bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Thoughts on “The Myth of High-Protein Diets”

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Image used under a Creative Commons Licence. Photo by Sean_Hickin on flickr.

Part of me is a little hesitant to address the op-ed piece by Dr Dean Ornish in the New York Times last week. This because, the low-fat zealots have already attacked me for criticizing Dr Esselstyn in the past. But, you know me, when something gets under my skin I can’t leave it well enough along.

The piece was titled: The Myth of High-Protein Diets. One would think that the accompanying article would be about pitfalls to following a high-protein diet. However, Dr Ornish focusses solely on animal protein, with an emphasis on meat and fat. The gist of his argument is that if you eschew animal products you will live longer, as will the planet. Okay, so it’s not the myth of high-protein diets. It’s the myth of high-animal products diets.

One of the studies Ornish cites is one that I blogged about a year ago. At the time it ignited headlines proclaiming that protein was akin to smoking and that animal protein would contribute to our premature demise. Suffice to say, the study was flawed and these conclusions were tenuously drawn. In fact, in older adults, diets that were higher in protein were actually positively correlated with reduced mortality. And there was no negative effect from plant sources of protein at any age. So, even with the poor quality of this research, some of the results were in direct opposition to Ornish’s interpretation of them.

I read articles like this and think to myself “it’s no wonder that people are confused about what to eat and don’t trust any health care professionals”. You have one doctor insisting that a low-carb diet is the key to a long healthy life, another insisting that it’s low-fat, another insisting that it’s high-carb, another insisting that it’s blahblahblah. Of course, they all have the book to sell you. Maybe they’re all right. Maybe you can be healthy one any of their highly-restrictive diets. As I’ve said before, the best diet is the one that you can enjoy and follow for life. For me, that involves eating fat, protein, and carbs from both plant and animal sources. Yeah, I know it’s not sexy, but balance and variety are the hallmarks of a nutritious diet.


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Can you drink too much water?

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Something that I’ve been hearing a fair amount recently is that you can drink too much water. Ever since the eight cups of water rule-of-thumb was debunked a few years ago it seems that popular opinion is swinging the other way and people are concluding that we should drink less water.

While it’s certainly possible to drink too much water, it’s highly unlikely that the average person will manage to do so in the run of a day. The people dying from hyponatremia (low sodium levels in the body which can be caused by excessive water consumption) are usually athletes who are consuming more water than their bodies have lost and/or not enough accompanying electrolytes. I could also sit at a desk and chug a gallon of water with the same effect, but no one’s ever suggested that this is a good idea.

Okay, so you may not be likely to die from hyponatremia but aren’t you still putting a strain on your kidneys by drinking water throughout the day? Unless you have a medical condition, healthy kidneys can excrete as much as 12 litres of urine a day! (this is according to Krause’s Food & Nutrition Therapy by Mahan and Escott-Stump). That’s a damn sight more than 8 cups, 2-3 litres, or whichever recommendation you’ve heard. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to cause damage to your kidneys by drinking water throughout the day and you’re more likely to suffer from dehydration than over-hydration.

Of course, the amount of water each person needs varies. It depends on how much water you’re losing through sweat, your altitude, pregnancy and breastfeeding, health status, etc. According to the Institute of Medicine, the average adult woman needs about 2.2 litres of fluids a day, the average adult man, about 3 litres. Thirst is certainly a great indicator that you should have something to drink. And it’s true that other beverages (yes, even coffee and tea) and foods can contribute to your overall hydration. Water is the most commonly recommended choice as it doesn’t contain any added calories, sugar, or other substances you might wish to avoid. It’s can also be free and is generally easily obtained.

Don’t be scared off by people saying that you can drink too much water. And don’t use it as an excuse to avoid drinking water all day. We are approximately 60% water and we need to consume adequate fluids to maintain healthy body function. Don’t ditch your water bottle!


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The bigger problem with the cosy relationship between dietitians and the food industry

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Lots of drama in the dietetic world last week. No, I’m not talking about the wildly popular Dietitians Day. First, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in the US brokered a facepalm worthy deal with Kraft to have their logo placed on process cheese slices. Dietitians everywhere (myself included) were outraged, certainly not shocked, but definitely outraged. And rightfully so. How are people supposed to take us seriously when an organization claiming to represent thousands of dietitians is promoting process cheese. A product that the majority of us would neither consume nor recommend to clients. On the defensive, AND released a statement (you may need to scroll down a bit to find the post) claiming that the prominent placement of their logo on the process cheese was not indicative of endorsement. Rather, the logo was indicative of Kraft’s support of AND. Right. We all know that doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that matters and everyone perceived the placement of the AND logo as an endorsement of the questionable product. Especially since the initial accompanying pronouncement stated that AND was proud to have their logo appearing on Kraft singles as many children don’t consume enough calcium and vitamin D. AND will be forming a committee to address the concerns of members regarding this deal with Kraft, in MAY. If you agree that this “partnership” is wrong then please take a minute to sign the Change.org petition asking AND to “repeal the seal”.

Hot on the heels of the AND Kraft debacle was the news that a number of dietitians had promoted mini-Coke cans as “healthy snacks”. These dietitians were likely all paid for selling their souls this work, although one of them couldn’t recall if she was paid by Coke or not. Gee, I wish I was making so much money that I could forget whether or not I was paid for something. While I hate to rag on fellow dietitians, it frustrates me to no end to hear of others doing such a disservice to our profession.

Both of these stories exemplify how the relationship between the food industry and dietetics/dietitians undermines our integrity as health professionals. There is a larger problem here. Dietetic organizations need sources of funding that do not come with conflicts of interest. Dietitians need more and better job opportunities. I understand that it’s a tough job market. Believe me, I’m not raking in the dough and I’m only quasi working as a dietitian. However, I would sooner give-up my status as a registered dietitian than to use it to promote questionable food and beverage choices. With the constantly changing science and messages in nutrition it’s hard enough to convince people to trust us. Is it really worth sacrificing our credibility to make a buck?


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Follow Friday: Dietitian services

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Did you know that many employers don’t offer dietitian services as part of their employee health plans? Considering that food and nutrition are vital to good health and productive employees our services should be covered by health plans. If your employer doesn’t cover our services please let them know that you’d like them too!


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Would you wear a diet monitoring necklace?

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Have you heard about this WearSens necklace? It’s technology that you can wear around your neck to monitor what you eat and drink. Of course, the most talked about application is for weight management. Fortunately, the engineers who designed it are also hoping that it will be used for medical management. It has the potential to be used to monitor whether or not people have taken medications or breathing patterns of lung transplant patients. Much more worthy applications of the technology if you ask me.

Why don’t I think it’s a good idea for weight management? For one thing, it can distinguish between food textures but not specific foods. Therefore, it’s not a useful tool for calorie tracking. It wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between water and pop or yoghurt and pudding, for example. Sure, if you’re trying to eat or drink at specific times of day it could monitor that but it seems like an unnecessary (and, I’m assuming, expensive) method of doing so. More importantly, it attaches a sense of shame to eating. And people complain about the nanny state! Do you really want a sense of judgement literally hanging around your neck every time you eat or drink something? Yes, mindfulness is important in developing healthy eating habits. So is learning to enjoy food without guilt.