Canada’s New & Improved Food Guide: A Dietitian and Cancer Nutrition Coach Weighs In

By Emily Fitzgerald, MScFN,RD on January 24 / 2019


There’s been a lot of buzz surrounding Canada’s food guide this week, as a new and improved version was released on Tuesday featuring some pretty big changes. The new guide takes a revolutionized approach to both the foods we eat and how we should be eating them, and it has been met with mixed reactions from the public. Many welcomed the changes, saying they appreciated the healthful direction the guide seemed to be heading in, but some expressed confusion. After all, the revised guide is a huge departure from both the structure and the content of the previous version, last updated in 2007.

However, the opinions among nutrition experts are consistent: the new food guide is relevant, evidence-based and useful to Canadians. We know that most Canadians do not eat enough vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and tend to drink beverages high in added sugars. The updated food guide aims to address these behaviours and considers additional factors like determinants of health, the environment, and cultural diversity in helping Canadians make healthier food choices.

So, what are the biggest changes and key takeaways?

One of the biggest changes to the revised food guide is the layout and messaging. The trademark food rainbow and recommended serving sizes are nowhere to be found: instead, the guide uses the image of a plate filled with whole, unprocessed foods to help readers visualize what they can try incorporating. Using simple ideas and terms, the guide suggests that readers fill ½ their plate with vegetables and fruits, ¼ with whole grains and ¼ with protein food sources.

Here’s how they suggest you choose those foods:

Consume more plant-based foods and protein sources. This is a major departure from the 2007 version’s inclusion of – and choice to base entire food groups on – meat and dairy products. But the change was made because plant-based foods offer a whole host of benefits, including antioxidants, phytonutrients, fibre, vitamins, and minerals that can protect against cell damage. These foods can improve blood lipids and lead to a reduced risk of developing chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, where a high intake of red and processed meats has shown to increase risk of developing diseases like colorectal cancer (1).

Overall, this shift towards more plant-based foods could help Canadians consume more fibre-rich foods, eat less red meat and replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats for improved health. But not all animal products have been excluded: the full list on the new food guide recommends protein sources like legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, fortified soy beverage, fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, lean red meat including wild game, lower fat milk, lower fat yogurts, lower fat kefir, and cheeses lower in fat and sodium.

Make half your meal from fruits and vegetables. Getting enough fruits and vegetables has been long recommended in the food guide, but the ½ plate image now serves as a reminder of how prevalent these foods should be at each meal. According to Health Canada, eating more vegetables and fruit is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and the increase in fibre they provide is linked to improved blood lipid levels and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Choose healthy fats, but don’t cut fat altogether. The new guide actually recommends including dietary fat on your plate, choosing healthy fats more often. This means replacing saturated fats like those found in beef, pork and whole dairy with healthy unsaturated fats to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. The intention here is not to reduce fat in the diet, but to help reduce intakes of saturated fat while encouraging foods that contain mostly unsaturated fat. Examples of foods containing unsaturated fats include avocadoes, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish like salmon.

Say yes to water and no to alcohol…at least most of the time. Making water your drink of choice helps support overall health and promotes hydration. It also ensures you aren’t adding any sneaky sugars to your diet through the drinks you choose – the guide also suggests minimizing sugar-sweetened beverages, which actually contribute the most added sugar in Canadians’ diets (2). And limiting alcohol consumption is a good choice too, as a high intake of alcohol is associated with increased risk of chronic disease, including certain types of cancer (3).

Limit processed foods. Choosing minimally processed foods is beneficial to long-term health, which is why the new food guide recommends limiting intake of processed foods and beverages. These products often contain added sugars, sodium and saturated fats, which are linked to an increase risk of chronic disease.

And here’s where things get even more different…

Focus on proportion of foods, not specific portions. The focus here is on consuming whole, unprocessed foods. Leslie Beck, RD, puts it best: “Eating the right foods instead of fussing over individual nutrients is the way to go, because if you base your diet on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, fish, lean meat, yogurt and so on, you’re going to be consuming plenty of nutrients.” (4). This takes the worry out of the whole equation – fill your plate with diverse unprocessed foods, and you’re likely to cover most of the nutritional bases. Don’t think too hard about portion sizes, and instead try to fill your plate according to the proportions in the photo.

And my favourite part!

The new food guide focuses not only on foods, as healthy eating is so much more than the foods you eat. It’s also about where, when, why and how you eat. The guide encourages us to be mindful of our eating habits by taking the time to eat, becoming aware of our hunger and satiety cues, cooking more often, including others in meal planning and preparation, enjoying our food by embracing cultural and food traditions, and eating your meals in the company of others. These are very similar to the healthy eating habits that I encourage my clients to adopt during nutrition workshops, and in 1:1 nutrition coaching conversations.


Emily Fitzgerald (MScFN, RD)

The new food guide has now become an online suite of resources for Canadians, including healthy recipes, tips on meal planning and making healthy choices, and information to help you eat healthier on a budget. Again, it’s a lot like what I offer to my nutrition coaching clients and on my website at, so I think it’s a great initiative. All the food guide’s resources can be found online at

If you’re feeling unsure or overwhelmed by the changes, you’re not alone – they’re big ones, and some of the messages seem counter intuitive to what the food guide has recommended in the past. But remember, this is the first time the guide has been created without influence from outside industries, and with words of caution to readers surrounding food marketing. Plus, these changes were made with the long-term health of Canadians in mind, using the most recent scientific evidence on nutrition. While it might take some adjusting, there will be an abundance of benefits to enjoy!


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