Media @ McGill

“Eating well: exploring hegemonic nutrition, food expertise, and conceptions of health and wellness through Canada’s food guide”

Submitted by Media@McGill on


Elyse Amend


Mainstream nutrition advice found today in public health campaigns, educational settings, news articles, food advertisements, and countless other sources circulates quantitative discourses of food and eating with roots in early 20th century nutrition science and technology. This top-down approach that “translates” nutrition for laypeople and provides tools to measure and track eating and its effects on the body, however, has been critiqued as confusing, abstract, and difficult to apply in everyday practice. A result of a nutritionally confused environment is that individuals become positioned as lacking knowledge about nutrition, and in need of “expert” intervention to learn how to “eat right,” avoid obesity and other health risks, and become “healthy.”

This project aims to study how knowledge, expertise and power operate through nutrition guidance in Canada. It investigates this by (1) interrogating the institutional history of the state-mandated Canada’s Food Guide, with specific focus on the expert sources, scientific evidence base, stakeholders, processes, and decisions involved in the most recent revision of the guide (2007); and by (2) exploring how the food guide operates pedagogically in classrooms where nutrition education is performed, specifically by tracing who and what the intermediaries and translators of the guide are, and the effects these have on the nutritional subjects the guide hails, including students, teachers, and parents. It attempts to answer three guiding questions, namely: (1) How might we rethink or complement mainstream approaches to nutrition and health education and communication? (2) What are the criteria for “better” or “more beneficial” approaches to nutrition communication and education? (3) How might these affect our relationships to our food, our bodies, and our communities?

Chapter 1 analyzes the latest version of the Canadian food guide – Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide (Health Canada, 2007) -- and the messages and nutritional “truths” it mobilizes, and provides a documentary analysis of the revision process and decisions involved in the modern-day version of the guide. This chapter essentially addresses the question, what is the “ideal Canadian diet” according to the food guide, and how did we get there? It uses the concept of “hegemonic nutrition” (Hayes-Conroy, 2013) to demonstrate that the model of nutrition and diet concretized by the food guide is not as fixed or as “common sense” as its discourse indicates, but is rather the product of scientific, political, economic, and social battles for hegemony over the definition and requirements of “healthy nutrition” in Canada.    

Chapter 2 uses a biopolitical frame to consider how Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide defines and mobilizes the concept of “health” in its political project of promoting a healthy Canadian population – and the image thereof. This chapter traces how the definition of “health” transformed throughout the guide’s revision period, and continues to today. Finally, the chapter will consider what aspects and “types” of health the food guide misses in its definition of the healthy eater.  

Chapter 3 considers the role of the “confused eater” and how knowledge, education, expertise and power operate through the guide’s pages. It turns to literature on scientific and quantitative languages that drive nutrition guidance found in food industry advertising and texts like Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide, namely Jessica Mudry’s (2009) “discourses of quantification,” and Gyorgy Scrinis’ (2013) “nutritionism.” This chapter focuses on how the food guide urges all Canadians to become “responsible” citizens by educating themselves about “healthy nutrition,” or risk becoming labeled “irresponsible,” “unhealthy,” and “abnormal.” 

Chapter 4 analyzes a number of the food guide’s supplementary materials, and the processes through which they were developed. Specifically, it looks at Health Canada’s My Food Guide website, which purports to allow users to customize the guide to their specific dietary preferences. It then turns to Canada’s Food Guide for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, and the processes that led Health Canada to produce separate dietary guidelines targeted at Canada’s indigenous populations. Finally, this chapter looks at the Resource for Educators and Communicators, which largely focuses on providing tools for teachers to help people put Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide “into practice.” Following a biopedagogical framework, this chapter considers how these documents contextualize “other” diets within Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide’s “ideal diet” framework, and how they seek to educate those considered “other” and often “at-risk.” 

Chapter 5 turns its attention to how the food guide’s directives become mobilized—and, significantly, resisted—in real-world pedagogical settings. It principally focuses on the results of participant observation in Montreal-area public schools, and one-on-one semi-structured interviews with teachers and school dieticians. This chapter sheds light on what happens when the food guide’s mainstream messages are confronted by diverse individuals, whose backgrounds, socioeconomic contexts and health realities profoundly influence their relationships to food in ways that may complement or conflict with Canada’s food guide. This chapter also explores “alternative” food education tactics and languages that emerged out of this research phase, namely critical thinking about dietary claims, and hands-on nutrition teaching involving gardening, cooking, and tasting/eating.  

This project contributes critical research on nutrition guidance within a Canadian context, and fills a significant gap in scholarship about modern state-mandated nutrition education campaigns. Furthermore, a main goal of this research is to contribute ideas about how nutrition education and communication can be rethought outside of the scientific and its quantifiable norms, and to address the complexities of nutrition and our relationships to food and eating to improve existing policies and approaches. With Health Canada recently having started a formal review of its food guide, this research is especially timely and useful for policy makers, educators and health professionals, academics across fields, community activists, and individuals looking for ways to “do” nutrition differently and beneficially.