This is the first installment of a post that talks about the new Canada’s Food Guide, its history, and some interesting facts about human beings that make us resistant to the efforts of the government to nudge our eating habits in a more positive direction.
A few months ago the government released the 2019 Canada’s Food Guide. This is something that they do every decade or so with the goal of helping to further educate the public about what they should and should not be eating. It’s the government so it’s important to take their advice with a grain of salt because, in spite of their best intentions, they have a country to run so there is a big disincentive to making a very specific claim about the healthfulness or its direct opposite about any particular product given their reliance on the tax revenue generated by Canadian businesses – it would be very unwise to state that “meat is bad for people and should be avoided” even if it is true, which it isn’t, because the meat industry in Canada is huge. This means that the guide is going to be a combination of facts, some speculation based on science and marketing based on the needs of special interest groups and industry lobbyists.
When we look at the first version of the food guide – the Official Food Rules released in 1942 – we notice a single serving of potatoes per day as the recommendation as was a serving of whole grain products along with 4-6 slices of Canada Approved Bread. Milk was recommended for everyone with children drinking twice as much. It appears below:
These are the health protective foods. Be sure to eat them every day in at least these amounts (use more if you can).
MILK- Adults- 1/2 pint. Children- more than 1 pint. And some cheese as available.
FRUITS- One serving of tomatoes daily, or of a citrus fruit, or of tomato or citrus fruit juices, and one serving of other fruits, fresh, canned or dried.
VEGETABLES- (In addition to potatoes of which you need one serving daily) – Two servings daily of vegetables, preferably leafy green or yellow and frequently raw.
CEREALS AND BREADS- one serving of a whole grain cereal and four to six slices of Canada Approved Bread, brown or white.
MEAT, FISH, etc. – One serving a day of meat, fish, or meat substitutes. Liver, heart or kidney once a week.
EGGS- at least 3 or 4 eggs weekly
Eat these foods first, then add these and other foods you wish.
Some source of vitamin D such as fish liver oils, is essential for children, and may be advisable for adults.
It’s important to keep in mind that this was released during the WW2 and while food scarcity wasn’t necessarily a problem in Canada, it was not a time of plenty for most Canadians and the primary reason why organ meat was recommended. Plus, it was also 70 years ago meaning that the availability of particular types of foods was seasonal. Canada is large and it has definite seasons meaning that very little grows in most of the country for 6 months of the year. The robust transportation systems we enjoy presently did not exist meaning that fresh or fresh-ish vegetables from South America or California were simply not available. Flash frozen or canned vegetables were about the only types of garden vegetables that would be available for a large portion of the year.
The food supply chain was very different and much of what we presently have access to did not exist. Sugar was glucose from tropical sources and not sucrose, which is a combination of glucose and fructose, which is primarily sourced from corn. And it was very expensive so it wasn’t used very much. Boxed cereals and boxed anything were not as abundantly available as they are now and the chemical industry, while it did exist, was not such an integral part of what we consider the food industry. It was a simpler time, with fewer choices and with local foods contributing to the overwhelming majority of what was available to buy.
This is not good or bad, just different. The eating habits of people had less to do with food preferences and more to do with what was actually there to be eaten. People would go hungry because of a lack of availability and would find that what they ate would be more connected to the time of year or the seasons than anything else.
The Food Guide was the government’s effort to ensure that the people would receive adequate nutrition, and it didn’t have a lot to do with big business because big business wasn’t really a thing that had much of a foot hold in the food supply chain. Potatoes were recommended because they store well, so Canada had a lot of them. They didn’t grow nearly as much corn or grain as they do now and many of the things that flour allows us to make spoil very quickly without the chemical preservatives that presently exist, so these things would only be made as required.
