Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Think 'food' yourself

Canada's new food guide ditches Big Brother

by

comment

"The goal should be to encourage people to think for themselves." Another great quote from one of the most quoted people of all time: Noam Chomsky, inimitable linguist, author of 100 books, "dissident intellectual" and one of my all-time heroes, who, by the way, is now 90 but still blowing up myths and propaganda masquerading as facts in every sphere, from science to philosophy.

Chomsky delivered the one-liner, which could be any thinking person's motto for life, in a recent New Internationalist. Forgive me for re-contextualizing it, but that quote is the perfect motto for our new Canada Food Guide.

I was thrilled with all the coverage and conversation we've seen around this latest food guide, including our fearless editor's take in last week's Pique ("Food for thought," Jan. 24). I bet the guide has generated more tweets and conversations than the weather—totally affirming that we really are a nation of nerds, or at least very interested in what we put in our bodies.

But I was more thrilled with the guide itself: Eat a variety of healthy food. Eat lots of veggies, fruits and whole grains. Cut the crap and the meat. Read labels. Drink water. Be mindful of what you eat (now there's a great concept from the annals of meditation and Buddhism). Eat at home more often.

Wow! I couldn't imagine a better food guide if I'd written it myself. I love the new guide's emphasis on wholesome, plant-based foods, and that industry lobbyists were left out in the cold during the input process. And, at risk of sounding like I'm blowing my own horn, I feel like I have "sort of" written it, or at least many rationales for it, in installations, over time, in this space. (References follow.)

That said, the one constant trickle of criticism that's come up about the new guide is its vagueness regarding servings. Some comments range along the lines of, why doesn't it have specific portions? To that I say, get over it, folks, and think Chomsky: "The goal should be to encourage people to think for themselves." That's the whole point of the new guide. It's meant to "guide" us with informed knowledge, while encouraging us to interpret it for ourselves—and experts are backing that up.

The old food guide's emphasis on food servings and portions was confusing, said Dr. David Jenkins, a University of Toronto nutritional sciences professor, in a Global TV interview. "Let me ask you, what is a serving of banana?" Indeed. (See my previous musings about same: "When size really matters," Pique Newsmagazine, Nov. 8, 2018).

Yoni Freedhoff, the obesity medicine specialist at the University of Ottawa, likes the new guide, too. In his informative Jan. 22 blog post, ("Canada's new food guide is out—and it's a giant step forward," Weighty Matters), he calls it a "giant step forward" and praises the way it gets away from prescriptive directives, such as drink two glasses of milk a day. (Read more about Dr. Freedhoff's take, and mine, on the old food guide in "Blinded food guides leading the blind," Pique Newsmagazine, May 30, 2013.)

But it's not lost on me how Canadians, and others, have grown used to following directives from authorities and experts for our food choices, and much more. If you follow the brilliant historian Yuval Harari's thinking in Sapiens, it's been a longstanding necessity to "follow the leaders" for organizing ourselves in large, complex groups since we left our hunting-gathering ways.

We need our experts. But we also need to think for ourselves, and frame some directives accordingly. And we need to examine history to understand where our common thinking, and guides, have come from.

Our first Canadian food guide came out in 1942. That year, Hitler declared total war, and our guide was actually a set of rules. In fact, it was called "Canada's Official Food Rules" and if you picture the heavy food rationing during the Second World War, you can further understand where those rules were coming from.

"These are the Health-Protective foods. Be sure to eat them every day in at least these amounts. (Use more if you can.)" states the militaristic intro to the 1942 rules. Adults were advised to drink a pint of milk a day, and eat some CHEESE, if available. (Yes, cheese, was in all caps. Hmm, I wonder why ...) Canadians were also told to eat one serving of a "whole-grain cereal" daily and "4 to 6 slices of Canada Approved Bread" (caps as noted), brown or white. Hmm, no rye or pumpernickel bread? Ah, but those are traditionally German, as Germans "discovered" rye when other grain crops failed.

The rules, and food guides, go on. In 1944, at least they dropped the word "Official" and added cute little drawings of eggs and such with happy smiles and legs. Early emojis. In '61, they changed the word "Rules" to "Guide", and in '77 they added a happy-face sun licking its lips.

More iterations followed, in '82, '92 and 2007, each one supposedly more modernized. But this is the first food guide that feels truly contemporary and, I venture, wise. Big Brother in Ottawa is no longer making food choices for us.

As for Chomsky, I hope he lives an even longer life and prospers with his food choices. But from what we can glean publicly, at least, he isn't that concerned with what he puts on his plate.

"He is so often preoccupied that he has to be reminded to take care of himself," writes his personal assistant, Beverly Stohl, in the online Chronicle of Higher Education ("What's it's like to be Noam Chomsky's assistant," Dec. 18, 2015). "... I've seen Noam munching on matzo smudged with butter while thumbing through a book when he hadn't gotten around to shopping for food. When I asked him where he was getting his protein, he answered, "Isn't butter protein?" He further asked, with a grin, "How about Scotch? And there must be protein in coffee."

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who likes the protein-in-butter-and-Scotch theory.