Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy
Eating is an essential component of everyday life. We make decisions about what to eat multiple times a day. Many people have the desire to eat healthily because they know it helps with weight maintenance and disease prevention. Even though our knowledge and consciousness about healthy eating has improved, diet-related chronic diseases have increased over the last decade in Canada. Our food environment has a major impact on our ability to make decisions about food. Making healthy choices is challenging as foods and drinks high in calories, sugar, sodium and fat are widely accessible and marketed. Individuals can become confused with understanding the complex, conflicting and constantly changing information about what they should eat. The reality is that Canadians are not eating enough vegetables, fruits, whole grains or milk and alternatives. About 30% of calories consumed are from products that are high in sodium, sugar and/or fat.
To address the food environment challenges, Health Canada has proposed a healthy eating strategy. They will revise their current recommendations and create new approaches to reflect the changing demographics and lifestyle in Canada. Their strategy includes initiatives on improving healthy eating information, strengthening labelling and claims, improving nutrition quality standards, protecting vulnerable populations and supporting increased access and availability of nutritious foods. To make these initiatives successful, a collaborative approach is necessary. Health professionals, schools, food manufacturing, retail, non-government organizations and government at all levels should be prepared to take action.
The healthy eating strategy encompasses the following:
- Canada’s Food Guide was last updated in 2007. The reason this guide requires revising is because the current document uses a one-size-fits-all approach which is inadequate in meeting everyone’s needs in a multicultural country such as Canada. Canadians find the guide hard to interpret, navigate and apply the recommendations to daily life. Even some health professionals struggle with teaching individuals how to use the tool. Nonetheless, the food guide continues to be taught in schools, used by health professionals in various industries and healthcare as the basis of menu planning. Health Canada plans to release general healthy eating recommendations by the end of 2018 and healthy eating patterns with the amount and types of food by the end of 2019. These recommendations will reflect the latest scientific evidence on diet and health.
- In 2016, new regulations on nutrition labelling, specifically to the nutrition facts table and list of ingredients on pre-packaged foods were released. This will help Canadians understand and use the information given to make healthier choices. Serving sizes will be standardized so that similar products will be easier to compare. Sugars and food colours will be simplified to common names. Allergen information will also be quickly accessible. In addition, Health Canada is proposing simplified labelling on the front of packages that will allow consumers to access information on sugar, sodium and saturated fat quickly.
- In 2012, Health Canada encouraged food manufacturers and restaurants to lower the amount of sodium in their foods by providing them with voluntary sodium reduction targets to meet by the end of 2016. Health Canada plans to publish the evaluation of the industry’s efforts this year. New targets will be established for processed and restaurant foods. Over the last few years, there have been significant reductions in trans fat in industrially produced products through mandatory labelling and voluntary limits. However, some items remain high and Canadians are still consuming more than recommended by the World Health Organization. Health Canada plans to propose an approach to eliminate industrially produced trans fat in foods available in Canada.
- Children are key to developing a healthier Canada as they learn and adopt habits that frequently continue into adulthood. Children are especially vulnerable to food commercials and advertisements as they are easily influenced. They are being heavily marketed to and the food and beverages being advertised are typically high in sugar, sodium, saturated and trans fat. Health Canada aims to implement a strategy to protect children by reducing the commercial advertising of unhealthy foods to children.
- Throughout the new changes, Health Canada is committed to being open and transparent with Canadians. The information gathered and discussed at meetings and from stakeholders will be posted online throughout the implementation of the new strategies. This will allow Canadian consumers more opportunities to participate. Industry stakeholders will be able to get involved as well by commenting on proposals.
- Nutrition North Canada (NNC) is a subsidy program that makes perishable nutritious food more accessible and affordable to Northerners in remote communities. It was recently expanded in October 2016 to include an additional 37 communities. Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada also help deliver nutrition education activities to improve knowledge and skills surrounding healthy eating and the selection and preparation of foods.
The healthy eating strategy changes will impact the healthcare industry predominately with the food guide revisions and nutrient targets for food manufacturers.
Currently, healthcare facilities in Canada use the food guide and Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) to plan and develop menus. All menus must provide adequate nutrients and energy to meet the needs of patients and residents. Using the food guide to plan menus means that there must be a variety of food items from all food groups including fresh and seasonal food items. If the planned menu does not meet a patient’s or resident’s nutrition needs, an individualized menu should be developed. Once the revised general healthy eating recommendations and eating patterns are released, institutions will need to revise the planned menu and individualized diets.
We know that Health Canada is working with the food industry to establish new targets for reducing sodium and trans fat in manufactured products. This would apply to food purchased for preparation in foodservice. These changes may also require menus to be revised.
Both changes will impact the food production system in facilities. It is probable that standardized recipes, production sheets, food preparation and documentation will need updating. Lastly, these changes can affect retail food items within institutions to promote a healthier environment.
Through the healthy eating strategy, Health Canada intends to provide us with better food environments along with the tools necessary to empower Canadians to make informed choices.