Dr. Lee, the Healthy Professor

Canada Food Guide for Runners

Written by Dr. L. Lee Coyne | Views 5046

Does the Canada Food Guide offer good advice to endurance runners and other endurance or high intensity athletes?

Is the Canada Food Guide Good for Runners?

All you need is a well balanced diet. Athletes should just follow the Canada Food Guide.

Athletes don’t need extra protein. Most people eat too much protein. Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy. Most Canadians eat too much fat.

The forgoing are all common advice statements running through current nutrition literature, some academic and some popular. This article will deal with the question – does the Canada Food Guide offer good advice to endurance runners and other endurance or high intensity athletes? Some of the other issues listed above will be touched on as incidental to this topic.


The Canada Food guide was first published in 1942 and was known as Canada’s Official Food Rules. The purpose for publishing the document was to prevent nutritional deficiencies and to improve the health of Canadians during the very trying times of war. This was a time of poor access to food, insufficient money for food, and malnutrition developing in some segments of the population.

The publication identified six food groups (Milk; Fruit; Vegetables; Cereals and Breads; Meat, Fish, etc.; and Eggs) and recommended quantities were base on 70% of the published Dietary Standard.

In 1944 they dropped the term “Official” and changed the recommendations to reflect 100% of the Dietary Standard. Cheese and Eggs were included in the meat group so now there were 5 groups.

In 1949 they replaced a recommendation regarding fish oil and made specific references for supplementation the sunshine vitamin know as vitamin D.

In 1961 they softened the language and changed the name to a “guide” from “rules”.

1977 saw the combing of fruits and vegetables into one so there were now 4 groups as there are today. Textual content and recommendations became more specific and were based on information collected by the Nutrition Canada National Survey (1973), which represented the largest, most comprehensive nutritional study of the Canadian population to date. There was also input from many health professional groups and organizations.

In 1982 the emphasis changed from preventing nutrition deficiencies to preventing chronic diseases particularly heart disease. There was and emphasis given to a moderation statement, which encouraged Canadians to limit fat, sugar, salt, and alcohol.

1992 brought another change of emphasis as the name was again changed to Canada's Food Guide to Healthy Eating. The major change was one of philosophy to embrace a total diet approach to choosing foods. Previous food guides were based on a foundation diet concept - they identified minimum requirements. The new guide emphasized meeting energy and nutrient requirements for healthy living.

The New Guide (2006)

The most recent version of the Food Guide still operates with the same goals as the 1992 revision but claims to have upgraded the graphics, created more options, included more ethnic food choices to reflect population changes and attempts to make the guide more individual. Based on age and gender you can outline your own personal guide on-line and print it out.

The problem with the guide is that it does not take into account body size differences and the only reference to physical activity is the admission that some may need more Calories. It merely suggested that you eat more for all 4 food groups.

When I printed out two guides; One for a male 19 to 30 years and one for a male 31 to 50 years. The only difference was that the older male apparently required 2 fewer serving of vegetables each day.

Male Age Group

  Male 19 - 30 Male 31 - 50
Vegetables & Fruit 10 servings 8 servings
Grain Products 8 servings 8 servings
Milk & Alternatives 2 servings 2 servings
Meat & Alternatives 3 servings 3 servings

Some writers and even health practitioners have suggested the guide is not good for even the average citizen. Shortly after publication Dr. Yoni Freedhof, Medical Director of the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa wrote in the CMA Journal, Feb, 2006 that the revised guide was “Obesogenic”. Dr. Freedhoff explained in one example that women between 19 and 50 years who drank only water and ate no salad dressing and no desert, could take in as few as 1700 calories, whereas other demographics could top 3200 calories, again without the extras.

Speaking of the “extras”, a 2004 study of Canada’s Eating Habits published by the Health Statistics division of Statistics Canada, reported that adults obtain 23% (almost ¼) of their calories from a category called “other” (meaning outside the 4 food groups). These items include in order of popularity:

  • Soft drinks
  • Salad dressing
  • Sugar
  • Beer
  • Fruit Drinks
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Margarine
  • Chocolate Bars
  • Potato Chips
  • Butter

The Food Guide makes reference to using “small amounts” of oil and salad dressing, margarine and mayonnaise and to use low fat products to reduce fat intake all to reduce heart disease risk and propensity for obesity. It is interesting that the Canadian’s Eating Habits survey shows that average fat consumption is now at 31% of calories, down from 40% in 1972.

The American Heart Association regards 30% fat a low fat. In spite of this reduction, obesity continues to double every 5 years. Low fat recommendations are based on certain assumptions that have become engrained in nutrition advice but recent research has implied a need to re-evaluate these assumptions. Further recommend reading on this subject can be found in Gary Taube’s book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and a 2007 MSNBC.com article entitled “What if Bad Fat Isn’t Bad?” Both will give you “ food for thought” about the fat, cholesterol and heart disease issue.

