A Century of Food

by Dr. Chelsea Cole BSc ND & Dr. Sarah Nyrose BSc ND

Instead of focusing on diet recommendations for 2020, we decided to explore how nutrition has changed since 1920.

The New Year often evokes a sense of excitement: the promise of a new beginning and the celebration of a year past. It’s a period of reflection, ambition and hope. Yet, it can also be one of guilt, self-criticism and shame. Particularly when it comes to food. 

We live in a society where diet culture and weight phobia are fully entrenched, and as we start into the New Year our culture’s obsession with diets and the “ideal figure” are highlighted through social media feeds and advertising. There is an ever-revolving rotation of diet trends, nutritional advice and weight-loss solutions; we are bombarded with messages from celebrities, influencers, friends, and strangers.

As naturopathic physicians, we recognize the importance of diet and having access to nutritious food. We acknowledge that in certain circumstances, following a diet can be beneficial for someone’s health. But we also are highly concerned about the misinformation and negative messaging that seems to dictate the conversations surrounding food, diet and body image.

The reality is, there is no one diet for all. Diet trends come and go, and nutritional advice is always evolving. Rather that write about diet advice or recommendations, we wanted to take a look at the last century, from 1920 to now, to highlight the changing nutritional recommendations and how the, “new and improved diets,” are often just a trend.


Nutritional science, as we know of it today, was born in 1926, with the discovery of the first vitamin. Thiamine. This finding fuelled the search for more, “vital amines,” or vitamins, which were essential to prevent and treat nutritional deficiency diseases, such as rickets and beriberi.

In 1932, vitamin C was discovered and documented to prevent scurvy, some 200 years after physician, James Lind, used lemons to treat scurvy in sailors.

The discovery of vitamins initiated a reductionist approach to studying nutrition and implementing food based recommendations. Coinciding with the Great Depression and World War II provided further emphasis on the prevention of dietary deficiencies and a focus on single nutrients.1 In fact, the first, “recommended dietary allowances (RDA’s),” were the direct result of the British and American governments commissioning scientists to determine new minimum dietary standards for soldiers at war.

From 1920 to 1940, the way we viewed food and the discipline of nutrition was rapidly changing. Foods became fortified with vitamins and minerals.In 1931, paediatricians at Toronto’s Hospital for the Sick were credited with the development of Pablum: a nutritionally fortified infant food that revolutionized infant feeding. It laid the groundwork for infant formula, as we know it today.

In addition to a focused attention on single nutrients, the world of food preservation and processing was rapidly changing, most notably with the invention of freezers. It was also during this period that foods such as SPAM, “Shoulder of Pork and Ham,” and Kraft Dinner were developed, and marketed as a solution for the time-pressed homemaker. A shift commenced from home cooking to the efficient, “meals in a box,” paving the way for more processed and pre-made foods.


In 1943 the Nutrition Division of the Canadian federal government developed Canada’s Official Food Rules. The food rules were intended to improve nutrition, at a time when food rationing and poverty were pronounced. The guide was meant to be, “health protective,” a term that seems to be re-emerging in current conversation.

There are a number of stark differences when comparing the 1940’s Food Rules to our current food guide. Perhaps most notably was the recommendation to consume daily ½ to 1 pint of milk and at least one serving of potatoes. However, there are aspects of the original guides, which while lost in decades following, are re-emerging now: such as the recommendation to reduce food waste.

A focus on single nutrients and necessary calories resulted in a sharp decline in calorie malnutrition and specific vitamin deficiencies in 1940’s and 1950’s. At the same time, a rise in diet related non-communicable disease began to emerge; most notably, heart disease.This spurred new research initiatives, focusing on two major areas: sugar and fat. And so the age-old debate began: what was causing the rise in coronary heart disease – is it dietary fat or sugar?


Researchers on both side of the argument presented their findings, and ultimately the emphasis on fat won scientific and political approval. New recommendations regarding fat consumption were quickly incorporated into dietary guidelines and were adopted by the food industry; new marketing schemes focused on, “low fat and low cholesterol diets”.

In 1963, Weight Watchers was founded in New York City by Jean Nidetch4; a program that restricted fatty foods and sweets. In the same year, Sego, a meal-replacement shake was marketed as a weight-loss solution.

The 1960’s saw resurgence in the use of thyroid medication as a weight-loss treatment. In the 1970’s ephedra became a popular dieting pill, then the prescription fenfluramine, which both suppress appetite.

In the 1970’s the new Canadian food guides emphasized variety, as the types of food available to Canadians greatly increased. Globalization of the food industry and improved food preservation techniques diversified what was available in grocery stores. During this time new processed foods were invented, such high fructose corn syrup (developed in 1970) and canola oil (1974).5


Up to this point, the Canadian Food Guide was largely focused on preventing single nutrient deficiencies, but in 1982 a revised guide was published with the aim of preventing chronic disease.3 It contained four major food groups (milk, meat, grains, fruit and vegetables), but the meat group had been expanded to reflect a greater variety of protein sources. In addition, Canadians were advised to decrease fat, sugar, salt, and alcohol consumption in an effort to reduce the rate of diet-related chronic disease, like heart disease. So, while some things had shifted, there was still a focus on avoiding particular nutrients, and this led to the manufacturing of foods low in fat and cholesterol and fortified with micronutrients.

