A critical look at Canada’s Food Guide (and ways to eat better)

Today, we’re going to learn a little bit about food, and its relationship to eating healthy (and reaching, then maintaining a normal weight).

To start, consider skimming through Brazil’s new Dietary Guidelines document from 2014. It’s a pretty incredible (if aspirational, for North American cultures) basis for a healthy diet, and a huge majority of the population would be much healthier if we all adhered to its recommendations. It might not be perfect, but the document uses sound principles and advocates adaptability and sustainability in food sources.

Among the most important recommendations these dietary guidelines make is to avoid highly processed foods, sticking to natural or minimally processed foods. The document highlights the importance of fats and oils in cooking, while suggesting avoidance of prepackaged foods that contain larger amounts of these unhealthy lipids.

Comparing these new Brazilian guidelines (available as a 150 page PDF) to Canada’s Food Guide (summarized in a 1-2 page pamphlet) isn’t really a fair comparison. That being said, with some nuance and self-awareness, it’s possible to keep Canada’s simpler, existing food principles in mind to stay healthy.

Canada’s Food Guide

Below is a critical evaluation of Canada’s Food Guide, and tips on how to reap the most benefits from it while avoiding potential pitfalls. If you haven’t done so already, go and take a look at Brazil’s dietary guidelines when you’re done. They’ll be waiting for you here, here, and here.

Growing up in Canada gives you a strange relationship with food. Once you are old enough to understand that candy and chocolate is bad for you, and vegetables are good for you, things start to get really confusing. Something I never considered when I was in adolescence is that nutrition guidelines are written by people. People can have biases, and make decisions based on pressure and money. The Dairy Farmers of Canada are the only reason dairy shows up in the Food Guide at all, for example.

Canada’s Food Guide seems relatively easy-going when it comes to food that isn’t mostly sugar, suggesting the consumption of some of each of four food groups:

  1. 5-10 servings of vegetables (for vitamins and minerals & natural sugars; includes fruit and fresh or frozen vegetables)
  2. 2-3 servings of meat/alternatives (this basically means protein; includes beans, eggs, and nut products)
  3. 6-8 servings of grain products (this is for fast energy and some nutrients; includes cereal, pasta, and rice)
  4. 2-4 servings of milk/dairy (effectively “fat” and maybe calcium; includes cheeses, yoghurt and soy)

As a child, we learned about these guidelines, which have been tweaked and changed over the years, but the main food groups have remained consistent overall. This food guide, from adolescence until early 20s for young Canadians, is often seen as the gold standard for nutrition. However, there are a few reasons to take a closer look at this Guide, and perhaps think critically about choices made based on its guidance.

5-10 Servings of Vegetables

This one is a no-brainer. The most egregious part of this section of the Guide comes when you consider that the serving range for vegetables is “capped” at 10 servings. In fact, fresh or packaged vegetables should generally be the largest portion of the food anybody eats in a day, and with so much of the food that makes up this group consisting in large part of water, it will usually be the healthiest part of a day’s food intake. Don’t limit yourself to ten servings of vegetables if you’re hungry, the only reason recommended servings aren’t higher is because for most people, ten servings a day is already unattainable.

Eat as many servings of fruit and veggies as you can, even at the expense of any other food.

2-3 Servings of Meat & Alternatives

Meat is an interesting food type. For many people, it’s the main way to get protein and other very important nutrients. However, in modern times, with no shortage of readily available meat, we’re almost certainly eating too much. A serving of meat, according to the Canada Food Guide, should be the size of a deck of cards. If you go eat a steak, you’re probably eating at least 2-3 servings of meat. Much more commonly than that, though, is the fact that with chicken breasts growing quickly in the last few decades, having just one is way too much for a meal.

Be aware of large servings sizes of meat in burgers, chicken breasts, and other meals. Get some meat in your diet, but it’s easy to overdo it.

6-8 Servings of Grains

This is a tough one. In the early-mid 2000s, this food group stood at 5-12 servings. Today, that recommendation is almost cut in half. This is because there are many tasty, but ultimately unhealthy, foods that fit into this category. Many grain-based foods are chock-full of sugar, and serving sizes are not very large. It’s incredibly easy to blow past the recommended amount of grains in a day, even with the intention of eating healthy meals. Combine that with the fact that white bread is basically candy (without even getting to many cereals), and with growing plate & serving sizes at home and in restaurants, and it’s easy to see how obesity is a growing public health concern.

If you can, avoid grains except in small amounts, or if you’re in dire need of some quick energy (which often isn’t the case in a modern world full of convenience stores and supermarkets).