Carbohydrates are constantly referred to as the most important source of energy but if you review Respiratory Exchange Ratio data you will find that a resting body gets up to 85% of its energy from fat. Even during moderate running (55% aerobic capacity) 50 to 60% of calories burned will be from fat.

Foundation of the Food Guide Revision

The revision process can be summarized as a very elaborate series of reviews and surveys of current eating patterns, an assessment of the methods provided in the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) reports, literature reviews of Nutrition and chronic disease from the Institute of Medicine as published in Public Health Nutrition 2004, (this was the major source of the “evidence base” the committee refers to) and finally there was the “stakeholders” feedback.

The Stakeholders included the producers, manufacturers and marketers of food and the inclusion of this group in the process has received considerable criticism. It has been suggested that the inclusion of the “stakeholders” lead to a number of compromises like allowing 50% of grain products to come from refined white flour.

Some Food Guide Specifics

In evaluating the usefulness of the food guide I made the following observations regarding serving sizes, caloric variability, carbohydrate variability in fruits, vegetables and gains and protein variability in meats and dairy products.

These fruit choices are all one fruit serving

  Carb gm Calories
1/2 cup strawberries 11 23
1/2 cup watermelon 5 25
1/2 cup raspberries 7 30
1/2 cup blueberries 10 41
1 apple 21 81
1 medium banana 27 105

* Carb range 5 to 27 gm, calorie range 23 to 105

These Vegetable choices are all one serving

  Carb gm Calories
1/2 cup cucumber 1 7
1/2 cup lettuce 2 12
1/2 cup V8 juice 5 23
1/2 cup green beans 6 25
1/2 cup broccoli 5 25
1 medium carrot 7 31
1/2 leek 9 40
1/2 cup corn 15 66

* Carb range 1 to 15 gm Calorie range 7 to 66

These Meat & Dairy item are all one serving

  Protein gm Calories
75 gm Pacific oysters 7 90
75 gm scallops 12 65
75 gm shrimp 18 90
75gm Eastern oysters 11 102
75 gm tuna in water 20 102
3/4 cup yogurt plain 6 104
3/4 cup yogurt plain organic 10 110
75 gm sockeye salmon 15 115
75 gm rainbow trout 19 115
1 cup 2% milk 8 121
75 gm pink salmon 15 130
2 eggs 12 150
75 gm lean beef cuts 18 150
75 gm lean ground beef 19 190
50 gm cheddar cheese 12 200
2 Tbsp (30 gm) peanut butter 8 200
1 cup cottage cheese 31 203
75 gm fatter beef cuts 26 263

* Protein range 6 to 31 gm, Calorie range 60 to 263

These Grain products are all one serving

  Carb gm Protein gm Calories
1 slice (35gm) bread 13 2 70
2 rice cakes plain 16 trace 80
1/2 bran muffin 12 2 85
1 slice (40 gm) sprouted wheat bread 18 6 100
1/2 bagel plain 20 2 100
10 saltine crackers 2 trace 130

* Carb range 12 to 20 gm, Protein range 0 to 6gm, Calorie range 70 to 130

Guidelines include an instruction that ½ of grain products should be whole grain and that means ½ can still be refined white flour products. Also, sprouted grain products are not even mentioned and they tend to be higher protein and lower glycemic index items than the current list.

Athletes Requirements

In addition to ensuring adequate energy supplies for long intense workouts, endurance athletes need to pay particular attention to their immune systems and their protein requirements.

Adequate protein is necessary to repair and build a healthy immune system and this means more protein than the average because during prolonged intense exercise we use more protein for energy.

Since muscle-tissue breakdown or damage is common during intense and prolonged exercise, those in training need more protein and the right proteins to repair and build or rebuild muscle.

Although the recommended intake of protein in most standard food guides is .8 gm/ kg body weight / day, Lemon and associates at the University of Wisconsin and The Human Performance Lab at Penn State University and Vernon Young of MIT have all indicated evidence of higher requirements. This research has lead many responsible sports nutrition coaches to now recommend 1.8 to 2.2 gm of protein / kg of body weight / day (.8 gm to 1 gm / pound)

That would mean a 75 kg runner (165 pounds) would need approximately 135 to 165 gm of protein per day. The Canada Food Guide and the DRIs would recommend 60 gm. With 3 servings of meat and alternative and only 2 of milk and Dairy the athlete would have difficulty obtaining 75 to 80gm if he chose 5 servings from the higher protein / serving options. It is true that there is some protein in selected vegetables but not enough to add another 60 gm to the total.


This short review, although far from comprehensive, leaves us with the conclusion that the Canada Food Guide falls short in offering the endurance athlete enough adequate guidance.

It would appear to be a well-meaning and ambitious project but it may also be an impossible task to complete with credibility because of the large variations in nutrition requirements known in human biology.

Further Reading

Canada Food Guide Trying Again - 6 Aug, 2012

Food pyramid should reflect new studies9 Aug, 2014

Best Food Choices for Runners


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