bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Leave the veg for the rabbits, you’re going to die anyway

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A few weeks ago, Dr Sharma shared this article (on twitter and on facebook), without comment. It’s an article by the dreaded Zoe Harcombe about why we shouldn’t be striving for at least five servings a day of fruit and vegetables. No, it’s not what you think. She’s not suggesting that people should have more than 5 servings of veg and fruit a day, she’s suggesting that people should have fewer servings of veg and fruit a day. “Great,” I thought, “Zoe strikes again“.

After working myself up into a bit of a rage about the article I noticed the date on it. January 2011. When I first saw that I thought that I wouldn’t blog about it after all as it’s not current. My second thought was, “whatever”. If I’m only seeing this for the first time there are probably others only seeing it for the first time as well.

Harcombe argues that recent research showing the lack of protection against myriad chronic diseases through increased vegetable and fruit consumption means that we should cease encouraging people to eat more vegetables and fruits. And everyone rejoiced and ate doughnuts for dinner and lived long and healthy lives dying peacefully from old age in their sleep! Dietitians, nutritionists, and other health professionals were suddenly out of work as there was no more chronic disease to contend with. If only.

In the article, Harcombe states, “no doubt some dieticians and nutritionists will reject my arguments. But science backs me up.”
Well, she got the first part of that statement right, at least.

A great deal of Harcombe’s hypothesis centres around the assertion that vegetables and fruit don’t contain many vitamins or minerals. She concedes that vegetables do contain vitamin C and some A and K. Fruit apparently is only good for potassium. According to Harcombe, meat and other animal products are superior sources of most vitamins and minerals. This truly is a load of nonsense. Veg and fruit can be good sources of many vitamins and minerals. Not to mention the fact that they are usually good sources of water and can provide greater volume to your meal with few calories. Food is not just about individual nutrients. It’s about taste and texture and pleasure. Imagine eating a salad without vegetables. Think about the pleasure of eating a fresh blackberry off the brambles. How dull food would become if we didn’t have vegetables and fruit in our diets.

Harcombe moves on from her argument about the lack of vitamins and minerals in vegetables and fruit to say that some dietitians will argue that they are a source of antioxidants. She doesn’t object to this statement but instead says that she would rather not ingest oxidants in the first place. What was it that she said earlier? Oh yeah, “Science backs me up.” Might be time for a review of the oxidizing process, Zoe. If she’s avoiding oxidizing agents I want to know how she’s managed to survive without breathing air or drinking water. Our environment is chockfull of oxidizers. We should certainly avoid adding to them ourselves by avoiding smoking, excessive sun exposure, excessive alcohol consumption, etc. However, avoiding “chemicals” as Harcombe suggests is both ridiculous and impossible. Everything is chemicals. We are chemicals.

There is too much in this article to address it all. I mean, I could, but it’s too nice out as I’m typing this, and would you really keep reading if I went on and on? I just want to touch on one more issue with Harcombe’s vendetta against vegetables and fruit.

Harcombe takes issue with the belief that vegetables and fruit are important sources of fibre in our diets.

“The fact is, we can’t digest fibre. How can something we can’t even digest be so important to us, nutritionally?”

Apparently Harcombe doesn’t mind being constipated. Nor does she recognise the importance of fibre in prevention of heart disease. The desire to feel satisfied after a meal? Also not important. Even if these things are not important to her fibre serves other important organisms inside our bodies. That indigestible fibre is food for the bacteria living in our digestive tracts. Those same bacteria that provide us with things like vitamin B12, protect us against GI upset and harmful micro-organisms. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the importance of our gut bacteria but it seems that they do a lot more for us than we ever realised.

So, if we are to listen to Harcombe and throw those five-a-day away, what are we to eat? Her top five foods: liver, sardines, eggs, sunflower seeds, and dark-green vegetables. That’s right. After telling us that vegetables and fruit are overrated and should be left for the rabbits, Harcombe then turns around and recommends vegetables in her top five foods. I rest my case.