In the years and decades that followed the introduction of the Food Guide, things changed dramatically. Spoilage stopped being a concern, food processing allowed for the creation of things that would last for months or years, and the things that human beings find palatable or irresistible, became cheaper to grow and manufacture. Food science became a thing and the chemical industry contributed their part to the creation of low cost, low nutrient, high energy foods that have an extended shelf life and trigger all of the reward centers of the brain that were historically only stimulated with rare, hard to find and scarce food. For example, ripe fruit and honey were available seasonally and then not at all. Food science put an end to this scarcity meaning sweet high calorie food stuffs were available year round.
Food choice and preferences took over. We no longer needed to be content with simply satisfying hunger, we could now begin to focus on satisfying a craving for a particular thing. The canned apples or peach jam were replaces as the winter time source of sweetness with things like boxed cookies, candy, or low cost chocolate. Say what you like about the health effects of eating too much fruit, or its relatively low nutritional content, but when given a choice between preserved fruit or modern candy, our species will get more nutrition and less energy out of things that grow than things that are manufactured. Again, this is not good or bad, it is just a thing that is true. Small amounts of manufactured and boxed candy is fine for healthy people, it just isn’t as beneficial as a similar amount of grown food.
The reasons for this are very straight forward. In order to put something in a box for consumption at some point in the future it cannot spoil and it cannot change form. Spoilage is prevented by adding things that prevent it or by removing the things that cause it meaning that preservatives are added or minerals are removed which result in novel combinations of chemicals that have never existed in nature before, let alone been consumed as food by anyone. These products maintain their form though the creative use of stabilizing agents that were discovered by the chemical industry. The traditional oils that were used to make things like bread and cookies were replaced with chemically altered oils that are solid at room temperature meaning the bread and cookies look and taste the same for months. These solid oils or fats are man-made creations and completely new to human beings – we have no evolutionary history with them meaning we have no idea how they will impact our bodies or what role they will play in gene expression.
In this case, this is bad, and for a few different reasons. The first is that adding hydrogen molecules to fat to make it more stable is, in essence, the creation of a new chemical. While it is safe to say that swallowing an individual hydrogen molecule or a few thousand of them along with each mouthful of food will be harmless to human beings, when these molecules are joined to other molecules to form a solid, they are no longer the same thing. Hydrogen is an element and an important gas that becomes a solid at -260 degrees C.
But when combined with other elements, it will help the resulting compound to form a solid at higher temperatures. Our species and anything that is alive on the planet now, only has an evolutionary history with hydrogen containing solids that exist in nature and only in the amounts that occur in nature. The manufacturing of trans-fats to create more stable oils artificially manipulates the ratio of their availability and it makes it available in a way that does not exist in nature – dairy and meat does have some trans-fat, but it also has other things that manufactured trans-fat does not, things that might work synergistically with the trans-fat to reduce or eliminate its harmful effects. The fact is that we KNOW the impact of too much trans-fat on human health, it is bad.
The second reason why adding hydrogen molecules to fat to create a more stable fat can be bad is because of how it will impact the brain. Fat is high energy (calorie) so our species has developed a taste for it because any members of our species that were motivated to eat it would seek it out and consume it whenever they could. This would mean they were consuming more energy than they were burning, and would lead to weight gain in terms of increased body fat. This extra body fat would be used when food was scarce giving these individuals a better chance of surviving a famine. Over time this survival advantage would be passed onto the following generations resulting in the tendency for human beings to find eating fat to be rewarding. By the same token and method, we also find eating sweet things to be rewarding and in a way that is proportional to the level of sweetness. When paired together, sweet things that are high in fat are almost completely irresistible to human beings. We learn very quickly that high fat sweet things give us a reward and we begin to seek out and consume these things. Sweet and fat have existed for as long as there have been people, but the combination of them, or the ease of access to things that contain a combination of them, is much more recent. Manufacture fats ensured that the food industry could supply these types of foods, in a stable form that will not spoil, in a constant and uninterrupted supply.
The food scientists have used our genes against us and created a food that we are almost powerless to say no to. Factor in the health damage that the manufacture fat causes to us and the size of the problem becomes evident. Narrative speaking, we are programmed to seek out and over eat the very things that will, in the long term, destroy our health and hurt our well-being.
