bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Dr Folta and Dr Blair and the problem with industry funding

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Photo: Coke de Plume by BFLV on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A couple of things happened in the scientific world in fairly short succession recently. I spent a lot of time waffling about whether or not I should write about them. Primarily because I don’t want to draw the ire of the pro-GMO community. I see a lot of rabid support for “science” on twitter and I fear being dismissed as anti-science. But this post isn’t about whether or not GMOs are great, or even whether or not they’re safe. It’s not about my opinions on genetic modification nor organic farming. “What is it about?” you ask. It’s about credibility and honesty in scientific research and dissemination of said research.

A few weeks ago the Internets got their collective panties in a twist because some scientists were revealed to have received money from Monsanto. In particular, one scientist received money to pay for his travel expenses in order to enable him to speak at events. Naturally, he was speaking in support of genetic modification, which aligns with Monsanto’s values. I’ve since seen his supporters claim that this information was freely available to anyone who was interested and that he had never failed to disclose his funding sources. I’ve also seen his detractors attribute quotes to him clearly stating that he did not receive money from Monsanto. I don’t know who to believe. It doesn’t really matter who I (or anyone) believes anyway. The important fact of the matter is that he received money from Monsanto to speak at conferences and events.

The following week the news broke that a number of scientists have been receiving funding from Coke (via a nonprofit organization) to support their research and other logistics. That research focusing on the import of exercise in weight management. Once again, the Internet was collectively outraged. Okay, I exaggerate. Nearly everyone I follow on twitter, and much of the mainstream media, were outraged. The researchers shrugged and said: what’s the problem, we’ve never hidden the fact that we received money from Coca Cola and that money had no influence on our research findings. Everyone rolled their eyes and said: um, bias, helllooo. 

Here we have two instances of scientific funding by organizations which have vested interests in the results. Here we have two groups of scientists saying that the funding doesn’t matter and that their findings would be the same no matter where the money was coming from. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that by accepting financial support from organizations that have a vested interest in the results and the messages from theses scientists creates the perception of bias. Even if these scientists are completely impartial, and that’s being incredibly generous given the fact that the majority of industry funded research findings support the interests of the funders, it raises doubts about that impartiality. At worst, the scientists receiving the funding have a conflict of interest. At best, they have a perceived conflict of interest, and perception matters. It also makes for an uneven scientific playing field. If all of the players on one team are having their expenses covered by a benefactor then how can the other team hope to succeed. Even if they are better players, they can’t afford to go to out-of-town matches or find the time for extra practice.

If only the scientists with the pro-GMO message or the scientists with the pro-exercise message are given the platforms to share those messages how can we ever hope to find out the truth?


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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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The truth about weight loss

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I so often hear people complaining about how they’ve fallen off track with healthy eating, exercise, and need to lose weight. It’s so hard to sit silently by, but in my experience, most people don’t want to hear the truth. Fortunately, I have this lovely blog where I can write the truth and if you want to read it that makes me very happy, but I’m not interjecting my educated opinion into your pity party.

You say, “I need to get my ass back to the gym”. I hear, “If I just workout harder/longer/more often I’ll lose a bunch of weight and wow everyone at the beach this summer.” The truth: the vast majority of weight loss occurs in the kitchen. Most of us eat more calories than we burn in compensation for workouts, negating efforts exercise might impart on body weight. I don’t want to discourage anyone from exercising. If you know me, you know that I love to workout and that running is my drug of choice. There are plenty of good reasons to workout for physical and mental health. However, it’s unlikely that you’re going to lose much weight in the gym.

You say, “I need to start eating clean again”. I hear, “Im going to start an unpleasant diet that I won’t be able to stick to for the rest of my life”. The truth: Weight management is more about the maintenance than the loss. If you’re following a diet that you loathe and are forbidding yourself from having foods that you love, you’re not going to be able to stick with it for the rest of your life. If you can’t find a healthy diet that you can enjoy for life then you’re not going to maintain weight loss for life. Healthy eating can be delicious. Clean eating is bullshit. I don’t know anyone who enjoys eating boiled boneless skinless chicken breasts and steamed broccoli for every meal. You need to have variety. You need to cook the vast majority of meals yourself. And you need to find a way to include treats that doesn’t mean you’ve derailed your entire diet. As I’ve said before, if you want to see sustainable weight loss you need to make sustainable changes. There is no one-size-fits-all method of weight loss. You need to figure out the method that works best for you and ignore the nay sayers.