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Another example of why nutrition advice should come from nutrition professionals

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A friend, and fellow dietitian, sent me the above screenshots. They were posted by a personal trainer. Of course it’s great to get people eating more vegetables and by no means do I want to discourage that. However, this is yet another example of why nutrition advice is best left to nutrition professionals.

Let’s start with the onions. High in fibre? It’s true, sort-of. Once cup of chopped onion contains a respectable 3 grams of fibre. Not exactly “high” but a “good source”. But… Who among us eats an entire cup of onion in a sitting? Certainly not I. At most, I would say I would have a couple of tablespoons. That brings the total fibre down to a whopping 0 grams. Oops. As for the other claims… Anyone telling you something is “great for fat loss” is probably full of it. No one food promotes fat loss. Following a healthy, adequate calorie diet, and healthy active lifestyle will promote fat loss (should you need to lose fat). Glutathione to reduce stress? Not according to WebMD. And just to be annoying, how on earth could eating onions reduce stress??? Will they ensure you don’t lose loved ones, keep your job, prevent moving? I think he must mean that they reduce the effect of stress on your body. Regardless, I’m pretty sure he’s mistaken. EWG did find pesticide residue on onions, however, they were ranked 50th (out of 51) so I’ll let him have that one; they are low in pesticides. Finally, onions do contain the prebiotic inulin. But, the onions aren’t what provide the benefits listed, the probiotics that use the prebiotics to grow are what provide the benefits. Both pre- and pro-biotics are needed to maintain a healthy digestive system.

As for the claim that grains don’t contain as much fibre as “you think” and therefore, you should consume the vegetables listed to obtain your fibre. Let’s compare: asparagus, cooked 1/2 cup = 2 grams of fibre, 1 cup of raw green pepper = 3 g fibre, 1 cup of raw broccoli = 2 g fibre, 1 cup of raw green cabbage = 2 g fibre, 1 cup of raw cauliflower = 3 g fibre, 1 cup of cucumber (with peel) raw = 0 grams of fibre, 1 cup of romaine lettuce = 0 g of fibre, 1 cup of raw mushrooms = 1 g fibre, 1 cup of raw spinach = 1 g fibre, 1 cup of raw zucchini = 0 grams of fibre. Now for the grains: 1 cup of steel-cut oats = 5 grams of fibre, one slice of multigrain bread = 2 g fibre, 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa = 2.5 g fibre, 1/2 cup of brown rice cooked = 2 g fibre, 3/4 cup of bran flakes = 5 g fibre…. I’d also like to mention that 1/2 cup of black beans contains 7.5 grams of fibre! As you can see, yes some of these vegetables contain fibre. However, grains also contain fibre, generally more than the vegetables. The moral here: include a variety of foods, including grains and vegetables, in your diet to meet all of your nutrient needs. Oh, and don’t take nutrition advice from those without a nutrition education.


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Gluten-free weight loss

I’ve blogged about the fallacy of weight loss resulting from the modern vegan diet before. As the gluten-free trend continues I frequently hear about people choosing to go gluten-free in order to lose weight. Many packaged gluten-free foods have a health halo. That is, people believe that they’re healthy simply because they’re gluten-free. However, the same rules apply to gluten-free packaged foods as to any other packaged foods and label-reading is still essential.

You may lose weight on a gluten-free diet. However, you’re much more likely to do so if you’re not replacing one processed packaged food for another. In fact, many packaged gluten-free foods often have more calories than their traditional glutenous counterparts. While gluten-free breads continue to evolve and improve in formulation, many are still very dense and while their slices may appear smaller than regular bread they may still have equivalent, or more, calories.

Beyond calories, gluten-free baked goods usually have less fibre than glutenous baked goods. Gluten-free bread tends to have about 1 gram of fibre per slice. Compare that to regular whole wheat bread which generally has about 4 grams of fibre per slice.