For the sake of keeping this on track and because it isn’t entirely clear that GMOs and fertilizers are harmful to us, or as harmful as overeating trans-fat and sucrose, I’m going to return to the topic of the most recent version of the Canada Food Guide after stating that today, thanks to technology and the development associated with corporations and capitalism, we have access to an abundance of food, and year round access to almost everything that we are able to eat. Seasonal eating is no longer a thing that we have to stick to. While local foods will be cheaper at certain parts of the year, these food will be available year round if we have the money to buy them. This means that a lack of availability can no longer be cited as the reason why someone does not follow the Canada Food Guide – a lack of money to buy imported fruits and vegetables remains a reason but, as I will outline, it isn’t a valid reason for most of Canada’s population that live in larger and more populated areas.
A big change with the most recent version of the Guide is the elimination of a recommended number of servings. The previous version still provided a number of servings of each of the 4 food groups broken down by sex and age and it seemed to be geared towards getting adequate nutrition and adequate energy. Be aware, these two things are not the same. Nutrition is the vitamins, minerals and protein a food provides while energy is the stuff that the body will metabolize as fuel to power all of the physiological processes required to sustain life. For example, the body needs a certain amount of vitamin B12 to function optimally and it will get most of this vitamin from the meat you eat. Without the B12, things begin to breakdown and the body will start to direct any available B12 to the most critical processes. This means that a deficiency in a vitamin leads to reduced functioning of specific processes and not a global failure; this is a very good survival approach and is one that is used by most living things because it sustains life giving the organism the opportunity to seek out and consume the missing molecules. Your hair may fall out or your digestive system may become less effective, but you are still able to think and move – to hunt – and find some meat to replenish the B12 levels.
Energy is different from nutrition because it is the fuel for the metabolism. You need to consume energy fairly consistently to keep things going. When your food does not provide sufficient energy, your metabolic rate will begin to slow down and certain physiologically processes will begin to go off line. Non-essential processes will be first to drop off, things like hair and nail growth, followed by muscle repair and replacement of dead cells. Given long enough, the body will begin to consume its own tissues for energy – wasting diseases like AIDS and various late stage cancers are examples of this. However, unlike disease, if someone finds and starts to eat food, the body will start-up these processes and attempt to repair whatever damage was done and take care of whatever needs to be taken care of.
Body fat is stored energy and the process of storing it when we eat too much and burning it when consumption drops below the levels needed for maintenance represents livings beings best efforts at dealing with periodic food scarcity. You can be sure that within the genetic material of all people are combinations of DNA that code for this process and, as a result of the natural selective breeding that periodic famines caused, all of us are exceptionally good at storing body fat. Our potential ancestors who did not have the good genes for storing body fat died off during times of food scarcity leaving nothing but people who were uniquely coded to store fat.
The distinction between nutrition and energy is important because allows for a clear understand for the existence of malnourished people who are obese. The opposite can also be true although much less common given the huge difference between energy and vitamin requirements; one group of people who have a tendency towards adequate nourishment but insufficient energy consumption are those who are trying to extend their life through intense calorie reduction. This group eats large amounts of garden vegetables while refraining from foods that contain carbohydrate, fat and excessive protein. They will still desire to eat more as they will be hungry, they will just choose to not eat and, over time, learn to ignore food cravings and become accustomed to being hungry.
For everyone else hunger serves to motivate us to eat and it does not necessarily reflect our actual needs. It serves our survival needs.
Think about it this way: our genes have coded over-eating into our operating system because historically, those who over ate survived to reproduce. This means that we are coded to do the very thing that causes an increase in body fat. This tendency manifest itself in many different ways, or exists for a few different reasons, one of which is a latency between the time when we have eaten enough in terms of food volume and when the stomach sends the signals telling the brain that it is adequately filled. Rough estimates put this latency period at between 10 and 15 minutes; the exact length of time is less important than understanding the consequences to this phenomenon. The outcome is that we continue to eat past the point at which we should stop if replenishing our energy was our actual goal. This only makes sense IF overeating was in fact the goal for human beings.
