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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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.


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5 things low-carb gurus don’t want you to know

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I hate these lists: 5 foods you should never eat, 8 foods for a flat belly, and one I saw last week “10 Things Dietitians Say About Low-Carb Diets That Don’t Make Sense“. I should confess that as a dietitian, the headline alone immediately got my back up. Still, I took the bait and clicked the link.

Some of the stuff on there was quite reasonable, and some of it inaccurately portrayed dietitians and nutrition. It drives me nuts that we study nutrition for 4+ years in university, do internships, and must demonstrate continuous learning to maintain our professional status as registered dietitians, and yet those from other professions (and non-professions) are constantly proclaiming to the world that we’re nutritionally biased ignoramuses. Okay, so I didn’t exactly read this list with an open mind. No apologies.

Here are my top 5 retorts to this post and others in the same vein:

1. Low-Carb Diets Are Hard To Stick To

Have you ever tried a low-carb diet? There’s a reason why nearly everyone you meet who’s on a low-carb diet is singing its praises at a month or two in. How many people do you know who’ve consistently followed low-carb diets for years? Probably not many. There’s a reason for that. They are hard to stick to. Sure, you can feel physically satisfied on a low-carb diet but there are other aspects of it that can make it difficult to stick with. There’s the social aspect of food. It can be hard to follow a low-carb diet when others around you aren’t, forgoing birthday cakes and pizza. There’s also the restrictiveness that comes with a strict diet. You lose a lot of options when you cut-out or dramatically reduce carbohydrate intake. Finally, if you’re at all athletic, it can be extremely hard to train and perform at your best without carbohydrates.

2. The Opposite of Low-Carb Is NOT Low-Fat

Why is it that every time I hear someone poo-pooing on dietitians for our reluctance to support low-carb diets claiming that we push low-fat diets? The macronutrients are: carbohydrate, fat, and protein. While we all vary in our needs and desires for each of these, they all play a role in a healthy diet. I don’t know any dietitians who promote low-fat diets. Yes, in the past, because nutrition research is often flawed, we believed saturated fat was unhealthy. Most of us are over that. As I’ve said before, real dietitians eat butter.

3. Low-Carb Diets Are Not Proven To Be Safe In The Long-Term

As dietitians, it’s our job to provide people with the information that they need to make informed choices. When the average life span is over 80 years in Canada a two year study is but a drop in the bucket. Yes, you can probably be healthy on a low-carb diet. You can also be unhealthy on one as well. A diet of steak and bacon is low-carb, as is a diet of vegetables and fish. It’s a lot easier to get all of the nutrients that you need when you consume a greater variety of foods.

Yes, the Inuit ate high-fat low-carb diets. Will your low-carb diet consist predominantly of raw meat and seal blubber? I thought not.

4. Just Because You Can Be Healthy Following A Low-Carb Diet Doesn’t Mean That You Should

You can be healthy following all sorts of diets. You can also be unhealthy following them. A low-carb diet can be healthy, as can a vegan diet. You need to figure out what works best for you. Don’t let nutritional gurus convince you that their diet is the only way to go.

The main draw of a low-carb diet generally isn’t health anyway, it’s weight loss. These are not one and the same; no matter what the gurus may say. A healthy weight very much depends on the individual and health is not just physical. There is no shame in deriving pleasure from food.

5. We Don’t Like Diets

It’s nothing personal. We’re not eschewing your beloved low-carb diet because we have shares in the wheat industry. We tend to be wary of any diet because they are restrictive and have end dates and “cheat days”. The way you eat should be a way of life that you can maintain until the end of your life (which will hopefully be in the distant future because you’re following a healthy, enjoyable, varied, and balanced diet).


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Are we all really getting too much protein?

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This story is one of the oldest ones. When I was study nutrition in university I remember learning that most of us eat more protein than we need. While it’s undoubtedly true in most cases. It’s a little bit more complicated than: we eat more protein than we need to, end of story.

It’s important to note that there are a number of times that protein requirements are increased, such as for athletes, those recovering from injuries, and those endeavouring to lose weight. However, the recommendation for adults is roughly 45-50 grams of protein per day; more precisely, 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. We can easily eat this in one meal. And the problem is that many of us do eat this in one meal, neglecting the rest of our meals.

New research is indicating that we can’t utilize anymore than 20 grams of protein at one sitting. This means that, while we may be consuming plenty of protein at supper time, we may still not be getting enough protein. Many of us neglect breakfast. Even if we consume breakfast it’s often toast or cereal and many of us don’t get any more than 7 grams of protein in the morning. Distribution is important. To optimize protein utilization we should aim to consume 15-20 grams of protein at each meal. This may mean rethinking breakfast, and supper for that matter. Try to incorporate protein-rich foods at breakfast (e.g. eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, Greek yoghurt) and try to eat more meatless meals for supper. When having meat for supper don’t make it the biggest item on your plate. Treat meat like an accoutrement and make vegetables the stars of your suppers.


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Sorry, dietitians just aren’t sexy

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Something that’s been weighing on my mind a bit lately is the disappointment that many people seem to have with dietitians and the reasons for this. Basically, it boils down to the fact that we’re not sexy. Nope, we can’t tell you the next great superfood you must buy daily (spoiler: there is no such thing as a “superfood”). We won’t recommend any breakthrough weight loss supplement; sorry, whatever Dr. Oz is selling we’re not buying. We won’t tell you “never eat these five foods“. And we won’t tell you that paleo, Atkins, low-carb, low-fat, gluten-free, vegan, <insert any trendy diet here>, is the best diet.

There are no shortcuts to health. There are no foods that you should never ever eat (I mean, obviously, there are some foods that should be consumed on an occasional basis, such as candy, and others on a regular one, such as vegetables). But we’re never going to tell you not to eat something. We’re also never going to tell you what diet to follow. Our job is to help you figure out the diet that works best for you and how to optimize it to make it as enjoyable and healthy as possible.

Yes, I know that there are loads of other people out there who are more than happy to tell you that their diet is the best, the only, the diet to end all diets. I know that, that level of certainty can be alluring. It’s much more appealing to have someone tell you exactly what you may and may not eat when you’re struggling on your own. It’s not easy to hear that no foods are off the table and that no superfood is going to swoop in to the rescue. However, let’s not confuse confidence with competence. Dietitians are here to help you make the best choices for you, not to impose our own dietary regimes on you. Maybe we’re not sexy or fun or exciting but we’ll be here for you when all of those other diets let you down.