Although there is no perfect model when it comes to nutrition, authorities in most Western countries publish food guides to help us make wise choices that combine pleasure and health.
In this sheet devoted to food guides, we will first see the constraints faced by those who develop them. We will then look at three food guides with their respective recommendations. Finally, we will try to see in what direction food guides are currently evolving, based, among other things, on the suggestions of organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).
Indeed, to help different countries establish their food guides, WHO regularly publishes various guidance documents. These deal as much with the nutritional content (based on the most recent scientific research) as with the best ways to have the new recommendations accepted by the various populations according to their customs, habits, traditions and socio-economic particularities. It was as a result of such suggestions that a few years ago, food guides began to suggest eating certain foods or food groups rather than recommending eating a whole series of specific nutrients.
When consulting a food guide, it is important to know that it is not just a scientific document. Its development must also take into account cultural, political and economic factors. Thus, it is not only nutrition specialists who take part in decisions, but also the food industry, which can create conflicts of interest. It should be mentioned in this regard that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates vegetarianism, sued, and won, against the United States Department of Agriculture in 20005. The judgment determined that the Department intentionally withheld information concerning the links between food guide officials and the dairy, meat and egg industries.
In addition, when developing their guides, governments must take domestic policy constraints into account: self-sufficiency, support for agriculture, land use, promotion of resource regions, etc. Finally, it would be counterproductive to promote a diet – however beneficial it may be for health – which would require such changes in eating or cooking habits that it would have virtually no chance of being adopted by the people.
These are all factors that explain why, despite similar basic principles, there are several differences between the guides, and why many pressure groups criticize them.
Food Guides – The Canadian, American and French Guides
In its most recent edition (February 2007), Canada’s Food Guide places great emphasis on fruits and vegetables. It advises reducing fats, especially trans fats and saturated fats. Servings of grain products are 3-8 per day. Half of them should be whole grains.
In terms of meats and alternatives, the Guide recommends eating at least two meals of fish per week and often eating legumes or tofu. Soy beverages are part of the Milk and Alternatives group. Other foods from the country’s ethnic communities are also featured: kefir, bulgur, quinoa…
Portions are precise. Indeed, we take into account the age and gender of consumers. Canadians are also encouraged to read food labels carefully so that they choose choices that are lower in fat, sugar and salt.
Health Canada believes that eating the recommended amounts and types of food can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and osteoporosis. He also insists on the need to do physical exercise every day and to control your weight to prevent the risk of obesity and diabetes.
To learn more about Canada’s Food Guide, you can consult the analysis of dietitian Hélène Baribeau.
Canada’s Food Guide:
|egetables (at least one dark green |
and one orange each day) and fruit
|Children: 4 to 6 servings/day|
Teenagers: 7 to 8 servings/day
Women: 7 to 8 servings/day
Men: 7 to 10 servings/day
|Grain products (half of which are whole grains)||Children: 3 to 6 servings/day|
Teenagers: 6 to 7 servings/day
Women: 6 to 7 servings/day
Men: 7 to 8 servings/day
|Milk and alternatives including soy beverage, |
yogurt, kefir and cheese (prefer skim milk or
1% or 2% M.F. milk and low-fat alternatives)
|Children: 2 to 4 servings/day|
Teenagers: 3 to 4 servings/day
Women: 2 to 3 servings/day
Men: 2 to 3 servings/day
Meat and alternatives (including two servings
of fish per week, and often legumes or tofu)
|Children: 1 to 2 servings/day|
Teenagers: 2 to 3 servings/day
Women: 2 servings/day
Men: 3 servings/day
The American food guide is in the form of a pyramid (named MyPyramid). It was revised in April 2005 and now takes physical activity into account. The guide was also personalized according to 12 different individual profiles established according to age, gender and propensity to engage in physical activity.
The pyramid emphasizes moderation and variety and divides foods into six categories. It puts more emphasis on fruits, vegetables, grains and dairy products, and advises reducing the consumption of meat and fat.