Another powerful mechanism, one that I have already mentioned above, has to do with motivation. Human beings will have a tendency to do things that they find rewarding, and we find eating sweet or fat foods rewarding and find eating things that are a combination of sweet & fat to be incredibly rewarding. And it doesn’t take very long for us to figure out what we like and then to go after consuming it. Once we have uncovered it, we will over eat it at any opportunity and will often find ourselves continuing to eat it will after any reasonable amount of calories have been consumed. Some of us will, in fact, ignore the body’s “I am full” signal and continue to eat, and eat, and eat.
This makes sense given the relative scarcity of sweet and fat things in our ancestral past. It was better to gorge when the opportunity presented itself because it would usually only happen during the harvest season when fruit would fully ripen and when animals had enjoyed an abundance of food throughout the summer. Remember, all mammals have a significant amount of their genes in common, so they share the mechanism of storing body fat through over eating with us. Animals have more body fat at the end of fall / beginning of winter than they do at any other time, so they will contain more of the stuff we have learned to crave at this time of year. Coupled with an abundance of ripe fruit, we are going to be highly motivated to eat as much as we possibly can and to overeat, during harvest feasts. This allowed our ancestors to store the maximum amount of energy in the shortest period of time, which helped them get through the winter when food was scarce.
All of this worked perfectly, as evident by our species survival. Historically, we were able to get through the tough time because we over ate during the good times. Those who didn’t over eat, didn’t survive long enough to pass along their genes. While we rarely sat down to eating massive amounts of highly nutritious food, we were probably adequately nourished because the large amounts of higher energy food we did eat contained enough vitamins, minerals and protein for our bodies to function effectively. And it is worth considering the slow burn that nutrient deficiencies have on our ability to function, particularly when compared to the rapid onset of the negative consequences associated with a deficiency in energy consumption.
However, it works too well and it is now a major problem for modern people simply because we are running the identical code that we were 15000 years ago before farming of any type afforded us the freedoms associated with the elimination of food security.
Take a moment to consider what life would have been like before farming. We would exist in small groups and would have to follow the food. We’d eat as much as we could whenever we could, and then go periods of time when there wasn’t enough to eat. We’d live off of our body fat and we wandered around looking for animals to hunt and collecting whatever plant stuff we could that would provide us with anything useful. Life would be hard, a lot of our energy would go towards generating heat to maintain an appropriate body temperature and most of the rest would go toward finding our next meal. There would be very little specialization of labor because there wouldn’t be enough food to free some-up anyone from having to hunt or gather. There would be constant hunger separated by the occasional moments of gorging.
In a world were this was the norm, the ability to store energy when possible and the motivation to do the very thing that was needed to create a caloric surplus that storing energy required were essential.
Fast forward to 1942 when the first Canada Food Guide known as the Official Food Rules came out. Sure, we were running the same code that had us seek out and overeat high calorie foods and to overeat whatever food we had available, but we were not living in an environment of abundance. While it wasn’t necessarily a place of constant scarcity, given that farming existed and we had learned how to preserve enough things to make them available during the winter when nothing grew, it was not a place where there was unlimited food available to everyone. The more affluent did have improved access and they had higher body fat levels as a result, but in general, people looked more or less the same as they had for thousands of years; although there is some evidence to suggest that we were slightly taller and slightly bigger in terms of muscle and bone structure. Obesity was a very, very rare thing and being undernourished in terms of a deficiency of vitamins or minerals was more of a problem.
There was enough energy to go around but there would be seasonal droughts in terms of nutrients. This was not great, but it was a much smaller problem than having your population starving. So the government set out to solve this smaller problem and created the Official Food Rules in an effort to combat it.
Take a look again at these rules and notice how little food is actually being recommended in terms of servings, the language “when available” with reference to cheese and “at least these amounts” and the second last line “eat these foods first, then add these and other foods you wish.”
