Senate wants overhaul of Canada’s Food Guide - but missing essential ingredient of sustainability

We need to improve the sustainability of food systems and redefine healthy food as going beyond its nutritional qualities alone. 

By Jennifer Reynolds - Institutional Food Program Manager at Food Secure Canada

Earlier this month, the Senate released its report Obesity in Canada, which calls for a whole-of-society approach for a healthier Canada. The report includes a number of recommendations related to food, including exploring a tax on sugary drinks, prohibiting advertising of food and beverages to children and addressing the recommendations made by the Auditor General with respect to the Nutrition North program. We have called for many of these same actions in our recent fact sheet and letter to the Minister of Health - Food is Part of the Recipe for a Healthy Canada #Recipe4Health

Video produced by The Canadian Press - Senate obesity report suggests taxing sugary drinks

“Canada’s dated food guide” and the Brazilian inspiration

Perhaps most compelling is the recommendation that calls on the Minister of Health to immediately undertake a complete revision of Canada’s Food Guide since, as the report notes, “several witnesses suggested that Canada’s food guide has been at best ineffective, and at worst enabling, with respect to the rising levels of unhealthy weights and diet-related chronic diseases in Canada”. 

The report explores the potential of Brazil’s much lauded Food Based Dietary Guidelines that promote taking a meals-based approach - promoting freshly prepared meals made with whole and/or minimally processed ingredients and avoiding ultra-processed foods as the basis of a healthy diet.

Additionally, the Senate specifically recommends that the revision of the food guide does not include representatives of the food and agriculture industries that can unduly influence the process due to their financial interests.

[CBC News] Canada's Food Guide should seek inspiration from Brazil: researcher

New Senate obesity report suggests introducing a sugar tax in Canada

[The Star] Sugar tax, new food guide needed to curb obesity ‘epidemic,’ warns Senate report

In battle against obesity, a Senate committee is urging a new national campaign to help curb the rising rates of diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses.


Healthy food beyond its nutritional qualities 

Yet what is missing from the Senate’s report is the integration of a key tenet of Brazil’s guidelines - healthy diets are not only about food choices, but also derive from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems. Since our health is intimately linked to the environment, we need to improve the sustainability of food systems and redefine healthy food as going beyond its nutritional qualities alone.

This food systems lens - broadening the definition of healthy food beyond its nutritional components to include how food is produced, where it is sourced from, how it is processed, how it is prepared, how it is served, how it tastes, and how waste is dealt with  - will be critical to have an impact on obesity. We need to consider both the consumption and production of food if we are to lever change and take a whole-supply-chain approach in order to have a whole-of-society impact on health.

An important aspect of this work will be ensuring that our society’s public institutions are healthy food environments. Schools, hospitals, long-term care facilities and campuses need to provide options outside of the home that model the meals-based approach - sourcing fresh, local, sustainable ingredients and serving delicious, healthy meals as part of the coordinated effort to address the obesity crisis.

How do you define healthy food? What is your vision for a revised Canada’s Food Guide?