bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


More fish, less oil 


Smoking fish by werehare used under a Creative Commons Licence.

In the past I’ve blogged about fish oil supplements and taken the stance that at best they’re good for you and at worst they’re of no benefit. My belief was that if you’re not eating the recommended two servings of fatty fish per week (as most of us aren’t) that you may as well go for fish oil to try to at least get some of the benefits. Some new research has given me pause to think.

According to an exposé by CBC’s Marketplace and The Fifth Estate, some fish oil supplements may be rancid. In one brand of fish oil supplements that they tested it showed twice the Health Canada allowable level of oxidation. This was well before the expiry date on the bottle.

Unfortunately, when fish oil capsules, or even many liquid supplements, go rancid it’s not so easy to tell without access to a lab. This is because many manufacturers add flavours to mask the fishy taste. Your fish oil might even be rancid before you get it home so your best efforts to store it in a cool dark place may be for naught.

The harm caused by consuming rancid fish oil supplements likely exceeds any potential benefits you might obtain from them. While there is limited research in humans, oxidized fish oils (or any oxidized oils for that matter) contain free radicals which could potentially cause damage to your cells and contribute to the development and progression of some chronic diseases.

As a dietitian I’m generally always preaching that we should aim to obtain the majority of our nutrients from whole foods, as opposed to supplements. It’s beginning to look like fish is another case where this may be true. Until more conclusive research is conducted I’ll be hedging my bets, clearing the fish oil capsules from the fridge, and aiming to eat fish more regularly.


Will coffee reduce your risk of death?


Image from pixabay, used under a creative commons licence

I must say, the headlines stemming from this study were baffling. Isn’t it a foregone conclusion that the risk of mortality is 100% in everyone? I suppose there’s the off-chance that someone will find a fountain of youth or become a vampire or something but given how unlikely those scenarios are, it’s safe to say that we’re all going to die.

And yet, last week many articles were proclaiming that coffee would reduce the risk of death. Reduce the risk of death, during the time frame of the study, sure. Eventually though, regardless of how much coffee you drink you’re going to die. Sorry if this comes as a surprise.

Let’s be clear, the study was observational so, as with most nutrition research, no conclusions about causality can be drawn. Despite the fact that the researchers found a reduced risk of death (during the study) among coffee drinkers, this doesn’t mean that the coffee was responsible for that reduced risk.

It’s important to note that when the researchers included smokers in their analysis, they actually found that heavier coffee drinkers were more likely to die than those who drank less coffee; likely due to the fact that coffee and cigarettes tend to go hand-in-hand for many smokers. Once they removed smokers from their analysis they found an inverse relationship between coffee consumption and risk of death from cardiovascular disease, neurological disease and suicide. There was no relationship between coffee consumption and risk of death due to breast cancer or colorectal cancer. Take away: if you smoke, coffee won’t provide you with any protection from developing lung cancer and respiratory diseases. Even if you don’t smoke, coffee won’t protect you from some forms of cancer and many other causes of death.

The association between coffee consumption and reduced risk of dying as a result of the aforementioned causes held when the sample was stratified for things such as BMI, physical activity, alternate healthy eating score, sex, and cohort. This suggests that coffee may reduce the risk of death from these causes (during the study) independent of many other risk factors. However, we don’t know how much protection against death from these causes drinking coffee actually affords us. The relative risk is not stated in the paper.

Drinking coffee, regular or decaf, may provide you with some protection from specific causes of death. It’s also looking likely that there are more benefits to regularly drinking coffee than there are harms. Regardless, coffee will not keep you alive forever.


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Of strawmen in food swamps who exclusively eat carrots

The Statist Guide to Healthy Eating in the National Post last week had me all like:


Maybe the author, Soupcoff, was trying to be inflammatory. In that case, she certainly succeeded.

Recent news has come out about so-called “food swamps” in Toronto. These swamps are areas that are plentiful in less nutritious food options and lacking in things like grocery stores and farmers markets where fresh, minimally processed foods can be purchased.

Soupcoff argued creating policies and zoning to promote healthy eating is ridiculous; as is the notion of a “food swamp” in the first place. Instead of creating places where the healthy choice is the easy choice we should just be teaching people how to make healthy choices.

According to Soupcoff, “If we want people to eat healthier, treating them as grown-ups and giving facts is probably going to be far more effective than elaborate zoning plans to engineer equal kale distribution.” Sorry, nope. If people are surrounded by food options that aren’t very nutritious then they’re far more likely to choose those options on a regular basis than if they’re surrounded by healthy food options. I certainly believe that most people could benefit from greater nutrition education. However, for people to make healthier choices we need to be redesigning our environments so that those healthier choices are easier to make. Kale or no kale.

