Making healthy food choices
By Dara Poizner
Posted on February 22, 2021
Eating a healthy diet is an important part of overall well-being. But what exactly is involved in keeping a healthy diet?
This article will discuss Canada’s guidelines for healthy eating, challenges that Canadians might face with food and nutrition, and tips for making healthy choices with limited money and time.
Canada’s Food Guide
Canada’s Food Guide is a nutrition guide created by Health Canada. The newest version was released in 2019, and it is a key source of nutritional information for Canadians. The guide includes advice about healthy food choices and eating habits, recipes, and healthy eating tips and resources.
Key points from the Food Guide
Eat plenty of foods that can improve overall health and lower the risk of some health problems. This includes:
- Vegetables and fruits, which have important nutrients like fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Choose vegetables and fruits with a variety of textures and colours.
- Whole grains such as quinoa, oats, brown rice, and whole grain bread or pasta, which are high in fibre, vitamins, and minerals.
- Protein foods such as beans, lentils, lean meats, fish, tofu, eggs, and lower fat dairy products. Choose plant-based proteins often, as they can provide more fibre with less saturated fat.
- Healthy fats such as nuts and seeds, avocado, fatty fish, and vegetable oils, which can lower the risk of heart disease.
Some foods can increase the risk of some health problems, including heart disease and blood pressure. These foods include:
- Foods that are high in sodium or sugar.
- Foods that are high in saturated fats such as fatty meats, high-fat dairy products, and some oils.
- Highly processed foods such as processed meats, prepared sauces, fast foods, sugary drinks, frozen desserts, and baked goods.
Drink water to stay hydrated. Try to avoid too many drinks that are high in sodium, sugar, or saturated fat, including sugary drinks (like pop or juice), alcoholic drinks, energy drinks, and specialty teas or coffees made with high-fat dairy.
Cook often to support healthy eating habits. Cooking more means having better awareness of nutrition, relying less on highly processed foods, and saving money on food from restaurants.
Check food labels to be informed about ingredients and nutritional value, and be aware of the impact of food marketing. Rely on nutritional information to make healthy food choices rather than on marketing messages. Be aware that kids and teens are especially likely to be affected by marketing.
Enjoying the food we eat helps us build healthy attitudes about food. Enjoying foods can involve choosing a variety of flavours, including cultural food traditions, socializing during mealtimes, cooking with loved ones, and creating a positive eating environment.
Challenges with healthy eating
Canada’s Food Guide provides helpful advice, but it has its limitations. Parts of Canada do not have proper access to healthy food, and there are many social and economic factors that influence how we eat—like cultural values, closeness to grocery stores, and income. According to Sarah Duignan, a biocultural anthropologist, the guide does not do enough to address these barriers, which many Canadians face. She says that the guide should be more aware of these issues so that it can make practical recommendations. Even though it does state that culture is an important part of a healthy diet, the guide does not acknowledge how important it is for people’s well-being to maintain a connection to their culture through food. It does not effectively include traditional Indigenous foods or foods that may be more familiar to newcomers to Canada.
When people do not have access to affordable, nutritious food, it is called food insecurity. Duignan points out that new immigrant families, low-income households, and Indigenous populations living off-reserve have higher rates of food insecurity.
The diets of refugees and immigrants in Canada may be affected by factors like stress, lower economic status, and cultural difference. As a result, people who have immigrated are sometimes at a higher risk of certain health problems such as high cholesterol and blood pressure.
Healthy eating, although it is important, is easier said than done. Sometimes it is cheaper to buy fast food than healthy ingredients. And for busy people, it can be hard to find the time to cook nutritious meals. People dealing with many pressures in their lives may often find that buying cheaper, ready-made meals and snacks is the easiest option, even if not the healthiest.
It is okay to eat foods that are not very healthy—like fast food or baked goods—in moderation. Remember that enjoying your food is important. However, it is best to try to get good nutritional value from your diet overall.
Cooking when you’re low on cash or time
Cooking healthy meals with a limited budget or time can be tricky, but it can be made easier with good shopping and cooking habits. Here is some advice for how to make the most of your time and money.
Stock up on food staples while they are on sale. Canned items like beans, frozen items like vegetables, and dry goods like pasta and rice last a long time. Some foods that go bad more quickly—like fresh fruit, meat, fish, and bread—can be frozen for later. By buying many pantry staples during a single trip to the grocery store, you may not need to go shopping as often.
Buy canned legumes and canned or frozen fruits and vegetables that are low in added sugar or sodium. They are often more affordable than fresh fruits and vegetables but have similar nutritional value. They are also usually quick to cook.
Choose fruits and vegetables that are in season, as they tend to be cheaper and of better quality. You can also freeze produce to save it for a time when it is no longer in season.
Compare the prices of similar items. There are “name brand” and “store brand” versions of many foods: the store brands are usually less expensive, but similar in quality.
Make a shopping list and stick to it. Planning what to buy before you go to the store saves time and money. Try not to shop while hungry—you are more likely to buy something you didn’t plan to.
Prepare large amounts of food at one time; these can be stored in the fridge or freezer and used later when you have less time. For example: Make a big pot of soup and freeze some of it, and then defrost it for another meal.
- Often certain food items can be used for more than one recipe. You can cook enough of it to last you for a few days. To prepare them, you can use simple flavours which can later be adjusted for other recipes as well (e.g. rice can be used for stir-fry, rice pilaf, and burrito bowls; ground turkey can be used in pasta sauce and chili).
- Cut up a lot of veggies and fruit at once to refrigerate and save, either for a snack or to use in cooking later.
For detailed advice about grocery shopping in Canada, see this article.
Resources for cooking on a budget
“Healthy eating on a budget” in Canada’s Food Guide: The Food Guide has a section with ideas on how to save money while eating healthy.
“Healthy eating on a budget” by the Heart and Stroke Foundation: The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, a nonprofit organization that researches heart and brain health, features advice from a dietitian.
The Healthy Living Guide 2020-2021 from the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University has a section called “Eating Well on a Budget.” The guide also contains lots of other information about living a healthy lifestyle.
Budget Bytes is a recipe website designed for lower budgets. The recipes use mostly inexpensive ingredients and calculate the approximate cost of a meal, providing estimates of how much you’ll need to spend on ingredients. There are options for many types of meals and diets as well as meal prep recipes that can help you save time. You can even search for recipes by ingredient if you need ideas for how to use a certain food. Try looking for recipes here or on another budget cooking website.
Kids’ healthy lifestyle resources
Research suggests that children who have immigrated may be at a higher risk of some health problems than children who were born in Canada. These resources have advice for keeping your kids eating well and staying active.
Healthy Habits for Life Resource Kit Part 1: Get Moving! from Sesame Workshop and Nemours KidsHealth is a kit with lessons and activities that parents, guardians, and teachers can use to teach younger kids about healthy exercise and eating habits, using characters from the educational kids show Sesame Street.
The Eat Right Be Active guides from Nutrition Connections, a registered charity within the Ontario Public Health Association, provide activity and nutrition guidelines for caregivers of children at different ages:
- A Guide for Caregivers of Toddlers 12 – 36 Months
- A Guide for Caregivers of Preschoolers Ages 3 – 5
- A Guide for Caregivers of Children Ages 6 – 8