Q&A with Nutrition and Dietetics Alum Sue Mah about Canada’s new Food Guide

January 28/2019

Last week, the Federal Government launched a new food guide based on the best available evidence to translate the science on food and health into healthy eating guidelines. It offers concrete dietary guidance to Canadians on healthy food choices and eating habits, including:

  • eating plenty of vegetables and fruits
  • eating protein foods
  • choosing whole grain foods
  • making water your drink of choice
photo of Sue Mach in kitchen with healthy foods

Sue Mah, MHSc., RD, PHEc.

Nicole Bodnar, DLSPH Communications Director, spoke with Sue Mah, an alumna of DLSPH’s Nutrition and Dietetics program and an award-winning dietitian. She contributed to the previous food guide and chatted with the Honourable Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Canada’s Minister of Health, about the new Guide. She also shared her expert advice in local and national media.

As a passionate advocate for healthy eating, here’s what Mah had to say about the new Food Guide, how it mitigated industry influence, issues around food insecurity, and how health professionals can support food skills and food literacy.

Sue Mah chatting with Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor

Sue Mah chats with Hon. Ginette Petitpas Taylor about Canada’s Food Guide in Toronto on Jan. 23, 2019.

What were some of the primary considerations when revamping the old rainbow guide?

Sue Mah (SM): Over the past decade, there’s been updated research to inform the new Food Guide.

Health Canada used the best available evidence to translate the science on food and health into healthy eating guidelines, including a review of evidence published between 2006 and 2018. In addition, our food supply has changed with availability of a greater variety of products including plant-based foods.

Health Canada also considered dietary guidelines from other countries (including Brazil) to gain a broad perspective on the communication of guidelines, such as how they were developed, their content, and their use in education and health promotion.

For the first time ever, the new Food Guide addresses not just what to eat and what not to eat, but also how to eat. Healthy eating behaviours such as cooking, eating together and eating mindfully are recommended. These concepts are similar to the principles outlined in the Brazil Food Guide.

Why move to a plate-based visual approach?

SM: According to Health Canada, consumers were confused with the serving sizes and number of serving sizes in previous versions of the Food Guide. The plate snapshot is an easy way to describe the proportions of a healthy, balanced meal — half the plate vegetables and fruits, one quarter of the plate whole grain foods and one quarter of the plate protein foods.

Diabetes educators have been using a plate method to counsel their patients. The Half Your Plate campaign is a long standing partnership between the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Cancer Society, which also promotes this concept to improve fruit and veggie consumption in Canada.

What challenges did the guide content creators face?

SM: Industry influence has historically been a challenge with many consumers believing that past food guides were biased by industry stakeholders. That’s why Health Canada excluded industry stakeholder consultations and any research commissioned by industry when reviewing the evidence for the new Canada Food Guide. Further, all consultation comments were published and made available on the Health Canada website for transparency.

How would you respond to comments that the guide doesn’t address issues around food insecurity or health literacy in Canada?

SM:  For the first time ever, the Food Guide considered social determinants of health such as food skills and food literacy. Here is an excerpt from the Canada’s Dietary Guidelines for Health Professionals and Policy Makers:

Nutritional risk factors (such as low intakes of vegetables and fruit) for chronic diseases and conditions are often termed “modifiable.” However, many people are not able to make changes because their food environment or life circumstances do not support accessibility and availability of nutritious foods.

 Underlying health inequities can contribute to food insecurity and poorer health outcomes in some groups in Canada. Those at greater risk of poor health include: Indigenous Peoples, people living on low incomes, people living in rural areas, and newcomers to Canada. These groups are often affected by a number of factors that influence their ability to make healthy eating decisions.

Certainly, we know that the price of food varies dramatically across our country. Food security is a multi-factorial issue. Beyond food, there are other concerns that need to be addressed to improve food security in Canada.

What can public health and health policy professionals do to move the conversation forward in these key areas?

SM: Cooking more often can reduce the overall consumption of processed food, limit the consumption of the three S’s (sodium, saturated fat and sugars) and also reduce food waste which impacts food security. Canada’s Dietary Guidelines for Health Professionals and Policy Makers includes a detailed section on food skills and food literacy.

Public health and health policy professionals can support food skills and food literacy by:

  • Creating and supporting opportunities to build food skills for all Canadians. This includes improving knowledge and skills to choose, grow, hunt, store and prepare food safely.
  • Supporting mandatory home economics education in high schools to ensure that our future generations have the self-confidence and self-efficacy to cook and prepare food. A basic level of food skills can particularly benefit those moving from one life stage or life circumstance to another, such as adolescents and young adults becoming responsible for feeding themselves.
  • Considering the social, cultural, economic and physical factors related to food. Public health and health policy professionals can work with communities and to address these issues and advocate for improved access and affordability of nutritious foods for all Canadians.