Before you decide to go gluten-free (without a doctor’s recommendation) remember that label-reading still applies. Ensure that you’re still getting sufficient fibre. Regardless of whether or not you’re going gluten-free, you should try to choose minimally processed foods as often as possible. Finally, gluten-free doesn’t mean calorie-free but it often means fibre-free.


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Supplements: Should you take PGX?

There are so many supplements available that purport to be The Answer to quick and easy weight loss. Of course, if any of them were actually any good, overweight and obesity wouldn’t be a problem anymore. PGX is no different. A quick google search yielded a link to support from Dr. Oz. To me, that’s a huge red flag. If Dr. Oz is pushing it then my skepticism is definitely going to increase.

I went through PGX’s website which claims that it “will change your life”. The website makes several claims about the benefits of PGX, the first of which is that it helps you lose weight. How will it do this? Well, PGX is a viscous fibre and when consumed with water it will increase in bulk in your stomach. The idea is that you take PGX before a meal so that you’ll feel fuller and eat less. In theory, great. In practice, does it really work? Interestingly, while the PGX website makes the claim that their product assists in weight loss there is no link to research supporting that claim. Google scholar doesn’t provide much more information. A couple of studies claim that PGX may be beneficial for blood glucose control and another asserts that it may be useful for short-term weight loss. However, there is nothing to support long-term weight loss and all of these studies were supported by the makers of PGX so I’m inclined to take them with a grain of salt.

While PGX appears to be a safe product, it also appears to be an unnecessary one. Yes, many people could stand to increase the amount of fibre they’re consuming but they’d be better off doing that by adding whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to their diets.

As with most of these weight loss products, PGX is only effective when combined with a healthy diet and exercise. Hmmm… What would happen if you removed PGX from that equation? I’m guessing the same amount of weight loss, although maybe a little less as your wallet wouldn’t be any lighter.


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Putting the “twit” in twitter: a look at kale

I was taking a break from trying to figure out what to blog about and reading my twitter feed when I was inspired by a tweet: “Fun stat: Kale has more iron in it than beef and Kale chips are YUM. Also a good source of protein,calcium,and fibre. More calcium than milk”. Was this tweeted by someone with any sort of nutrition background. Nope. I love that the Internet gives everyone a voice. Unfortunately, that’s also the downfall of the Internet. Misinformation is easily spread with the click of a button. What’s wrong with this tweet in particular? It’s not that kale isn’t great. Kale is awesome and probably the most nutritious of all the leafy greens. The problem is that the facts provided in this tweet are misleading. Let’s look at a comparison of the iron in kale and beef: one serving of kale (1/2 cup cooked) contains 0.62 mg of iron, one serving of beef (75 g cooked steak) contains 2.06 mg of iron. You don’t have to be a math whiz to figure out that the beef clearly has considerably more iron than the kale. It’s also important to bear in mind that the form of iron in meat (i.e. heme iron) is more easily absorbed than the non-heme iron found in plants. That means that you’ll absorb a greater percentage of the iron in the beef than you will of the iron in the kale (or any other plant-based source of iron). Now what about the other nutrient claims in this tweet… Is kale a good source of protein? 1.3 g. Not too bad, also important to keep in mind that it’s not a complete protein, it doesn’t contain all of the essential amino acids. That means that you need to include other sources of protein to get all of the amino acids your body needs. Is kale a good source of calcium? 49 mg. Not too shabby, right? Well, the recommended daily intake of calcium for adults between 19-50 years of age is 1, 000 mg so you still need a LOT more sources of calcium in your diet. Is it more calcium than milk? One cup of milk has 316 mg of calcium. Even if we go measure for measure, milk has way more calcium in it than kale does. How about fibre then? 1.4 g. That’s okay. At the lowest end of fibre recommendations it’s about 6% of what an adult should be getting in a day.

I don’t want to come across all down on kale. I truly love kale and I think it’s a great food. I just don’t want people to read one misinformed tweet and think that kale is a magic food providing them with practically all of the nutrients they need. As I’ve said before; there are NO super foods! You need to consume a variety of foods to obtain all of the nutrients that your body needs to function at its best.