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By: Melissa Bennardo and Nicole Di Donato
Canada’s new Food Guide suggests affordable diet options, but requires students to be more food literate, according to registered dietician Charles Ko.
“What I mean by literacy is really understanding how to cook from scratch as well as knowing how to shop,” said Ko. “I think those are actually two of the hurdles that Canadians and students really struggle with.”
Ko graduated from Ryerson’s nutrition and food program in 2017 and is now an in-store dietician at Loblaws.
The food guide encourages Canadians to cook more often to develop healthier eating habits.
“I think there’s some glorification in the starving student narrative. Like the ‘I only eat ramen and pizza’ (stereotype),” said Rossen Lee, a third-year nutrition and food student at Ryerson. “People should be eating and learning (to cook) together, because that’s a fun and meaningful way to gain experience.”
Ko said the new guide is great for Canadians because it is more approachable.
The guide, which was released Jan. 22, ditches the concept of serving size and no longer has four main food groups.
Instead, a plate is divided into three sections. Half the plate is dedicated to vegetables and fruits, one-quarter of the plate is for whole grains, and one-quarter is for proteins, such as meat, fish, or lentils. It focuses on a plant-based diet and encourages water to be a drink of choice.
This is the first time that Canada’s food guide has been updated since 2007.
“We find that a lot of Canadians were confused about figuring out what a serving size is,” said Ko. “With the plate model, it’s very, very simple.”
Angelea Panagakos, a third-year nutrition and food student at Ryerson, agrees.
“I think it’s easier to understand because the old food guide had a lot of confusing messages such as enjoy ‘100 per cent Fruit Juice,’ when there really is no definition of what that actually is,” said Panagakos. “The food groups and serving sizes were just confusing, even to a nutrition student.”
According to Canada’s 2019 Food Price Report conducted by Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph, vegetables will be undergoing the greatest price increase.
Vegetable prices will go up about four to six per cent, while meat prices will begin to decline. The report claims that this increase may be due to a spike in the number of consumers who are reducing or eliminating meat from their diets.
Ko said the guide can be cost-friendly if you know where to shop in the grocery store.
Most stores like Loblaws and Metro have a half-price produce aisle. These aisles house products marked down because they are approaching their expiry date, but are still good to eat.
Ko often tells customers to shop for fruits and vegetables during their peak harvest season.
He also recommends the “70/30 mix.”
“If you’re gonna do something like a meatloaf or a brown beef sauce, you can always substitute 30 per cent of the meat and replace it with lentils, which is more economical and also a lot healthier overall,” he said.
Some students feel that the new food guide is affordable, especially for those on a budget.
“I’ve been vegan for the last 12 years and I consistently spend less on food than my omnivore friends,” said Hannah Stahl, a fourth-year nursing student at Ryerson. “Lentils, beans, rice, in-season and frozen veggies, are among the cheapest ingredients and I’m splurging if I spend more than $25 on food in a week.
“It’s not as easy to eat at restaurants when you’re on a plant-based diet, so it also encourages you to cook at home which is cheaper,” she added.
Daniel Martinez, a third-year sociology student at Ryerson, says animal-based proteins can have negative economical and health effects.
“Aside from the upscale plant-based eateries, plant-based foods are some of the cheapest foods in stores compared to less nutritious animal-based protein that is more popular but comes with an increased risk of a number of food-related illnesses that actually end up costing more to deal with in the long run,” said Martinez.
Food insecurity remains a concern
Although the new guide is affordable for some, food insecurity still affects many students at Ryerson.
According to the Good Food Centre’s annual Hunger Report, the centre had a total of 3,224 visits among 282 members between July 2017 and June 2018.
The report additionally states that 28.6 to 39 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students experience food insecurity.
The Good Food Centre is operated by the Ryerson Students’ Union. It helps to reduce the impact of food insecurity on campus by providing students and faculty with essential food items. The centre orders food based on the needs of its members.
Harnoor Gosal, a co-ordinator at the Good Food Centre, said many students on campus do not have access to food banks or they are not aware of the support Ryerson provides.
“A lot of students are struggling with (food insecurity) on their own, which is really upsetting to hear,” Gosal said. “I would say that right now, on campus, it is a pretty big problem.”
Maria Jude, a fourth-year nutrition and dietetics student, runs a group called Ryerson Students for Food Security.
It aims to empower individuals to inspire social change and alleviate food insecurity. She says that food insecurity is a growing issue among post-secondary students.
“Canada’s food guide is not currently feasible and it isn’t for most Canadians with a low socio-economic status,” Jude said. “But it will hopefully pave (the) way for a better food system, maybe one in which healthy food is a public good.”
Debbie Field is a distinguished practitioner at Ryerson’s Centre for Studies in Food Security (CSFS). The CSFS works to promote food security through research, education and community action. Field said the new guide should make finding affordable food easier for students, not harder.
“Food on the Ryerson campus is very hard to get. And very expensive,” Field said. “Certainly if you’re living on a tight income – which many Ryerson students are – it’s really hard.”
Field said she couldn’t believe how much she spent on a salad and sandwich at one of the retail outlets on campus.
She said although this new guide is not a food policy document, it does encourage Canadians to eat a certain way.
Both Field and Ko say it’s important to keep in mind that this is just a guide.
“At the end of the day, we’re not going to be able to create something that’s good for everyone,” said Ko. “It’s just to guide us to eat healthier choices overall.”