Dad smiling while his daughter drinks milk

From Food Pyramid to Healthy Eating Plate: How Dietary Recommendations Have Changed Over the Years

Most of us include eating healthy in our goals but fall behind on achieving it. For all the information on healthy eating and dietary recommendations, it can be a difficult task for even the most committed person. Often, our busy schedules, monetary restrictions, or resignation get in the way. It also doesn’t help that dietary recommendations seem to change frequently. How are we supposed to know what the healthiest option is? 

Recommendations have indeed changed over the years, but that does not have to keep you from pursuing healthy eating. In Canada and around the world, dietary recommendations serve as a guideline for healthy eating. At Lumeca, we’re committed to helping everyone achieve a healthy lifestyle, which often begins with a healthy diet. So, from the food pyramid to today’s recommendations, we’ve done the research so you don’t have to. 

A history of dietary recommendations

The first Canadian food guide published in 1942 was the “Official Food Rules.” The ’42 version, developed during World War II, was made to “improve the health of Canadians by maximizing nutrition in the context of food rationing and poverty.” The categories were the recognizable milk, fruits, vegetables, cereals and breads, meat and fish, and egg––with some notable additions like “liver, heart or kidney once a week.” 

From 1942 until 1961, the Canadian Council on Nutrition developed these food guides as well as the first Dietary Standard for Canada in 1938. Interestingly, in 1961, the name officially changed to the food guide instead of rules, a softening of language that stuck. By this time, categories like liver were not as prominent, and whole grains were recommended. And there were specific guides for pregnant or nursing mothers in terms of milk intake. 

Broadening the reach

In 1977, the food guide underwent a massive redesign––”for the first time, colorful pictures of foods grouped in wheel-like fashion around a sun graphic.” The 1977 version updated its recommendations with new data from the Nutrition Canada National Survey. The changes included enriched products in the bread category and “milk products” which implied other dairy foods. And fruits and vegetables finally combined into a single group. 

Everything in moderation

A 1982 edition of the food guide included a considerable shift in dietary advice. A moderation statement “encouraged Canadians to limit fat, sugar, salt, and alcohol was an attempt to curb the rising rate of diet-related chronic diseases by influencing eating habits.” 

Total diet approach

In the 90s, some of the most dramatic changes to the guide occurred. The name was changed to “Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating,” and included a shift to the “total diet approach” of choosing which foods to eat. In the past, food guides advised Canadians on minimum requirements for healthy eating. The 1992 guide, however, focused on meeting energy and nutrient requirements with varying serving sizes. These were based on age, body size, gender, and other health conditions. 

The early 2000s version was a precursor to the most recent 2019 guide. The guide changed to a six-page foldout booklet. It focused on evolving factors and environments that impact the average Canadian diet. It also added milk alternatives, more ethnically diverse food choices, and information on using food labels.   

The food pyramid 

The traditional food pyramid is a cornerstone of dietary recommendations. In the 1970s, a Swedish woman named Anna Britt Agnsäter took the government’s concept of primary and supplementary foods and used a triangular model “to better visualize the portions.” 

The food pyramid departed from the United States and Canada’s use of a wheel. America adopted the pyramid in the 1990s with the noticeable separate dairy section and increased grain section. Luise Light, a former USDA worker, said: “the wholesale changes made to the guide by the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture were calculated to win the acceptance of the food industry.” 

However, the United States was not the only nation to adopt the food pyramid and similar food guides. Of the 70 countries that use comparable standards, the design and specifics change. They vary from Belgium’s inverse triangle to China’s food guide pagoda to Finland’s focus on plant-based and sustainable foods. But the basic premise stays moderately the same throughout all versions. Higher whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lower alcohol and sugar intake. 

Healthy plates, healthy people 

Many of us eat with our eyes first. If that’s true, then the stylized visual plates displaying dietary recommendations make perfect sense. The 2019 version of Canada’s food guide is the first iteration since 2007 and has an entirely new look yet again. In all, the guide is 62-pages and advises Canadians to have mindful eating habits, cook more, eat with others, limit highly-processed foods, and choose plant proteins. 

The prominent image is a plate split between fruits and vegetables, “protein foods,” and whole grains, with a glass of water for the “drink of choice.” The interactive online guide also includes recipes, tips, and resources to help balance out a proper diet. 

The highly-visual plated guides have been more common in the last few years. America’s ChooseMyPlate and the United Kingdom’s Eat Well Guide are two recent examples of dietary recommendations in plated style. The latest renditions of these guides indicate that nutritional information is multi-faceted, but the basics remain the same. Canada’s Food Guide Snapshot’s plate model visually displays serving sizes rather than giving exact numbers, which they found was easier to understand in focus groups. 