However, although the United States is the country with the highest proportion of obese people in the world, the new pyramid was not shaped to make Americans lose weight. Rather, it aims for them to maintain a healthy weight. We want it to serve as a trigger to get people to gradually change their eating habits and lifestyle.
The American Pyramid (MyPyramid)
Group 1: Grain products (preferably whole grain or enriched)
Group 2: Vegetables (preferably dark green or orange)
Groupe 3: Fruits (prefer variety and do not overdo the juices)
Group 4: Fats (in moderation, and choose good fats)
Group 5: Dairy products (preferably lean or fat-free), or other sources of calcium
Group 6: Meat, beans, peas, poultry, fish and nuts (preferably low fat)
The French guide, entitled Health comes by eating, presents basic recommendations, quite similar to those of other food guides. However, a distinction is made between the different types of fat and less emphasis is placed on meat substitutes. The guide also has an interesting feature: it offers a series of personalized advice based on 25 very specific portraits, ranging from “The food, I don’t care about I’m a vegetarian” to “I tend to snack between meals”, “I often eat fast food”, “I only eat “organic” “ and “I restrict myself so as not to gain weight” , “I’m on a diet”. The advice is presented in a clear, concrete and fun way. See website reference below.
The next generation of food guides
The food guides are constantly being renewed, and there is of course always room for improvement. Many experts believe, for example, that the recommended portions are often too high or should be more specific depending on the characteristics of the people (male or female, active or sedentary, etc.). Others feel that too much emphasis is placed on meat and dairy products. In light of various studies, it is also suggested, particularly in the fight against obesity, to explain which fats to avoid and to favor, rather than simply advocating a reduction in their total consumption.
Food guides – On the research side: Willett’s pyramid
The team of Dr. Walter Willett, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University School of Public Health, published their own version of the American food pyramid in 2001 in the book Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. It was updated and republished in 2005. This pyramid is based on nutrition research conducted over the past 20 years and multiple epidemiological studies, including one involving 121,700 women.
The pyramid proposed by Dr. Willett was intended to correct certain shortcomings of the Canadian and American guides to which she criticized, among other things, a lack of distinction between the types of food within the same group. The most recent version of Canada’s Food Guide has taken up, in part, certain principles of the Willett pyramid. Others have also been applied in the new American pyramid, but Dr. Willett considers that the latter still has significant deficiencies7. Here are the main recommendations of the Willett pyramid.
The foundations of the pyramid: exercise and weight control. It is the base of the pyramid. Young and old, young or old, we all need to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day. This measure, associated with a healthy diet, is not intended to lose weight, but rather to control it, among other things by balancing energy intake and expenditure. If you are overweight, you must take the necessary measures to remedy it.
Look for good fats. Harvard researchers say, and numerous studies confirm,8-11 it’s not so much the amount of fat that harms cardiovascular health, but rather the types of fat consumed. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in nuts, avocados, fish, olives and most vegetable oils, have been observed to play an important role in preventing coronary heart disease. Similarly, the results of a meta-analysis9 reveal that the substitution of a portion of carbohydrates by a portion of “good fat” of equivalent energy value is associated with a 30% reduction in coronary disorders, while the substitution of a “bad fat” (trans fat, hydrogenated vegetable oil, butter, animal fat) by a vegetable “good fat” is associated with a 45% reduction in risk.
Cereals…whole! Whole grains should be part of most meals while refined ones (rice and white bread, for example) should be eaten only exceptionally. The fact that they turn into sugars very quickly during digestion associates them more with treats than with healthy foods.
Better sources of protein. Less red meat and more legumes, nuts, fish, poultry and eggs.
Lots of vegetables and fruits, but less potatoes. There are no restrictions on the amount of vegetable to eat. They are considered beneficial for preventing a range of diseases, including cancer12. On the other hand, potatoes would have a harmful effect on blood sugar and insulin levels. Fewer dairy products, especially those high in fat. Calcium should instead come from green vegetables and tofu, for example, or even from supplements, which are a cheaper source than dairy products.
