I get that the Canada Food Guide isn’t perfect, but calorie counting?!

Yesterday the philosophy of food class had a poster event where the students displayed their group projects in poster form and stood beside them to talk about what they’d come up with. The assignment was something like this: Rewrite the Canada Food Guide to incorporate the values of sustainability (as presented in the course) into it.

It’s a great assignment and when I arrived at the event there was a buzz of activity in the air. The Canada Food Guide is intended to provide an easy and accessible set of guidelines for healthy eating to Canadians. It’s a colourful document and so the students’ revised versions were visually appealing. Here’s page one of the Canada Food Guide:


The Guide divides foods into four groups: fruits and vegetables, grains, milk and milk alternatives, and meat and meat alternatives. Based on age and sex, it makes recommendations for how many “servings” per day of each group someone “should” get. For example, as a 52 year-old woman, I should eat 7 fruits and veggies, 7 grains, 3 servings of milk and milk alternatives, and 3 servings of meat and meat alternatives. I won’t go into the details of what is included in each category. Feel free to check out the guide if you’re interested.

I chatted with three different groups about what they were attempting to do. The first group said that they wanted to be only mildly revisionist, recognizing that no one was about to make radical dietary changes in the name of sustainability. They had the information about livestock production and how it’s not exactly sustainable on the current scale, but they didn’t really challenge the notion that at least around here people would continue to want meat as their main protein source. But the recommended small changes. That’s fine. I wasn’t about to get into a conversation about becoming vegan, even though it is much more sustainable and much less cruel too. For such young people, they had a sense of pragmatism that impressed me.

The most interesting group, from the point of view of the sorts of things I think about when blogging here, was the group that thought the serving recommendations should be replaced by calorie counting.

Maybe it’s just me, but I was astonished to hear a group of not-quite 20 year-olds promoting the old fashioned (and I thought, long since abandoned) idea of calorie counting. But defend and promote it they did. Their thinking went something like this: it’s hard to figure out a serving, so it’s not easy to get the right number of servings per day. Calories are more exact.

Of course, I had to ask: but it’s also hard to figure out calories, is it not? They responded by noting that all foods have calorie counts on the labels. But, said I, the calories on labels are calories per serving, so in the end you still need to know the serving size to know the calorie count.

They then tried a different tack. People are different sizes and have different activity levels. That also translates into having different calorie requirements. This, I thought, was a more promising way to go. It’s true that professional athletes need more calories than office workers, and there’s a range in between. But I was still hung up on the calorie counting. I mean, how realistic is it to think that people are going to count calories every day? It’s hard enough to eyeball and count servings. They really didn’t think it would be a problem.

As someone who has gone through the calorie counting era and made it to the other side just barely intact, I feel a fair bit of confidence in thinking that calories will not be replacing servings on the Canada Food Guide any time soon. I also couldn’t quite see how this switch to calories linked up with sustainability. But by then I had already pressed harder than a professor probably should press a group of students who are not her students. So I let it go and instead admired, with all sincerity, the work they’d put into their re-designed guide.

This same group divided fruits and veggies into two separate groups because, in their words, “vegetables are better.” Because they’re better, people should eat more of them than fruits. I didn’t want to press them on the point that in fact, most people don’t even eat the recommended portions of fruits/veggies combined, so maybe starting smaller would be a good thing (baby steps!). I also didn’t want to get into a discussion of demonizing food. I thought that any minute one of them was going to tell me that juice is evil.

The final group I chatted with had an excellent presentation to go with their poster, and each of the students had their own part of the script. I only made it through half because of time constraints, but this group more than any other focused on meat and milk alternatives as a key factor in sustainability. In their revised food guide, these things took a more prominent place in the daily recommendations than in the current guide, where they are specified more as a choice.

Overall, the students did impressive work and they were well-prepared to talk about what motivated their respective approaches to the assignment.

I know that the philosophy of food class probably doesn’t think of diet rhetoric and food restriction as a major analytic lens. But my conversations with the students demonstrated to me that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get them to think critically, not just about sustainability, but also about the assumptions they have that lie behind their thinking about food and what people “should” and “shouldn’t” eat. From a feminist perspective, I can’t help but think of all the assumptions people make about good foods, bad foods, healthy foods, unhealthy foods, right portions and wrong portions, and “counting” (whether calories or micronutrients and fat grams). If I was going to teach a course that took a critical stance on food production and consumption, I would definitely want to include some of that.

If you were teaching a course the philosophy of food, what sorts of topics do you think would be important to include?

Page two of the Canada Food Guide
Page two of the Canada Food Guide

3 thoughts on “I get that the Canada Food Guide isn’t perfect, but calorie counting?!

  1. Philosophy of food -what I would include how has eating well-rounded, balanced meals has worked well (along with more active daily lifestyle) over 150yrs. ago. People never even knew about calories.

    I would incorporate section on cultural approaches. As some know, the Chinese did have the ying, yang approach to food..which used in moderation (not slavishly) works and incorporating lots of veggies with some meat (if one chooses this). It also includes fruit instead of dessert.

    But all of that has been supplanted by convenience foods, larger portions, desserts, etc.

    Maybe some folks just want an easy approach which counting calories.

    Honest, I’ve never counted calories. Not saying it’s the best for everyone. What has helped is to understand the concept of smaller portions, eating balanced meals, drink milk/water/some juice and eat only feeling 80% full. The 80% full comes from Eastern’s an old truism.

    And not add extra salt or soy sauce when food already contains this for you. It’s stunning to watch people in restaurants..

    I guess some of this if practiced intuitive eating. And I’ve never been able to all the portion numbers that the Food Guide recommends. Well, maybe around Christmas….

  2. I would want to add something about the labour involved in food production. Everything from fair trade to trying to calculate the economic/environmental costs and benefits of mass production/importation vs 100 mile diets, city garden plots and CSA baskets etc is worth discussing (and just how hard it is to get enough food to last the winter from a small city plot!). That would lead to debates on food waste and preservation methods, or it least it does in my house. Some of those issues might bump up against Jean’s suggestion on cultural approaches because things like durian an mango will never grow in Ottawa, and other imported products can accidentally include nasty hitch-hikers such as insect pests.

    Meat actually makes good sense in certain contexts (hills, dry areas), and the destruction of aquifers in the name of California almond production has me avoiding almonds. What about heritage varieties, traditional but undervalued foods such as millets, and indigenous knowledge? GMOs vs using pesticides and herbicides? This can be especially important if we think beyond North America (though the effect of pesticides on beneficial insects and birds should not be overlooked) to the people who have Vitamin A thanks to golden rice, or the people working on farms in developing countries without access to proper equipment and training for use of pesticides. Small animals such as free range goats instead of cattle?

    A discussion on convenience foods (including pre-packaged meat and vegetables in a bag) vs doing more for ourselves (including all the pros and cons of backyard poultry or beekeeping) could be fascinating. There are some entrenched positions on both sides, of course, but also some surprising science.

  3. For maintaining a healthy size, what would be better than calories in/calories out? Isn’t it a law of thermodynamics that energy cant be created/destroyed… so effectively if you know your metabolic rate (calories out), you could affect your weight in whichever way you choose. Gain weight = more calories in than out, lose weight = more calories out than in

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