Canadians are talking a lot about what’s on their plates. Specifically, Canadians are talking about what their government suggests is best for them to have on their plates.
Like all things, there are a litany of opinions circulating among people whose lives the changes to Canada’s Food Guide will have an impact.
While some farmers in the Antigonish area who wished to remain anonymous are asking, “what were they thinking?” Marian MacLellan, a retired dairy farmer from Antigonish County, has an optimistic outlook on the new food guide.
“Personally, I think the changes to the diet are wonderful,” MacLellan said.
MacLellan embraces the new food guide as a step in the right direction, especially with its focus on portion size.
“Moderation is important, and this food guide is saying we should be looking at a more plant-based diet, which is what we should be doing,” MacLellan said. “If we look at chronic disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, when compared to other provinces, Nova Scotia has very high rates.”
MacLellan stressed those high rates are lifestyle consequences, “which is what we eat, our exercise levels and salt intake.”
“We eat a lot of processed foods. The food guide is telling us not to eat as much processed food, and that’s wonderful,” MacLellan said.
A lot of the alarm MacLellan hears, she believes is just fearmongering, alluding to dairy farmers raising the alarm with media campaigns against the role dairy plays as a protein source in the new food guide diminishing.
“I’m concerned when I read or hear what they’re saying,” MacLellan said. “I think they’re overreacting.”
MacLellan stressed the fact that the new food guide is not an injunction to stop drinking milk, and that the new guidelines won’t immediately lead to something as dramatic as people abruptly cutting dairy from their diets.
“Milk is wonderful, and a great source of protein, and will always remain that way,” MacLellan said. “[The new food guide] also encourages a certain amount of yogurt in there – it’s pretty prominent in there.”
Some people in the local agriculture community have a less than rosy outlook of the dethroning of milk as a nutritional staple.
Jack Thomson, owner of West River Holsteins and president of the Antigonish-Guysborough Federation of Agriculture, is troubled to see that dairy products are not as prominent in the new food guide.
“My concern relates to milk. There are a lot of scientific studies that clearly demonstrate that full-fat milk products are not detrimental to people’s health,” Thomson said.
More specifically, Thompson is worried about vitamin D, and how cutting back on dairy may lead to a decline in how much of that vitamin people are able to get in their diet.
“I think milk is in the protein category, where before, it had its own category,” Thomson said. “Milk is fortified with vitamin D, and in most of the Canadian population, there’s a vitamin D deficiency.”
“It’s even recommended that milk and milk products be consumed more often, by a lot of health professionals,” he noted – something that is not reflected in the new food guide.
Thomson stressed the importance of having a balanced diet, but “as part of any balanced diet, you want a variety of proteins.”
Thomson also referenced scientific evidence that milk can reduce the risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer and type-2 diabetes.
“There are so many benefits, and so many things Canadians don’t consume enough of, that can be found in one glass of milk a day,” he added.
That being said, Thomson is confident people will make the right choice.
“It depends on what is in the rest of your diet. I think milk and milk products will continue to be an important part of everyone’s diets of all ages,” he said. “The benefits of milk and milk products have been proven scientifically, for years and years.”
Joanne Van Der Linden, a farmer from the Brierly Brook area, is worried about the effects of the new guidelines on the pocketbooks of Canadians when they set out to buy groceries.
“There’s so much of an emphasis on nuts and that type of thing in the protein section that dairy, meat and eggs were lumped into,” Van Der Linden said. “I’m not sure how practical that is for normal people, on normal budgets.”
To illustrate her point, Van Der Linden suggested comparing the protein levels in one egg, and considering its price, compared to some of the other sources of protein the new food guide recommends.
“I’m hoping people won’t want to diminish their consumption of products, like milk and eggs, because they are very densely populated with nutrients,” Van Der Linden said.
Van Der Linden noted she has always seen a glass of milk, “as a health food, that gives you a daily dosage of vitamins and minerals,” and not a “thirst quencher.”
She stressed that a glass of milk has far more going for it than just the protein.
“When you look at a glass of milk and how it has nine essential vitamins and minerals in a glass compared to what you get in a glass of almond milk, there’s a huge difference,” she said. “I think the average consumer is wise enough to know that.”
Van Der Linden expressed hope that people realize how versatile products like milk, cheese and eggs are.
One thing she appreciates about the food guide is the emphasis on food, as opposed to food products.
“More people who eat according to the food guide are seeing recommendations of what the actual food is,” Van Der Linen said. “With actual milk, cheese and eggs, for very little money, you can make a good meal, if you throw in some beef, and a few veggies.”
When in doubt, Van Der Linden said the best policy is to look at the ingredients on any given product.
“If the first two ingredients are water and sugar, maybe choose something else,” she said. “It’s much healthier if you buy the real food, as opposed to prepared food products.”
Sobeys dietician Teresa Flynn’s response to the new food guide has been entirely positive. The New Glasgow-based dietician described the new food guide as visually appealing, practical, and evidence-based.
“The focus is not only on what Canadian’s should be eating but how we should eat. The guide is taking a broader approach by shifting the focus on the proportion of foods rather than portion sizes,” Flynn said.
Balance is key, and Flynn said the revised food guide is the perfect tool to find that balance, with every meal.
“I appreciate the mentions that go beyond food choices. The food guide considers cultural preferences, food traditions and environmental impacts,” Flynn said. “It lends solid advice on how to encourage families to enjoy food, eat together, and cook more often and to be mindful of eating habits.”
Flynn also praised the greater emphasis on plant-based proteins, noting their low saturated fat content, high levels of fiber and affordability.
“Eating a more plant-based diet can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and risk factors including high blood pressure and cholesterol. Sources include legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu and fortified soy beverage.”
Although dairy is no longer in its own category in the new food guide, Flynn emphasized the importance of acknowledging that dairy still holds a place in the ¼-protein category.
“Dairy products, including low-fat milk, yogurt, kefir and cheese, which provide a source of protein and nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, are important in supporting overall good health,” Flynn said.
Flynn also noted it’s important to remember that nutrition is a science – it’s always changing – and that people have individual dietary needs.
“If people have concerns with their diet or want more information on the new food guide, they should seek advice from a registered dietitian,” Flynn said. “Registered dietitians are the only nutrition health professionals that are regulated and liable for the healthy information they give.”