A bright rainbow for Canadians

If we have kids at home, we may have seen the little angels bring home a copy of Canada's Food Guide from school. Some of us are reminded of it when we walk into the doctor's office. And at the very least, the rest of us vaguely remember what the Food Guide looked like from nutrition and phys ed classes in elementary school - with fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, all lined up neatly on the rainbow-coloured illustration. But there is more to this Food Guide than just a memory or a picture, especially since a new version came out in 2007.

This guide, the first new version in 15 years, was a long time coming, especially given the fact that so much in the science of nutrition and health has changed. For example, in 1992, we didn't know as much as we do now about trans fats or the importance of extra vitamin D for people over the age of 50. We've also seen foods from many more cultures show up in supermarkets - first displayed on one shelf and now filling entire aisles.

The Food Guide has been completely updated to take into account all these changes in what we eat and what we know. It also has a new name: Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide (the 1992 version was called Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating). There are lots of tips on how to make healthy eating a complete experience, with interactive tools to help you get comfortable with serving sizes and to learn about the different food groups. And you will probably be pleasantly surprised to find that more of the foods people from different cultures eat every day are now part of the rainbow.

Getting more specific and friendly

The guide outlines more specific and friendly eating strategies, which feature the following:

  • Updates on the 4 food groups: The 4 food groups are still the same: vegetables and fruit, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives, and grain products. But now vegetables and fruits replace grain products in the outer ring of the rainbow, emphasizing larger portions of this food group over grain products.
  • Portion sizes and servings: Serving sizes have been revised with narrower, more specific age ranges (e.g., children 2 to 3 years of age are now included), and further broken down to female and male portions of all age groups.
  • Advice for different groups: Specific advice is given to different groups of people (e.g., children should eat nutritious foods and include some choices that contain fat, such as peanut butter and avocado; all women who could become pregnant and those who are pregnant or breast-feeding need a multivitamin containing folic acid every day; and individuals over 50 should include a vitamin D supplement in their diet), and advice is given to limit salts, sugars, and processed foods.
  • Oils and fats: Recommendations include a small amount of unsaturated fat each day (30 mL to 45 mL, or 2 to 3 tablespoons), and to select unsaturated vegetable oils such as canola, flaxseed, and soybean over butter, hard margarine, lard, or shortening.
  • Beverages: Water is recommended as the drink of choice, flavoured with lemon, lime, or orange wedges, and milk and 100% fruit juices are suggested in place of soft drinks, punches, or alcohol.
  • Details on serving sizes: More detailed examples are given on how to measure one serving size (e.g., 1 slice of bread, ½ a bagel, and ½ a pita are one serving each).
  • Culture-specific foods: New food items and their appropriate portion sizes are now included in the new guide, such as bok choy, lychee, and naan, recognizing that Canadians eat a variety of different foods to meet their daily nutritional needs.
  • Physical activity: Exercise and fitness are also emphasized in the new Food Guide, with directions on how much and how often you should exercise.

Overall, the guide highlights a holistic and balanced approach to healthy eating, and emphasizes the importance of incorporating exercise into daily activities. As you get increasingly familiar with the Food Guide, you will be able to make healthier eating choices for yourself and your loved ones, while slowly phasing out foods that have little or no nutritional value.

In addition to the updated guide, Health Canada also launched the first-ever national Food Guide for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. This supplemental food guide specifically addresses the nutritional practices for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis and it should assist Aboriginal communities and Northerners in making informed healthy choices, while respecting their traditional way of life.

How do I use it?

Manoeuvring around the Food Guide might be a little confusing if you are a first-time Food Guide follower. But do not despair. There are tools and tips that the guide offers to help you decide and plan your meals around your specific needs - even around the needs of each family member. You can also check out the various sample menus for the family, which cater to different individuals at home.

Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide helps you learn how to:

  • read the labels on food items
  • plan your meals
  • add up your serving portions
  • keep track of what you eat
  • restrict unhealthy foods

The guide also offers tips for:

  • shopping for the right foods
  • snacking wisely
  • dining out
  • keeping fit wherever you are
  • beating obstacles that keep you from eating well

Health Canada and the Dietitians of Canada have collaboratively put together a few interactive tools that you may find useful in keeping up with healthy eating:

  • My Food Guide allows you to create your own food guide based on your food choices and preferences.
  • EATracker helps you compare whether what you are eating meets the recommendations of the Food Guide.

You can get the full version of Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide at www.hc-sc.gc.ca. Canada's Food Guide is now available in 12 languages.

Going beyond the guide

Canada's Food Guide has a long history going back to its roots in 1942, when the first guide, then titled Canada's Official Food Rules, made its debut - a national effort born of a need to educate Canadians on food portions during the lean wartime years.

Times have since changed, and the updated Food Guide reflects the evolving health needs of Canadians. Of course, there is always room for improvement, and feedback is already trickling in. For example, suggestions have been made to include daily caloric intakes and trans fat targets.

Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide is more than just a few pages filled with serving portions and calorie counts. It also represents a collective venture to reduce the occurrence of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and stroke. The risk of these conditions is increased by eating poorly and being inactive.

There is a lot to be said for eating well and staying fit. And you can start by getting a free copy of your Food Guide today.