bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The bigger problem with the cosy relationship between dietitians and the food industry

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Lots of drama in the dietetic world last week. No, I’m not talking about the wildly popular Dietitians Day. First, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in the US brokered a facepalm worthy deal with Kraft to have their logo placed on process cheese slices. Dietitians everywhere (myself included) were outraged, certainly not shocked, but definitely outraged. And rightfully so. How are people supposed to take us seriously when an organization claiming to represent thousands of dietitians is promoting process cheese. A product that the majority of us would neither consume nor recommend to clients. On the defensive, AND released a statement (you may need to scroll down a bit to find the post) claiming that the prominent placement of their logo on the process cheese was not indicative of endorsement. Rather, the logo was indicative of Kraft’s support of AND. Right. We all know that doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that matters and everyone perceived the placement of the AND logo as an endorsement of the questionable product. Especially since the initial accompanying pronouncement stated that AND was proud to have their logo appearing on Kraft singles as many children don’t consume enough calcium and vitamin D. AND will be forming a committee to address the concerns of members regarding this deal with Kraft, in MAY. If you agree that this “partnership” is wrong then please take a minute to sign the Change.org petition asking AND to “repeal the seal”.

Hot on the heels of the AND Kraft debacle was the news that a number of dietitians had promoted mini-Coke cans as “healthy snacks”. These dietitians were likely all paid for selling their souls this work, although one of them couldn’t recall if she was paid by Coke or not. Gee, I wish I was making so much money that I could forget whether or not I was paid for something. While I hate to rag on fellow dietitians, it frustrates me to no end to hear of others doing such a disservice to our profession.

Both of these stories exemplify how the relationship between the food industry and dietetics/dietitians undermines our integrity as health professionals. There is a larger problem here. Dietetic organizations need sources of funding that do not come with conflicts of interest. Dietitians need more and better job opportunities. I understand that it’s a tough job market. Believe me, I’m not raking in the dough and I’m only quasi working as a dietitian. However, I would sooner give-up my status as a registered dietitian than to use it to promote questionable food and beverage choices. With the constantly changing science and messages in nutrition it’s hard enough to convince people to trust us. Is it really worth sacrificing our credibility to make a buck?


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Why McDonald’s hipster cafe is a scary development

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Did you know that McDonald’s is running a “hipster” café called The Corner in Australia? Apparently, after failed attempts to add more nutritious items to the regular McDonald’s menu, McDonald’s has decided to make the effort to capture the more health-conscious consumer by starting a new operation.

It’s difficult to say whether or not the food actually is more nutritious than the traditional McDonald’s fare. They don’t have the nutrition information posted online and seem only to have a facebook page. According to reviewers in this article the food is more upscale than that at McDonald’s. However, it still has that mass manufactured quality to it. Nothing truly artisan about it.

Okay, so without knowledge of the nutrition information, what’s my issue with this Corner Café? You know I must have an issue with it or I wouldn’t be blogging about it! My issue is the domination of our food industry by just a few players.

In grocery stores we see more and more small, quality, ethical companies being purchased by the giants. Starbucks is notorious for swooping in, saturating markets, and edging out the competition. We have Monsanto controlling most of the seeds used to grow our food. McDonald’s is already the most ubiquitous “restaurant” in the world. Now we have them masquerading as a local coffee shop. Allowing giant companies to own (read: control) our food is a dangerous road that we’re already pretty far down.

When there aren’t enough players in the game prices can be driven-up and quality can be neglected. We also run the risk of disaster if something happens along the food supply chain if everything’s coming from one place.

Maybe I’m being alarmist; maybe not. Personally, I’d rather err on the side of caution and support a local café rather than McDonald’s.


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Should the food industry be allowed at the obesity debate?

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This article: Food firms could be out of the obesity debate baffled me. The by-line reads: “Food and drink manufacturers must emphasize the role of exercise in reducing obesity or risk being sidelined in the debate and hit with stricter regulation, according to new research.” What? Isn’t that exactly what many food and beverage companies are doing? I seem to remember Coke, for example, having an ad campaign based around how many calories it takes to burn off a coke. Isn’t this one of the biggest problems with the current debate? That you can out-run your fork? That food manufacturers want us to believe that we’re fat because we don’t move enough, not because we’re not eating properly? Sorry, hate to break it to ya, but the most important factor in losing, and maintaining weight loss, is diet. And the best way to attain a healthy diet is to prepare it ourselves rather than relying on packaged, processed, manufactured foods.

Of course, the by-line obscures one of the major recommendations of the research. That recommendation is that the role of public health in education and health programming should be emphasized. Sadly, they do state that food manufacturers should be making greater efforts to reformulate their products to meet the weight management needs of the consumers. Honestly, I think this is a fool’s errand. It’s been done before; and look where all those low-fat and fat-free products got us? Here. Greater import needs to be placed on cooking and the food system needs to be restructured so that “junk” foods are no longer subsidized, while fruits and vegetables are.

I for one, don’t see it as any great tragedy if the food industry was to be sidelined in the obesity debate. Frankly, their inclusion only serves their interests and keeps the mistaken belief that individual responsibility is the key to conquering obesity alive.


