-11-22.
4. Dairy Vitamin Addition. Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Available at: http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/dairy-products/manuals-inspection-procedures/dairy-vitamin-addition/eng/1378179097522/1378180040706. Accessed 2017-08-25.
5. Guiding Principles. Government of Canada. Available at: https://www.foodguideconsultation.ca/guiding-principles-detailed. Accessed 2017-08-25.
6. “$27 Billion” Revisited: The Cost of Canada’s Annual Food Waste (2014). Value Chain Management Centre. Available at: http://vcm-international.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Food-Waste-in-Canada-27-Billion-Revisited-Dec-10-2014.pdf. Accessed 2017-08-25.
7. Canada’s new food guide changes causes dairy, meat industry backlash. Toronto Sun. Available at: http://www.torontosun.com/2017/08/09/canadas-new-food-guide-changes-causes-dairy-meat-industry-backlash. Accessed 2017-11-17.
8. Restricting unhealthy food and beverage marketing to children. Government of Canada. Available at: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/programs/consultation-restricting-unhealthy-food-and-beverage-marketing-to-children.html. Accessed 2017-10-11.
9. Trans Fats. Dietitians of Canada. Available at: https://www.dietitians.ca/dietitians-views/food-regulation-and-labelling/trans-fats.aspx. Accessed 2017-11-17.