Canada is one of the world’s largest beef producers, with its 60,000 ranches and feedlots contributing CAD $33 billion (US$26.2 billion) to the country’s economy.
But that is not stopping the federal government in Ottawa from issuing new dietary guidelines in an effort to promote healthy eating. Gone are the recommendations to eat a certain amount from various “food groups.” Also eliminated, period, is any suggestion to consume dairy products. “Regular intake of water,” is what a summary of the eating guidelines advise Canadians.
Instead of portions or servings, Canadians are now encouraged to partake in a “regular intake” of foods including produce, whole grains and protein-rich foods, especially those that are plant-based. Unsaturated fats are all right; saturated fats (sorry, beef and coconut oil) are not included in this new picture. Conversely, “limited intake” is the mantra for foods high in sodium and saturated fat; for those processed foods high in sugar, “avoidance” is what is now preached. Interestingly enough, not once in the guidelines is the word “vegetarian” posted at all.
And in a conclusion that would send shivers down the spine of food industry leaders south of the border, Canadian public health officials are asking citizens to consider not only basing their eating choices on what is nutritious, but also to gauge these foods’ environmental benefits. “In general, diets higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods are associated with a lesser environmental impact, when compared to current diets high in sodium, sugars and saturated fat,” say the authors of these guidelines.
Furthermore, the new Canadian dietary recommendations posit that cultural diversity should help guide food choices. Touting the country’s 200-plus ethnic groups, the framework says, “Traditional foods and the harvesting of traditional foods are intrinsically linked to identity and culture, and contribute to overall health.”
Canada is not the first country to be aggressive in suggesting a shift away from animal-based protein. Last year, the Netherlands’ government adopted guidelines that encourage Dutch citizens to adopt more of a plant-based diet while limiting weekly meat consumption to less than 500 grams (17.6 ounces).
Meanwhile, Brazil has adopted nutritional recommendations similar to Canada’s new concept: forget any food guide; make fresh and minimally processed foods the foundation of one’s diet; rely on whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables; and occasionally have chicken or fish. The Brazilian government also suggests limited consumption of processed foods such as pickles, cheese and bread. As for “ultra-processed foods” including sweetened breakfast cereals, soft drinks and instant noodles, the directive is to avoid. Finally, in a move to encourage communal eating, the guidelines say:
“Eat slowly and enjoy what you are eating, without engaging in another activity. Eat in clean, comfortable and quiet places, where there is no pressure to consume unlimited amounts of food. Whenever possible, eat in company, with family, friends, or colleagues: this increases the enjoyment of food and encourages eating regularly, attentively, and in appropriate environments. Share household activities that precede or succeed the consumption of meals.”
Supporters of Brazil’s rewrite of dietary guidelines insist that such measures are necessary for both public health and cultural reasons, a lesson apparently learned a continent away in Canada. “Like many middle-income countries, during the past few decades Brazil has whiplashed from an epidemic of malnutrition to one of obesity,” wrote Olga Khazan in The Atlantic last year in her narrative, which showcased how Brazilians’ shift from traditional fare to fast and processed foods caused the country’s obesity rate to skyrocket this century.
Do not expect the U.S. to fall in line any time soon. Although the “Choose My Plate” initiative is a big improvement in the carbohydrate-heavy and diabetes-inducing food pyramid of yesterday, critics say the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is still intimidated by the lobbying prowess of U.S. agribusiness interests.
Watch for more countries to adopt similar guidelines as governments enumerate the costs associated with public health problems such as obesity, compared to acquiescing to the demands of powerful food companies. Winners will be food technology companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which become more mainstream and are not far off from finding new markets overseas. Meanwhile, the global meat industry, despite claims that it is becoming more sustainable and is working to fight deforestation, may find that day of “peak meat” – not to mention a budding laboratory meat sector – will soon throw this sector even more curve balls.
Image credit: Nancy Regan/Flickr