Soupcoff then goes off on a tangent, bringing in a strawman, to tell us that people who exclusively consume carrots are less healthy than people who consume a balanced varied diet and an occasional chocolate bar. As if this has anything to do with making healthy food choices easily available to all.

Interestingly, Soupcoff is the National Director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation. A far-right-wing organization that supposedly fights for the freedoms of Canadians. Apparently, creating environments which promote food security and provide healthy food options is somehow infringing on our basic rights and freedoms. Go figure.


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Burger King rules in New Brunswick schools

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A few weeks ago it hit the news that Burger King has the contract to provide hot lunches for the Anglophone East School District in New Brunswick. Some people were upset that a fast food restaurant is being paid to provide children with lunches. Others defended the program by stating that the foods provided meet the provincial school nutrition policy.

Without knowing exactly what foods are being provided through this program, I would be remiss in dismissing the program as unhealthy. The article simply states that burgers can’t be served more than twice a week, fries aren’t served at all, and they also offer salads and apple sauce. I admit that these claims don’t instil me with much confidence that the offerings are truly healthy, balanced, varied choices. After all, a healthy diet isn’t the absence of the least healthy foods. Offering burgers “only” twice a week isn’t exactly a paradigm of health. Nor is apple sauce and what I’m speculating would be an iceberg lettuce-heavy salad. But that’s just speculation. Perhaps BK is offering a variety of nutritious salad options.

I do think that it’s unfortunate that the decision as to which company receives the RFP to provide schools with lunches is made based on what company can meet the guidelines for the lowest price. Instead of looking at what other hot lunch providers can offer by way of variety and nutrition above and beyond foods permitted, it’s all about the money. Far be it for schools to consider the import of good nutrition on health, behaviour, and the ability of students to learn.

The issue goes beyond the nutritional value of the food being served. Having Burger King provide the hot lunches also allows them to advertise within the schools and build life-long customers out of young children. BK may be providing the food at a lower cost than other providers could but that’s because they’re a huge corporation that sells relatively inexpensive mass-produced food products. They’re also getting more than their money’s worth by being allowed to advertise in schools in this manner, and don’t think for a second that this isn’t exactly why they’re doing it.

In an ideal world, schools would have their own cafeterias with staff and nutritious food prepared for all students at lunch. Unfortunately, our world isn’t ideal. At the very least, school boards could be ensuring that RFPs give preference to local companies rather than large multinational fast food conglomerates.

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Grocery store lessons: Steem Peanut butter

Image from pixabay, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Image from pixabay, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

One of my dietitian friends alerted me to this new product, caffeinated peanut butter, the other day and suggested a blog post might be in order.

Now, I love peanut butter. I also love coffee. Heck I even have a jar of vanilla espresso flavoured peanut butter in my cupboard right now. But I still fail to understand why anyone would ever think that caffeinated peanut butter would be a good idea. It boggles my mind.

According to their website,  this caffeinated peanut butter is for you if you’re stuck with only access to horrible coffee or don’t want to lug your bodum camping but want to avoid those pesky caffeine withdrawal fuelled headaches. Essentially, if you’re seriously addicted to caffeine, instead of considering cutting back, you can just tote a jar of peanut butter around with you everywhere. People with peanut allergies be damned.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind bringing along a bodum or percolator when I’m camping. They don’t take up a whole lot of space and on chilly mornings a hot beverage is going to hit the spot a lot more than a spoonful of peanut butter. And if you’re so tired that you’re nodding off behind the wheel get off the freaking road. I find it horrifying that people might be popping spoonfuls of peanut butter while driving to prevent themselves from falling asleep at the wheel.

What’s even scarier about this product is the fact that a single serving contains 150 mg of caffeine. I’m assuming that a single serving is the standard two tablespoons. That’s a lot of caffeine in a little peanut butter. Considering that most people probably use more than that (sadly, I can’t find any statistics indicating how much people usually spread on their bread) you could easily be getting upwards of half the daily recommended maximum dose of caffeine (that’s 400 mg, or about three 8 oz cups of coffee) in your PB&J alone.

Despite the warnings on the website about not feeding the peanut butter to your dog, I worry about the potential for children to consume an excessive amount of caffeine if they were to get their hands on a jar. A single serving of STEEM contains more caffeine than children at any age can safely consume. Lest you think that I’m overreacting, there can be serious consequences to caffeine overdose; including, seizure and death. Even without overdosing, we don’t know what the long-term effects of caffeine consumption in children are. We do know that adequate sleep is essential for good health and that most children are not getting enough sleep. Caffeine consumption can be used to counteract the effects of insufficient sleep, in turn leading to decreased sleep at night, and can quickly become a vicious cycle. We also don’t know what the long-term physiological effects of caffeine exposure may be in children.

As far as I’m concerned, the answer to the question “who is STEEM for” is no one.