Alcohol, in moderation. After analyzing the many studies on the subject, Dr. Willett’s team concludes that one drink per day would have a favorable effect on health, especially in the face of cardiovascular disease. But overconsumption can have devastating effects. So someone who already drinks moderately shouldn’t abstain, but someone who doesn’t drink would have no interest in starting. A multivitamin per day, in prevention. This is one of the most controversial recommendations of the new pyramid. According to Willett, with the current pace of life, even the most conscious people about their diet are at risk of having certain deficiencies. For pennies a day, a multivitamin would be a good insurance policy.
Food Guides – Recommendations from the World Health Organization
In a document dating from January 200313, WHO proposes strategies intended, among other things, to inspire the next revisions of food guides. One of the objectives is to reduce the occurrence of chronic diseases (cancer, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, dental caries, etc.) related to dietary factors and physical activity. Developed following extensive research, here are the main recommendations of WHO.
Some research groups have recently presented new recommendations that may influence future updates to the guides. We present some of their findings.
Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts.
Substantially increase the practice of physical activity throughout life.
Replace saturated and trans fats with unsaturated fats, and reduce total fat intake.
Choose fish, lean meats and low-fat dairy products if you consume animal products.
Reduce consumption of “simple” sugars.
Reduce salt intake from all sources.
Reduce intensive marketing to children of products high in fat and sugar. According to WHO, the implementation of these measures should be done in a concerted manner, and over a long period of time. They could lead to the largest and most significant change in public health ever seen.
Food guides – The tracks of the Mediterranean diet
Since the 1950s, the benefits of the diet of Mediterranean populations have been observed. In 1960, adult life expectancy in these regions was among the highest in the world, while the incidence of coronary heart disease, certain cancers and other diet-related illnesses was among the lowest in the world. Although dietary factors alone are not sufficient to explain the excellent health of Mediterranean people, and although some studies are criticized for a lack of methodology, there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the Mediterranean model constitutes protection, among other things, against cardiovascular disease and diabetes. No wonder the Mediterranean diet is increasingly seen as a source of inspiration for food guides.
Although there are regional variations, the traditional Mediterranean diet is high in carbohydrates and monounsaturated fats (olive oil), and low in saturated fats (dairy products and meats). It is characterized by a high consumption of foods of plant origin (cereal products, legumes, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds); low to moderate amounts of foods of animal origin (red meat and dairy products, fish) with the main source of fat being olive oil. Alcohol, which is usually wine, is consumed in moderation with meals, and weight control is part of the tradition. (See our Mediterranean diet sheet.)
Food guides: a good basis
The vast majority of nutrition specialists, whether from the official or more “alternative” backgrounds, agree that food guides are an excellent basis for guiding food choices. There are certainly very few people who could not take advantage of at least some of the advice therein, and thus improve their health. It is then up to everyone to decide to what extent they want to study them, comply with them, adapt them to their situation or even go beyond them…
Food guides: Website references
All about American nutrition and health. To access the new Food Pyramid, click on MyPyramid.gov.
Official nutrition recommendations, updated in 2007.
A site dedicated to nutrition professionals and researchers, but also to the general public. Harmonie Santé offers a wealth of information, often alternative, and nutritional advice, as well as a fairly extensive recipe directory!
A complete file on the essential elements of a healthy diet. There is the food pyramid developed by Dr. Willett’s team. The Fats & cholesterol section is particularly useful for getting to know the good and bad fats better.
The PNNS provides a lot of information on nutrition and very useful reference points.
The official guide. Original, simple and adapted to 25 different life portraits. The Landmarks section is particularly user-friendly and provides tips that are easy to put into practice.
Everything about olive oil: history, manufacturing processes, producing countries and applications in the therapeutic, cosmetic and culinary fields.
A team of experts presents a historical dossier on the characteristics and effects of the Mediterranean diet on the health of several populations in Europe and the United States.
Check out more cusine tips!
Credits: Passport Santé