2-4 Servings of Milk/Dairy

The last entry on the Canada Food Guide is also the least deserving to be there. Milk and dairy products are effectively candy for the purposes of an adult diet. While milk and related foods do contain calcium, which is important for bone health, once you’re through childhood, there are many better ways to ingest plenty of calcium (like dark, leafy veggies). Milk can actually function pretty well as a sports drink (if you keep it cold) since it contains lots of easy to digest sugar, fat, and some protein. But for everyday use, if you’re not having any dairy, don’t sweat it.

If you’re going to have some milk, cheese, or yogurt, don’t worry too much about it. But if you don’t have any, REALLY don’t worry about it. The Dairy Farmers of Canada played a big part in getting milk featured so prominently in the Food Guide, and they’re a little biased.

Conclusions

To summarize, don’t worry so much about what you’re eating on a given day (as long as you have some veggies). If you’re going to worry, consider how much you’re eating, and if you can reduce the amount (serving sizes) of meat, dairy, or grains that you’re having, that goes a long way towards keeping extra weight from sticking.

The Canada Food Guide is an outdated set of recommendations based on old nutrition science, and if it were re-written today following modern scientific principles, and without advocacy group pressure, it would likely look a lot different. Being aware of the limitations of the Food Guide, along with a little bit of food science, it’s not too complicated to determine what foods can be part of a healthy diet.

What the hell can millennials do to fix the world?

With each passing day, week, month, and year, young people in North America and the world grow up. As we do so, more of the ills of society come into sharp relief. Typically full of optimism, I find it very hard to continue ignorantly living my life day-to-day, sheltered from the worst of what’s going on around me, but exposed to a flood of horror stories from around the globe.

We’re told from a young age that parents, adults, authority figures, they know what they’re doing. But it’s becoming increasingly clear we’re all just winging it, and many in older generations are handling society very poorly.


Donald Trump is going to be leading the Republican party in US elections this fall, even though his racist, xenophobic, isolationist rhetoric is laughably outdated.

Older Brits have overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union, stranding many hundreds of thousands of younger people from experiencing an open Europe that has been so beneficial to previous generations.

A combination of racism and ignorance (deeply rooted in the United States) have led to a pattern of racial discrimination and police brutality that is increasingly visible as smartphone cameras roll to witness these atrocities.

Gun violence in general in the United States is also increasingly visible, and a huge faction of the US population would rather die defending their right to bear arms than consider a more peaceful or safe alternative.

Though world literacy, public health, education continue to grow, millions of people around the globe live in poverty, unable to earn enough to live comfortably with even a fraction of what is considered too little in North America.

A global discussion surrounding human rights, gender equality, religious freedom, and much more, is constantly met with fear and concern by folks who see anybody who doesn’t look or act like them as less deserving of the “humanity” label.


The list of major systemic problems in the world today is too long to name, and there’s seemingly no end in sight. For every Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples can legally wed in the United States, there is a football team with a racial slur for its name that refuses to change in the face of intense criticism.

We as a global nation have the power to heal these problems. I yearn for the day we can all live in unity, a World Union, so to speak. But I fear that for that to happen, we are going to either have to wait at least another generation, or suffer through another global conflict on the scale of World War II.

There is clearly, among other things, a generational divide between young people and some members of the generations before them. There are simple solutions to many of the world’s problems, that, while difficult to actually carry out, aren’t all that complicated logistically.

I want to be a member of the group that set out to change the world for the better, and succeeded. We live on a planet that is more than capable of supporting our population. Resources can be used renewably and shared by all, as they have for millions of years before “humanity” was even a glimmer in the eye of a prehistoric newt.

Money, the driver and motivation for most individual pursuits in contemporary society, is a human construct that we all take for granted. Political and geographical borders, are human creations. We enforce them, they are not natural law. Food scarcity, the idea that you don’t deserve to eat if you can’t pay for food, these ideas are predicated on the fact that some are more deserving of basic human rights than others.

I am overwhelmed by all of these thoughts on an almost constant basis. I know that coming up with working solutions for the very worst of societal problems isn’t a simple or straightforward thing. But I also know that it can be done. Setting the world on a different path may not be politically popular, especially to those for whom things aren’t currently difficult, but it is exceptionally important.

The world is presently in the hands of older generations, people whose ideas come from last century, and whose views of the world are shaped by cynicism and self-importance. Someday, my generation, the millennials, will surely become just as cynical and smug, but we can change the world for the better in the meantime.

Obviously, the first thing young people need to do is vote in democratic processes. Bernie Sanders has done an exceptional job in courting younger generations with the idea that their voices do matter, even though that message hasn’t been enough to win him a chance in the 2016 election, it has resonated with young people everywhere.

What can I do as a young person to be sure my thoughts, feelings, and ideas are considered, understood, and absorbed? Justin Trudeau truly feels like a breath of fresh air in Canadian politics. His message of acceptance, change, and evidence-based policy, among others, has been a huge source of reassurance that maybe things will turn out well.


