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Water, Food Rainbows and Togetherness

What Canada’s Updated Food Guide Means For Your Family

By Dr. Vivien Brown, MD

Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, is pictured in a pink suit with black pin-stripes. She is smiling at the camera in this professional head shot.
Editor’s Note: We’d like to welcome Dr. Vivien Brown, MD, as a guest blogger to LifeTales. Dr. Brown is a family physician in Toronto, Canada and a well-known national and international speaker on women’s health. She’s also the author of A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging: Seven essential ways to keep you vital, happy and strong.

Eating is a powerful part of life. Think about your earliest childhood memories. Chances are, food—and the people who made it for you—plays a big part of those moments.

Yet, developing healthy food habits can be a great anxiety source for many parents. That’s particularly true if you’ve got a picky eater on your hands or your child’s suddenly changed their preferences.

In January 2019, Health Canada announced that a brand new food guide for families. It’s the first time Health Canada has revised its recommendations in 12 years.

How can this change help parents? Food guides, which reflect the best available scientific evidence at the time of their publication, offer insight into where to focus your energy in building healthy eating habits.  

And the new guide’s got some great suggestions.

The biggest change? Food rainbows, not food groups

The biggest change to Canada’s Food guide is removing the old food groups: grains, milk products, fruit and vegetables, and meat and alternatives.

Instead, the new food guide encourages Canadians to think of each meal in terms of a plate divided into four sections.

A plate and glass of water demonstrate Canada's Food Guide recommendations. The left half of the the plate is covered in colourful fruits and vegetables. The right half is divided into protein-rich and whole grain foods.
Canada’s Food Guide recommends that Canadians focus on food proportions on a dinner plate rather than traditional food groups. Image courtesy of Health Canada.
  • Two quarters of that plate should include plenty of fruits and vegetables with a variety of color, such as purple grapes, green broccoli or kale, red onion, orange sweet potato or yellow corn. (You get the idea.) Serve a variety of the most colorful foods your family enjoys.
  • One quarter of the plate should be focused on protein, such as tofu, beans, legumes or meat.
  • The plate’s last quarter should be for whole-grain foods, such as brown rice or multigrain noodles.

Unsure what counts as a whole grain? John Berardi, PhD and co-founder of Toronto-based Precision Nutrition (PN), has an excellent overview to finding whole grains in your local markets.

And PN also has a useful visual system for estimating portions using your hand size when you’re on the run.

How you eat is just as important as what you eat

Canada’s new food guide goes further than just identifying healthy foods. If you want to build strong, lifelong eating habits, parents should also be mindful of how we eat.

A group of adults eat together around a long table in an outdoor market. They are talking as they eat.
Canada’s Food Guide now recommends eating with other people is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
  1. Make time for your meals. While modern life makes it inevitable that you’ll be dining and dashing every now and again, it’s important to sit down and pay conscious attention to your food. It takes more effort to eat a healthy diet if you’re constantly on the move.
  2. Avoid digital distractions. Turn off the TV, put tablets away and keep your phones off the table. You’ll enjoy your food and develop a better sense of social connection with your family. While we’ve all distracted a grumpy toddler with a device in a crowded restaurant, devices should not be a go-to option at dinner.
  3. Cook at home more often. Home-cooked meals tend to be healthier because they give you full control of your ingredients. Decrease or eliminate high sodium foods, food high in sugar and food with saturated fats.
  4. Involve your children in preparing the meal. You can teach your kids a useful life skill and pass your family’s cultural practices along by teaching your kids to cook. Cooking can also be a way to bring children and grandparents together, deepening their sense of family and where they come from.
  5. Eat and talk together. Eating is tied to social activity, family and friends in every culture. When Brazil introduced their food guide in 2015, their government also emphasized the culture and climate of eating, along with food choice. Eating with others improves our feeling of connection, teaches conversation skills and allows us to share healthy traditions.

Ditch juice and give your kids water to drink

Water artfully pours into a clear glass tumbler.
Canada’s Food Guide now recommends that adults and children make water their primary drink. Photo by Kobu Agency on Unsplash.

Canada’s new food guide puts drinking water front and center in its recommendations, especially for children. 

That news may surprise some parents. Nutritionists and doctors have advised against giving children sugar-heavy drinks like soda for several years. But juice and milk have been staples of food guides in the past.

Yet, the new food guide recommends that Canadian families avoid all drinks that are high in sugar. That includes juice.

What about milk? Dairy is now considered a protein and not an independent category. Drinking milk should be considered against other protein consumption in the diet.

While there is some disagreement about some of these new guidelines, researchers like Yoni Freedhoff have argued that juice and milk may become gateway drinks to pop.

Eating well is a lifelong journey

Vegetables, including spinach, avocado, grape tomatoes, mushrooms and scallions--are arranged with two eggs on a wooden cutting board with a kitchen knife on top of a backdrop of grey tiles. A cooking pan lies partially across the top of the photo.
Canada’s Food Guide now recommends that you eat a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, rather than focusing on food groups. Photo by Katie Smith on Unsplash.

I get a lot of questions from my patients about how the new food guide should influence the choices they make for their families.

It’s important to remember that guidelines are not laws. Instead, they provide educated instruction that each individual should interpret. If you have questions, you should always talk to the doctors and medical professionals who know your history and health needs best.

Also, Health Canada’s recommendations reflect recent changes in medical and scientific research. By adding new discussion areas to the guide, Health Canada is asking us to consider new ideas, such as the important of eating with family, that haven’t had a lot of airtime in previous versions.

What is Health Canada’s goal in updating the guide? In general, they want to help Canadians to:

  1. Improve our personal health.
  2. Make decisions that will help us to meet our nutrient needs.
  3. Reduce the real risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases and conditions.

While these are lofty but important goals, we still need to make Canada’s Food Guide apply to our own lives. You can use the information it contains as a stepping stone to avoiding the disordered eating patterns I see in patients every day.

So, the food guide serves as a great reminder to be proactive about our eating habits as we grow and age. To have a healthy life, it’s important to be proactive about food. A meal is a process, not just an end result.

By sharing meals, play and conversation with others, we’ll all learn to make better choices for our health.

What role does food play in your family?

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