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Nutritional facts on a box of cereal. [Photo © Rebecca Hardiment]

For Canadian university students juggling classes, exams and extracurricular activities, a slice of pizza can be an enticing meal choice. Following Canada’s Food Guide is often an afterthought.

“I might look at it once and that’s about it,” says Caitlin Borthwick, a Carleton University law student. Adding that with classes and school activities eating is a “time battle” where convenience usually wins.

University students waiting in line for food. [Photo © Rebecca Hardiment]

University students waiting in line for food. [Photo © Rebecca Hardiment]

Health Canada is currently undergoing a review to update the guide, which was last updated in 2007, to better suit Canadians. The main goal of the update is to combat increasing rates of obesity.

The rate of obesity for Canadians over the age of 18 was at 20 per cent in 2014 according to Statistics Canada and has been on steady increase for the past ten years. Since 2003 the rate of obesity for men has gone from 16 per cent to 21.8 per cent and from 14.5 per cent to 18.7 per cent for women.

The aim is to have the food guide better reflect a diverse society with many dietary needs from vegetarians, to gluten intolerance to Halal.

While they are not a specific focus for Health Canada, university students provide a unique challenge when it comes to following the food guide.

“The food guide can’t advocate to eat fresh vegetables and fruits and then not provide students the means to access them.”

— Fleur Esteron

A recent study by the non-profit organization Meal Exchange found that about four in 10 Canadian university students do not have sufficient access to food or the means to get it. This means that for many university students healthy food is either inaccessible or too expensive. According to the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, more than half of students are in danger of malnutrition and are not getting the recommended nutrients and vitamins in a day.

Jean-Philippe Chaput says that the food guide needs to reflect more of what science has discovered with regards to nutrition. Chaput, a research scientist with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), says that the new guide should focus on food groups instead of vitamins, adding that some researchers say that if you were to eat the daily recommendations in the food guide you would gain weight. Fruit juice is one example.


According to the current food guide, juice and fresh fruit are interchangeable; one apple equals half a cup of fruit juice. Except according to Chaput, juices contain a higher number of calories and sugar than fresh fruit and vegetables and have less fibre.

According to the food guide, an apple (which is considered one serving of fruit) has 52 calories and 10 grams of sugar. By comparison half a cup of apple juice has 58 calories and 13.5 grams of sugar. One apple also has 2.4 grams of fiber, whereas juice has virtually no fiber at all. For students however, the convenience and price for juice is an appealing option.

For example, in a Canada-wide report from Statistics Canada the cost of one kilogram of the average type of apples as of September was $4.38, an increase of a dollar from four years ago. By comparison apple juice costs $2.06 and has remained around that price with maybe a cent or two difference over the same period of time.

University student reaching for frozen food. [Photo © Rebecca Hardiment]

University student reaching for frozen food. [Photo © Rebecca Hardiment]

“The food guide can’t advocate to eat fresh vegetables and fruits and then not provide students the means to access them,” says Fleur Esteron, a Ph.D. student at Carleton University in communications. Esteron completed her master’s in health sciences with a specialization in nutrition communication. In regards to the food locations on Carleton University’s campus she says, “Please don’t charge students $1.00 for a banana.”

Often healthy options on campus are more expensive than their less healthy counterparts. Borthwick says that during busy times at school she would often buy things on campus knowing that a “Tim Hortons bagel is not going to be following the food guide.” According to the guide one serving counts as half a bagel or 45 grams, whereas a Tim Hortons bagel listed as 113 grams on their nutrition information on their website, meaning it counts as two or more servings.

Andrea Noriega, a Ph.D student in communications, suggests that the food guide should be used to portray a standard for healthy eating that everyone has access to. Ideally, this would lead to lobbying and changes in infrastructure to improve access instead of “allowing the status quo of food disparity to continue,” Noriega says.

The review period will last 45 days ending on Dec. 8. Until then the government is conducting an online consultation with experts and citizens.

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