In my life time, I do not recall there ever bring a shortage of cheese, it has ALWAYS been available as far as I can tell. Regardless, they wanted to make sure everyone got enough calcium and believed that dairy was the best source of it. Next, they believed that if you were able to consume ONLY the outlined food that you would receive adequate nutrition in terms of vitamin and minerals. Finally, you had free range over what you ate AFTER you consumed the outlined food. You were fine to eat other things, like cookies or chocolate, and probably beer, but to do so only after you had eaten the other prescribed items. They are not limiting what you eat, they are saying eat at least these things before you eat other stuff. This form of languaging paints a picture that, as they viewed it at the time, did not include a significant number of people who were eating way too much. Obesity statistics are hard to find for this period of time and, while not statistically sound to say this, the lack of easily available statistics coupled with the available statistics of ~10% 1970, it is probably safe to conclude that obesity wasn’t much of a consideration let alone a problem.
The guide continued along in this fashion for about 3 decades until the 1977 Canada’s Food Guide when it began to take on a more graphical / metaphoric form. There are a few reasons why a flat text list of rules was no longer deemed sufficient enough to capture and maintain the attention of the population, like the availability of colour television, leading to a need to make things entertaining. The colour wheel that featured a smiling sun that was licking its lips is more playful and has pictures of specific food items of each type or category. It is easier to look at and is presented as two sided with more specific textual information on the back.
The name and number of recommended servings per day for two of the categories changed between the 1982 Canada’s Food Guide and the 1992 Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating. “Breads and cereals” was changed to “grain products” and the recommended servings increased from 4-5 to 5-12 as “fruits and vegetables” was changed to “vegetables and fruit” and the number of servings increased from 4-5 to 5-10. These changes reflect an increase in the availability of both grain and fruit along with a refocus on the importance of getting enough vitamins and minerals as indicated by the re-ordering of vegetables before fruits.
I remember this guide very well. It came out the year I graduated high school and it was what was in use when I took a nutrition class at university. It was also what was around when I first got exposed to the Atkins diet – an extremely low carbohydrate eating approach that causes people to enter a state called Ketosis meaning they are burning fat for energy vs. sugar. According to the recommendation in 1992 Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating, it would be impossible for someone get into ketosis if they followed it, even if they only consumed the lowest number of recommended grain servings. We were taught, and I believed, that ketosis was a dangerous state to be in and that it should be avoided at all costs. What wasn’t clear to me at the time was that ketosis was a completely natural state to get into and it was, in fact, the very state that we used to go into every time our food supply was reduced and we began to burn body fat for energy.
For what it worth, 5 servings of grain is a considerable amount of carbohydrate, while 12 servings is a massive amount and much more than most people should be consuming. According to the guide, one serving is 30 grams of cereal which has an average of 20 grams of carbohydrate, or 80 calories. This means that they recommend people eat between 100 and 240 grams of carbohydrate per day or 400 to 960 calories of carbs per day. Eating this amount of well above the threshold for ketosis. While ketosis is not the only way people will burn body fat, it is the most effective way, and the way in which our ancestors would have gone about it given that is what happens when the food supply is interpreted.
While there had been a trend of an increased number of servings of grain products in the newer versions of the guides, 1992 marks a huge increase from a max of 5 to a max of 12, while offering very little in terms of justification for eating more or less of them other than suggesting that teenagers should eat more while adults should eat somewhere in the middle.
The significance of this is very important and it has had a big impact on the number of people who are considered obese in the country. The early guides offered minimums and a suggestion that you could eat more AFTER you ate all of the recommended food, the 1992 guide gives vague advice and doesn’t explain the consequences of eating too many serving. This is a problem because there was no longer any food scarcity. There was an abundance of food, particularly grain products, which are high energy, and a massive selection of refined or processed grain products, which have a lower amount of fiber and therefore a higher percentage of calories that the body will metabolize for energy. Without clear instructions, with a higher recommended number of servings and a lack of food scarcity, people would just eat more because the guide said that they could or should.