In 1992, the food guide was again revised.The same four food groups were present, but there was new emphasis placed on how energy needs vary between people (ex. different ages, body sizes, and activity level etc.). People were encouraged to choose more servings from the grains and vegetable group in order to meet their energy needs, instead of increasing servings from the meat & alternatives or dairy group. 


Starting in the 1990’s, nutrition research was beginning to move away from focusing on single nutrient deficiencies and began exploring dietary patterns.In addition to more clinical trials, genetic studies supplied evidence about the extent to which genes play a role in diet and disease. People began to understand that food quality and diet patterns were more important for chronic disease prevention compared to single nutrient supplementation. These research changes helped to move us beyond nutrient deficiencies and toward understanding the multifaceted nature of diet and health. At this point fat consumption had been vilified for years, but emerging research demonstrated that it was actually beneficial and having a diet high in sugar and simple carbohydrates caused harm. Throughout this time, dietary trends began to reflect different patterns of eating. People in North America were, and still are, following vegetarian, vegan, Mediterranean, paleo, low carb, keto, or gluten free diets just to name a few.  

2007 saw another revision of the Canadian Food Guide.In this revision, the vegetables & fruit group was the most prominent, and the milk group included plant milks fortified with calcium. Information regarding fat consumption became more specific, and recommended limiting trans and saturated fat. In addition, the food guide was tailored for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, and the graphics depicted a more diverse collection of food items to reflect a diverse population. 

Canada’s Food Guide was updated again in 2019.6 This guide advises that half of a meal should contain vegetables & fruit, one quarter should contain protein rich foods, the other quarter should focus on whole grains, and water should be the beverage of choice. There is an emphasis on the importance of cooking, enjoying food, and understanding food labels and food marketing. Culturally, there is a trend toward more plant-based eating, and this iteration of the food guide certainly reflects that.


The changes in the Canadian Food Guide over time reflect the changes in the culture around food and research, and there is no doubt that nutrition research will continue changing. One paper imagines a greater focus on the following in the future: personalized nutrition, the microbiome, fermented foods, brain health, how socio-cultural factors play a role in diet, and the long-term effects of processed foods and food additives.1 

Being part of the health and wellness world means that we have front row seats to the ever-changing nutrition and food recommendations. This includes the celebrity, influencer and industry endorsed food trends, which can be fleeting and often lack scientific backing. It is a challenging time to sort through the varied nutrition advice, and while it is refreshing to see how research is moving away from a reductionist model to one that embraces complexity, it is important to recognize that this information is always changing and the most important thing is to pay attention to what feels good for you.  Furthermore, nutrition is just one aspect of food; there are plenty of other considerations that guide our dietary decisions. For instance, we are excited to continue exploring how the surrounding culture influences how and what we eat. 

To that end, we came across an article interviewing a number of chefs about what they predict will be the biggest food trends of 2020.7 These chefs have an exciting vision for the future, which ranges from sustainable food to more family style dining. One of the chefs, Salil Mehta, talked about, “lifting up marginalized voices,” by increasing diverse representation in kitchens, and focusing on unique regional dishes. Kwame Onwuachi thinks that more restaurants will adopt family-style serving to encourage conversation and community, and Paola Velez envisions first generation people “cooking their food unashamed.” She said, “we’re finally gaining control of the narrative and bringing our culture, dreams, and heritage to our restaurants and plates. 2020 is the year of flavour.” Similarly, Josh Kulp spoke about the importance of tradition, and thinks that 2020 will be the year of, “foods that represent personal and shared histories.” 

We love the breadth of food culture. It includes tradition, culture, restaurants, nutrition, scientific research, and social justice. One of the aims of Fare & Flourish was to make room to view food through all of these lenses, and while it was important to review how Canada’s Food Guide and nutrition research has grown and changed, we also want the visions of these food creators to guide our food choices for 2020. We want sustainability, nostalgia, exploration, pride, community, and a rejection of diet culture to infuse our meals this year. 


  1. Mozaffarian, D., Rosenberg, I., & Uauy, R. (2018). History of modern nutrition science—Implications for current research, dietary guidelines, and food policy. bmj, 361, k2392.
  2. Yeung, D. L., & Kwan, D. (2002). Commentary: experiences and challenges in industrialized countries. The Journal of nutrition, 132(4), 825S-826S
  3.  Health Canada. (2007, February 5). History of Canada’s Food Guides from 1942 to 2007. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-food-guide/about/history-food-guide.html#a1982.
  4. Rotheram‐Borus, M. J., & Duan, N. (2003). Next generation of preventive interventions. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 42(5), 518-526.
  5.  Cordain, L., Eaton, S. B., Sebastian, A., Mann, N., Lindeberg, S., Watkins, B. A., … & Brand-Miller, J. (2005). Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 81(2), 341-354.
  6. Health Canada (2019). The new food guide. Retrieved from https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/food-guide-snapshot/
  7. Stephens R. (2019, December 10). These will be the biggest food trends of 2020, according to chefs. Food & Wine. Retrieved from https://www.foodandwine.com/travel/restaurants/biggest-food-trends-chefs-2020.

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