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The relationship between dietitians and the Food Guide

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I spend a lot of time explaining the difference between a dietitian and a nutritionist to people. I’ve done it on this very blog. I was doing this recently when someone jumped in to say that dietitians go by the Food Guide. It’s funny because I would never think to mention Canada’s Food Guide when explaining the difference between RDs and RHNs to anyone. It’s true that we are taught about the Food Guide during our degree but it’s not something I’ve used much in practice. I can understand why RHNs (and others) would sound a little disdainful when claiming that dietitians follow the Food Guide. After all, I’ve voiced disdain toward the Food Guide myself.

Perhaps some dietitians use Canada’s Food Guide as a bible but I think that most of us, if we use it at all, it’s as a guide. It’s a tool, albeit not a great one; designed to help people make healthy food choices that will meet their nutrient needs. Unfortunately, the government allowed industry to have a voice at the table when the Food Guide was being developed. Industry has the goal of boosting profits. This is generally incompatible with the goal of boosting Canadians health.

Dietitians have many different roles and I certainly can’t claim to speak for all members of the profession. However, in addition to being taught the Food Guide in University we were also taught to think critically. I would hope that this would translate into the Food Guide not being a factor when comparing dietitians and nutritionists.


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Fed Up – Movie review

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I went to see the movie Fed Up last week. I think that the overall message was a good one: cook more, avoid highly processed packaged foods. Because of this, I feel a little bit torn about being critical of it. However, I feel that it’s going to be “preaching to the choir” anyhow so bringing up my issues is probably unlikely to do much to impact ticket sales. And even with my issues, it’s worth a watch.

First issue: why did they have to include so many people with quackerific tendencies (such as Mark Hyman and Robert Lustig)? Fortunately, there were some credible people with backgrounds in nutrition (such as Marion Nestle). Why were there no dietitians? I’m seeing the examples of what the obese children were eating and proclaiming as “healthy” (low-fat cereal, Special K chips, NUTELLA DIPPERS) and I’m thinking that maybe the problem here is lack of education and understanding of what “healthy” is. One of the mums was saying that they had the tools, and knew what to do, so they were going to do it on their own as her daughter was too young for Weight Watchers. Well, if those are the choices that you think are healthy, then you clearly don’t have the tools. Any dietitian could have set things straight. But no, Fed Up had to go and conflate the issue of obesity with the issue of excess sugar.

I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again no one nutrient is to blame in the obesity epidemic. Yes, indeed, too much of anything is bad for us but sugar alone is not what’s making everyone fat. The movie even talked about the true cause: the proliferation of inexpensive calorie-dense, nutrient lacking food everywhere we go. Our food system and environment. Why on earth they had to go and lose credibility by demonizing sugar is beyond me. Suggesting that sugar is the problem only provides the food industry with the ability to provide the “solution” by creating low-sugar and sugar-free foods. I can tell you right now that, that solution is going to work just as well as the low-fat, fat-free solution did. When you visit the home page for Fed Up the first thing you see is an option to sign-up for the challenge “sugar free for 10 days”. Not, cook supper and eat as a family for 10 days. Sigh.

Even though it was only a brief moment in the film, there was mention of how chefs like Jamie Oliver are going into schools and trying to help children to get excited about preparing and eating nutritious food. Yes, this is a good thing but I question how much more Jamie Oliver is a part of the solution than he is a part of the problem. Putting aside his lack of knowledge of nutrition, and his terrible lesson of teaching children to choose oranges over chocolate bars by forcing them to run around a track to burn-off the calories from their snack of choice, have you seen how many packaged foods he has in grocery stores? If the problem is unhealthy processed foods then a chef who is profiting from sales of said foods should not be too loudly lauded for his efforts to teach children and families about cooking on tv (which he is also profiting from). I’m not sure how much this differs from the much reviled McDonald’s selling crappy food but running a lovely charity like the Ronald McDonald House.

And why, oh why, did they feel the need to say “cook real food”. This is redundant. Who is cooking fake food? Just cook.

They also brought up the “calorie is not a calorie” argument. This makes me want to tear my hair out!!! A calorie is a unit of measure. Arguing that a calorie is not a calorie is like arguing that an inch is not an inch or a kilogram is not a kilogram. Yes, you should consume foods that contain vitamins and minerals alongside the calories but that does not negate the value of a calorie.

Okay… I’m almost done… The other issue I took exception to was the evidence presented that healthy eating is less expensive than unhealthy eating. They showed the cost for a fast food meal in comparison to the cost of a home made meal consisting of a whole chicken, rice, and veg. There are a couple of problems with this. One, the cost of the meal was based on what was used to make the meal, not what all of the ingredients would actually cost. You can’t just buy the exact amount of oil, rice, spices, etc to make one meal, you would spend considerably more to buy the full containers. Someone living in poverty might not have that money. And where the heck are they getting a whole chicken for only $5 and change!? Two, it presupposes that people have the skills, time, and facilities necessary to prepare a roast chicken dinner. Sadly, many people living with food insecurity (and obesity) lack these conveniences.

Did I learn anything while watching the film? No. Did I agree with everything in the film? No. Do I think it’s a worthwhile watch? Yes. Despite all of my issues with specific content, I’m still a supporter of the overall message to cook more food at home.

After writing this post a colleague on twitter (David Despain @daviddespain) shared a link to an excellent article critiquing the science in the movie.

…After publishing this post, a colleague informed me that the authors of the article (linked above) are actually a front group for the food industry. I still think that they made some valid points in their critique of Fed Up but this is a good lesson that we should question everything.