As the generation finishing school and starting careers, what can we do to protect Muslim families from discrimination and violence against them after fundamentalist group pervert their religion for personal and political gains?

How can we bring an end to profiling and violence against black people and other minorities, and how can we convince supposedly well-meaning police forces to stop resorting to deadly force in situations that objectively do not demand it?

How can we show our love for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, size, or any other physical or biological trait? Even more importantly, how can we compel others to have compassion for all life even if it doesn’t fit into neat little compartments like “Male” or “Female”?

What do we do when a 200+ year old document like the Bill of Rights gets perverted and misinterpreted by political groups to convince Americans they have to right to carry assault weapons around? Especially considering the massive number of accidental shootings that take place every day, and statistics showing the increased death risk associated with gun ownership.

When can we stop tearing each other down, and when can we start building each other up, and how can young people help? I’m tired of waking up to news of another mass shooting, or a black man shot during a traffic stop, or a Presidential candidate getting hours of airtime for saying something shitty.


Please, help me understand how I can influence the people in my city and country and world positively, to help those blind to their biases to see the errors of their ways.

Though I am a straight, white, and male, my friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and family are not necessarily all of those things. I see and hear how the tragedies that play out every day affect them to their very cores, and even though I haven’t faced even a fraction of the hardships they have had to endure, my own guilt, compassion, and empathy run deep. I want better for those around me who have been victims of history.

I’m also very lucky to have been born in Canada, so many of the problems I describe above are not nearly as bad as they are elsewhere in the world, but it doesn’t mean this country doesn’t have its own sources of deep shame historically. The fact that Canada in 2016 has advanced as far as it has is proof to me that we can do better. We cannot give up.

I can’t continue to enjoy such a gilded life as my fellow humans endure such extreme hardships. People around the world are mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, and grandparents, just like we are. We can do better, and I want to help.

What can I do?

Cyclists are NOT the Enemy

People who bike hate cars. People who drive hate bikes. You’re both wrong.

I personally take issue with anybody who doesn’t follow the rules of the road, or who (through apathy, or ignorance) puts others in danger.

The Ottawa Citizen has published a few pieces in the last couple of weeks about cycling, bike lanes, the driving/cycling dynamic, and a whole lot of other stuff pitting bikes against cars on the capital’s streets.

This kind of article is hurting a relationship that could be harmonious and mutually beneficial, if everybody could just agree to follow simple rules that already exist, and not presume they are special. Let me address a few points from the latest op-ed piece in the Citizen now:

I’ve never really understood just what it is that makes riding a bicycle so special. Sure, riding a bike is good exercise and an inexpensive way to get around, but that’s all it is.

This is such an incredibly shortsighted point. Isn’t this a very valuable and noteworthy goal, especially as cost of living rises in cities and obesity skyrockets around the world? Not to mention global climate change, to which any motor vehicles (including electric cars powered by coal) still contribute.

…[T]hey claim a right to ride on sidewalks as required and to ignore the laws that apply to bicycles. All while complaining about drivers and claiming that cyclists are subsidizing motorists.

Riding a vehicle on the sidewalk is illegal. You can get a fine for doing it, whether you’re in a car, or on a bike. Yes, people do it, but it’s because they don’t feel safe on streets. We live in a car-first culture, where many people are deterred from riding bikes when they hear almost daily about collisions between cars and bikes (which bikes always seem to lose). And like I said, bikes hate cars and cars hate bikes (in general). We all pay taxes and cars use roads much more than bikes do (more on that later).

…[C]ycling makes up about 2.7 per cent of the morning commute and two per cent over the whole day. As a means of practical transportation, it is close to irrelevant.

Considering how many people either have long commutes, poor health, or any number of other reasons (the feeling of danger notwithstanding) not to bike, this number would definitely be higher if cycling wasn’t an afterthought, and I’m sure we’d all be better for it.

You’d never know it from watching Ottawa’s cyclists, but a bicycle is classified as a vehicle under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act. That means cyclists must obey all traffic laws and have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers, but who hasn’t seen cyclists drive up on sidewalks, sail through stop signs, ride the wrong way on one-way streets and make unsignalled turns?

This one is almost too easy. Yes, a car and a bicycle are both vehicles. Cyclists need to obey traffic laws, and need to be responsible drivers and pay attention to their surroundings. However, on bike, on foot, and by car, I see cyclists and drivers up on sidewalks (check out #ottbike on Twitter), rolling through stop signs, driving the wrong way on one-way streets, and making turns and lane changes without signalling. Surprise, drivers do this just as often as cyclists.

I actually want to yell at cyclists who are in full gear, with racing bikes, when they roll through red lights to save a few seconds (both when I’m driving and when biking). Bad cyclists who refuse to wait their turn and follow the rules are just making the relationship between bikes and cars worse. We’re not all perfect, but we can be a lot better.