What constitutes a healthy diet? 

Canada’s new food guide gives a vibrant look at the basics of new dietary recommendations, but what are the specifics? 

According to its new guide, it is considered an “online suite of resources” that advise Canadians on healthy food choices, includes updated recommendations on saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, and works on mobile for people on the go. Here are some of their suggestions: 

Replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat: The guideline’s purpose is to decrease LDL-cholesterol and switch types of fats rather than eliminating fat from the diet. An example would be switching from coconut oil to olive or peanut oil. Or using avocado instead of butter. 

Choose water: Rather than drinks loaded with added sugar like juice, sports drinks, and sodas, the guide recommends making water the drink of choice. 

Avoid processed foods: Guideline 2 refers to foods that inhibited healthy eating because “Canadians are purchasing more highly processed foods.” 

Use food labels as a tool: The new food skills section on the 2019 guide urges Canadians to use food labels to make healthy food choices. 

The food guide changes

The 2019 guide includes a section of what’s still to come. Sections like Canada’s Healthy Eating Pattern for Health Professionals and Policymakers and Considerations for Indigenous People.

A Montreal Gazette article summed up the guide in two sentences: “More water, less booze and chocolate milk. More home-cooked meals with others, less frozen pizza alone.” The article goes on to say that the ‘radical shift’ from the 2007 guide to this, represented by the plate image, is about proportion, not portions. In addition to this, the new recommendations for dairy and protein alternatives were “based on a thorough review of scientific reports since 2006 — excluding reports that were commissioned by the food industry.” 

For those who may wonder at the validity of the research, “Health Canada examined over 100 systematic reviews on food topics, and notes that industry-commissioned reports were excluded from the review, in order to reduce any conflict of interest.” A CBC news piece shows that the new dairy recommendations caused some industry groups to oppose the new warnings that could cost them $2 billion. Despite the opposition, items that nutritionists want you to reconsider feature new symbols––a triangle and exclamation point. After all, the “Canada Food Guide is there to help people pick the best foods possible.” 

The slow food evolution 

The slow food movement is now in over 100 countries after beginning in Italy in 1986 as a “small-scale food system tied to the specific region you live in.” The movement steers people away from fast food and prepared food options that pose a health risk. Instead, they advise people to choose slow foods that rely on taste and a region’s history. 

Slow Canada works as a complementary piece to the Canadian dietary recommendations. It’s about “history, tradition, culture, and taste.” One example is when Slow Canada launched a national preserving and canning campaign that hearkened back to Canadian traditions of preserving fruit and vegetables. The Canadian unit of Slow Food focuses on educating children on healthy eating. It also is about honoring and celebrating indigenous cultures. Much the same as the new Food Guide.

The benefits of healthy eating

As the new food guide shows, a healthy diet is about more than stacking your plate with fruits and vegetables. Although that’s not a bad place to start. It’s about mindful eating, cooking more, eating fewer processed foods, and eating with others. 

A study from Mintel showed that 63 percent of Canadians believe eating well improves their emotional and physical health. Of this number, 43 percent are willing to try foods that are “marketed for their health benefits.” 

Of the Canadians interviewed, most said it is hard to eat healthy because of how busy they are. Plus, 40 percent do not know how to discern which foods are healthy and which are not. This uncertainty is where helpful tools like the Food Guide and updated food labels come in. It is also where the doctors and health professionals at telehealth companies like Lumeca can help inform patients on good eating habits for good health. Even with their busy schedules. 

The benefits of healthy eating extend beyond losing weight and improving mental health. Eating healthy can reduce your cancer risk, help you with diabetes management, increase heart health and prevent stroke, improve your memory, and strengthen your bones and teeth. Imagine if you had more energy for your work, your family, and your hobbies. Food guides like Canada’s may have changed over the years, but the goal remains “to help people and their families make sure they are eating the recommended amount and type of food each day.” 

Recommendations in your pocket

Despite the evolution of dietary recommendations from the food pyramid to the plate system, the essentials remain the same. Healthy eating is about meeting the fundamental recommendations of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and milk and dairy products. Yet, it is also about enjoying food with others, cooking instead of buying pre-made, and honoring tradition. With advances in research, it’s no wonder that specific recommendations have changed over the years. Now, it’s easier than ever to maintain a healthy diet. And, with advances in technology, you can access resources like Lumeca and the mobile Food Guide to always keep you on track to a healthy lifestyle.