bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Why I hate the caloric math game

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I have a beef with a lot of the all-in-one fitness/weight management apps. Many people benefit from tracking their calories when they’re trying to lose weight. I’m all for that. What I hate is the inclusion of calories burnt through exercise. I think that a lot of these apps over-estimate the number of calories expended during various activities. This can mean that if you’re looking at the bottom-line to determine how many calories you can eat without gaining weight you’re probably going to eat more than you need. I often tell people to either not track their exercise using these apps or to ignore the additional calories the app then tells them that they can have. Just use the nutrition side of the app. It’s wise to remember that even that’s not going to be 100% accurate, especially if you’re not weighing everything you eat. It’s just another weight management tool in a box of many.

Now for the real beef: I don’t like that these apps try to turn weight loss into a math problem. It’s not. We used to believe that cutting 3500 kcal would result in a pound of weight lost. We now know that it’s much more complicated than that. There are many factors contributing to the weight we are. Yes, how many calories we consume (and expend) are a huge factor in determining how much we weigh, and whether we lose, gain, or maintain our weight. I don’t want to diminish that fact. I’m not going to tell you that if you just ate cleaner you would lose weight. The cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter when it comes to weight loss. However, adding 350 calories by going for a walk is an oversimplification. It may also lead to an unhealthy way of thinking about food, exercise, and weight management.

Most of us easily consume more calories than we’ve burnt after a workout. Exercise makes you hungry and it’s a whole lot easier to eat 500 calories than it is to expend them during a workout. When we start thinking about exercise as a way to “earn” more calories we’re moving away from healthy eating and healthy fitness. While I’ve said that the cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter for weight loss, and I’ve also said that there should be no forbidden foods, eating primarily nutrient-rich whole foods is important for your health. A session at the gym shouldn’t be a licence to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient foods for the rest of the day. Focus on gaining health through the food you eat and the physical activity you do, rather than the numbers in an app or on a scale.


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Follow Friday: Photos of people and the food they eat

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My friend Rebecca (@chowandchatter) shared this link on twitter last week and I thought it was cool enough to share with all of you! Great photos of people, around the world, posing next to all of the food they eat in the run of a day. Each person is identified by name, profession, and calories consumed. I was particularly amused by the Canadian “vegetarian”. Who knew that was a job? ;)

If you’re interested in a coffee table book of similar photos from Menzel you might want to check out the book What the World Eats.


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Let them drink pop: Water doesn’t = weight loss

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Big News: “Water not a ‘magic bullet’ for weight loss“. While I don’t dispute any of the information presented in the article, I do take issue with a major fact that is not presented in the article. 

The article states that the vast majority of research has shown no increase in weight loss for those who consume more water versus those who do not. Drinking water does not increase caloric burn. The article also dismisses the pervasive myth that beverages such as coffee do not contribute to overall hydration – YAY! All true. 

The article then quotes the RD as saying, “if you don’t like water it’s OK.” The idea is that you can obtain your hydration from other beverages (and foods). While absolutely true from a hydration standpoint, I think that this statement does a disservice to those who are attempting to lose weight. While I’m sure it was not her intent, I think that this could easily be interpreted to mean that it’s fine to choose beverages such as juice, pop, and coffee with sugar and cream rather than a glass of water. Yes, these will all hydrate you, however, they will also add non-satiating calories to your diet. If you drink just one 8 oz glass of orange juice, one 12 oz can of Coke, and one medium double-double (sorry, non-Canadian readers) a day you’ll be adding 458 calories to your daily intake. Compare that to zero calories from three glasses of water. 

Obviously weight loss is not as simple as replacing caloric beverages with water (or non-caloric beverages) but that can certainly be a part of it. To suggest that all beverages are equal is untrue and misleading. Water doesn’t boost your calorie burn but it can minimize your overall caloric consumption if you replace caloric beverages with it. 


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If people don’t use calorie labels should we do away with them?

Image from blog.fooducate.com

Image from blog.fooducate.com

A recent study found that the majority of chain restaurant frequenters in the US don’t use nutrition information when it’s made available on the menu. The news articles seemed to be saying that we just shouldn’t bother to include that information on menus as people aren’t using it anyway.

According to the study, only about 36% of people who frequent chain and fast food restaurants use the nutrition information to influence their decisions. Not a huge number but… That’s a sight better than the 0% we had before nutrition information was posted. I think we also need to take into consideration that the sorts of people who are most inclined to use nutrition information when making food choices are also the least likely to be frequenting fast food outlets on a regular basis.

Instead of removing nutrition information because it’s not being used by the majority of customers we should be figuring out how to get people more interested in what they’re putting into their mouths. This is where the government should step up and introduce some multi-pronged public health campaigns. These should serve to educate the public about the benefits of healthy food and the negative effects of malnutrition. They should also raise awareness about nutrition labels, how to read them, and why they’re a useful tool in making healthy choices. They should engage people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and age groups.

Admittedly, there are some problems with nutrition labelling. We must be aware that the labels are not always accurate, particularly in restaurants where there is a likelihood that menu items may not be prepared exactly the same every time and where restaurants wish to show their products in the best possible light. Despite the downfalls, nutrition label are more accurate than our eyes at measuring calories and nutrient content of foods. Rather than doing away with them we should be doing more to help people to use them.


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Unsatisfied with Satisfries

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I’m sure you’ve heard about Burger King’s new “Satisfries” by now. They’ve been all over the papers and my twitterfeed and chances are, two days later, I’m the last dietitian to blog about them. But even if the topic’s been blogged to death how can I not address it?

My first thought was “I don’t know how I feel about these fries”. At 20% fewer calories and 30% less fat than BK’s standard fries they do provide a slightly less unhealthy option for fry-lovers. As many of us dietitians like to suggest making small initial changes (e.g. milk instead of cream in coffee) to help clients with weight loss goals I thought, “well, maybe these have a place”. But then I thought about it some more…

I said that the Satisfries are slightly less  unhealthy because, despite what BK would like you to believe, they are still not actually healthy. They are still deep-fried potatoes. How did they reduce the fat and calories? Apparently they changed the proportions of the breading they use on the potatoes so that they absorb less of the oil in the deep-fryer. Awesome. Because we all love secret breading recipes on our fries, right? They still don’t have much in the way of nutrients other than calories from simple carbohydrates and fat. They have no vitamins to speak of and the only real mineral is about a third of your daily sodium.

I also started having visions of the fat-free frenzy in the 80s, and the current sugar-free and gluten-free frenzies. Did the reduction of any of these nutrients in the food supply have any effect on the obesity rates? Is our population any healthier as a result of these initiatives? Nope and nope. All it is, is clever marketing by companies to have us feel better about the crappy food they’re peddling. Odds are, as with the other initiatives, if one orders these Satisfries they’ll end-up over-indulging in something else and undermine  their efforts to eat better. The Satisfries will sit on the tray, just like the diet pop, with the 1, 250 calories Triple Whopper with Cheese because, after all,  they’re having the healthy fries. As far as efforts to curb obesity rates go, reformulating processed food is going to do little or nothing. What we really need is a complete overhaul of the current food and education systems, as well as our physical environment.

My final issue with these fries is the implication of the name. What exactly about a french fry with fewer calories and less fat than a regular fry makes them satisfying? Wouldn’t they be less satisfying than regular fries?

French fries, unless they are oven-baked from whole potatoes with olive oil and spices, are undeserving of a health halo regardless of how you slice (or bread) them.