Without endorsing the practice, [Reevely] explains that cyclists make a habit of gliding through stop signs because bike routes off major roads are often on streets with stop signs every 50 feet. Actually stopping would take away all of a cyclist’s momentum. Similarly, cyclists ride on sidewalks because the city has refused to make major roads like Bank Street safe.

Clearly, these things happen, but who really thinks it’s safe to ride a bike on a sidewalk meant for pedestrians? One can easily imagine the sympathy a driver would get if he rolled through a series of stop signs, citing reluctance to wear out his brakes, or a desire to burn less fuel.

This practice of rolling through stop signs is not unique to bikes. Most drivers and cyclists don’t travel through stop signs without looking or slowing down (though I see the behaviour more often than I’d like in both).

However, the reason I think bikes and cars need to be treated a little differently when it comes to rolling through stop signs without coming to a full stop is as follows (spoiler – it’s all about momentum):

A bike and rider, weighing about 150-250 pounds together, moving at 5-10 kph, has a total momentum of 100-300 kg m/s. This means they can see if a car is coming and easily stop by lightly braking.

An average car, in 2010, weighed a little over 4,000 pounds. Even moving at only 2 kph, that’s still over 900 kg m/s, or more than 3 times as much momentum. Those of you who ride and bike will know that it’s much easier to stop a bike than it is a car over a short distance. In terms of safety for vehicles and pedestrians, a cyclist slowing right down as they approach a stop sign and looking both ways, is much better than the typical driving stop, which sees cars slow down and come to a nearly complete stop before heading off again. [editors note: if you come to a complete stop at every stop sign, you’re a beautiful snowflake, and an upstanding citizen, and also you’re probably lying to yourself.]

…[C]yclists are responsible for their own safety. Anticipating hazards when riding in urban traffic would seem to be a basic survival skill. A bicycle lane isn’t an autobahn for cyclists.

Totally agree with this point. Though I’m not sure you want to have to worry about your survival every time you hit the road, being aware of your surroundings, and the rules, are vital for drivers and cyclists. A bike lane doesn’t give you free rein to do whatever you please, but these lanes are also often disrespected by drivers too (see the bollards recently put up on Laurier on the bridge near City Hall). We all bear responsibility to get everybody home safe at the end of the day.

Of all the claims that are made about cycling, the idea that cyclists are subsidizing motorists is the most dubious. Cyclists use the roads, just like car drivers do. Unlike car drivers, they don’t pay licence fees and gas taxes to contribute to their upkeep. Everyone benefits from roads.

This is a fine point, but sort of misses the fact that bike-only infrastructure requires almost no upkeep, as the effect of bikes on roads is negligible compared to cars/trucks/semis. Add that to the fact that cyclists also drive on these roads at least occasionally, and likely pay for their construction and upkeep with taxes, and that argument loses a lot of its power.

Cyclists would get a lot more respect if they were willing to follow the rules of the road. This is not just because drivers like rules. It’s a safety issue. Unpredictable moves lead to accidents. Despite what some cyclists seem to think, drivers actually do not want to run them over.

Absolutely. Everybody needs to follow the rules of the road, and I have no doubt that cyclist unpredictability has a lot to do with accidents/injuries/collisions/fatalities where bikes are involved. Just like what happens when cars break laws or behave unpredictably. The only difference in this case is that when a car and bike collide, the driver of the car will never be hurt (physically) by the collision. This is where compassion comes in, and a little training, and learning the rules of the road, can go a long way towards bikes and cars sharing the road more safely.

Bikes are supposed to take about a meter from the curb, but are legally entitled to take a lane if they deem it necessary for safety or if the roadway is impeded in some way. If you’ve ever tried to bike in the one meter closest to a gutter, you will know it’s a VERY narrow swath of road, and one that is often full of potholes, construction equipment, drains, and other detritus that makes a ride perilous. Consider these facts as you commute by car.

Cyclists want to share the road too, and no cyclist wants to cause an accident (and on that last line from the quote above, I have heard drivers muttering or yelling about running over cyclists, and whether it’s in jest or not, I’m not laughing). We all want to get home safe at the end of the day.

Too many of our major streets are tough to drive on in a car, much less a bike. Fixing those roads, not more bike lanes, would be the best thing the city could do for cyclists and drivers.

I half agree with this. Some of our roads REALLY need a revamp, but I would argue the value of lanes for bicycles is pretty high in most places. Study after study shows the more car lanes you add to roads, the more traffic you get. More people end up buying cars, and you’re left with no less congestion. More space for cars isn’t helping anybody, whereas more space for bikes has great benefits for public safety, the environment, public health, noise pollution, traffic, and lots more.