You say, “I failed”. I hear, “I am weak. If I was just more disciplined I could be thinner”. The truth: It’s not your fault. Our society is set-up in such a manner that it’s far far more difficult to be thin than it is to be over weight. We value putting in long hours at work, rather than spending time cooking with your family. It’s a point of pride to scarf something down at your desk rather than taking a lunch break. There is a proliferation of nutritionally questionable grab-and-go foods available, while most healthy choices necessitate time and planning. It’s not all down to you and you don’t have to go it alone. Most people benefit from having support and accountability when they’re trying to lose weight. You might want to go to a registered dietitian, join a weight management group like Weight Watchers or TOPS, or team up with a friend or your significant other.

You say, “I need to lose X number of pounds”. I hear, “I’ll do whatever I have to, to attain an arbitrary number on a scale”. The truth: The numbers on the scale don’t matter. It’s about how you feel inside your own skin. Not everyone can have the physique of a supermodel. We come in all different shapes and sizes and even those at the same weight may have very different body shapes. You may be able to torture yourself down to the same weight you were at twenty but if you’re miserable, then what’s the point? Stop judging yourself against others. Stop focussing on the scale. Health and weight are not the same thing.


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Just because an account has a blue checkmark doesn’t mean it knows all

I don’t follow this twitter account but after a seeing a retweet of this (fortunately not in a complimentary manner):

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Yes, many of us have experienced workouts where we felt like we were going to vomit. However, that’s no reason to push your body beyond its limits. Listen to your body. Enjoy exercise!

I had to peruse the timeline… I found an interesting mix of decent advice and misinformation. Here are just a few of the worst offenders I found in a quick scroll:

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There is nothing wrong with using butter sparingly. Yes, extra virgin olive oil is a healthy choice. However, at high temperatures it breaks down, making it less healthy for us. Also, consuming too much of any type of fat (or food) ignores one of the most important edicts of a healthy diet: variety.

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Again, red meat can be a part of a healthy diet. But… It doesn’t have to be. We should consume a variety of sources of protein and red meat is wholly unnecessary.

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Common myth. Previously written about here.


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Of running and hot yoga

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A couple of news articles about fitness have irked me recently. So, while my main focus is obviously nutrition, I just wanted to quickly comment on them.

This article: Jogging Outside Could Make You Dumber was written back in 2012 but my friend just shared it with me as apparently it’s making the rounds on twitter. Sigh. The study compared 12 runners who were asked to run in an urban setting to 12 who were asked to run in the countryside. It was found that there were greater levels of brain inflammation, and lower IQ scores, in those who were running in the urban setting. Problem: there could be many other differences between the two groups which caused the discrepancy in IQ and inflammation. In addition, this was a very small study. It’s entirely possible that if more people were looked at that these results would disappear. It’s also important to note that, contrary to the title of the article, the researchers do not recommend ceasing jogging or running outside. Perhaps I’ve become too stupid from running outside but I don’t think that we should stop running.

The other article that bothered me was about how there were no additional benefits to hot yoga over “regular” yoga. The study found that, based on cardiovascular data, hot yoga was actually no more strenuous than traditional yoga. In a way this is actually a positive finding; it means that people who have been medically advised not to participate in hot yoga are probably safe to do so after all. Yes, it’s important to be aware that the massive amounts of sweat you accrue are not indicative of burning a massive number of calories. Still, the study didn’t look at injuries sustained during yoga practice. Many people find hot yoga loosens the muscles and makes it easier to get deeper stretches. This may help to prevent against injury. It also makes for a nice relaxing shavasana at the end of a class. Yoga is not the best activity for weight loss but it can help people with balance, flexibility, and stress; be it hot or cold.