bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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.


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Second guessing the second guessing the dietitian post

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I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend among dietitians lately. It involves a certain division of RDs into two groups: “real” food RDs and all of the other RDs. Honestly, I’m not sure what the non-real food RDs are eating and advising others to eat. So far as I can tell, “real” food is the paleo diet and if you’re not paleo you’re not a “real” food RD. The implication being that dietitians advising you to consume anything other than paleo are inferior. I wrote a bit about this nutritional elitism last week. It offends me that, despite being an avid cook, some dietitians would suggest that I don’t eat “real” food because I don’t buy-in to a particular diet. I can assure you, I am not a machine (despite what some on fito have suggested), I do not run on diesel, electricity, nor hot air, I consume a variety of foods for fuel.

This “real” food RD group lead me to this post: Why you should second guess the dietitian. Now, I know that things are different in the US than they are in Canada so I’m trying not to take this too personally. However, it’s extremely frustrating to devote years of my life to a profession that I’m passionate about and to see others (including those within the profession) bashing it. It’s understandable that the author would have a hate-on for dietitians. She’s a holistic nutritionist, and as such, would be subject to much disdain on the part of dietitians due to the lack of evidence-based practice and of professional accountability in her chosen career. I don’t want to turn this into an “us versus them” diatribe though. I have no desire to get into a mud-slinging match. I know some reasonable and intelligent holistic nutritionists. No, my issue is the undermining of dietitians based on a couple of negative personal experiences the author had and based on the actions of the American governing organization (Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – AND).

The gist of the article is that dietitians lack credibility because their governing organization is in cahoots with the food industry. There is no doubt about it; that’s a huge conflict of interest. It’s ludicrous that the food industry would be providing funding and education for dietitians via their professional organization. However, this does not mean that you can’t trust dietitians. It’s also important to note that there are a number of dietitians rallying against the relationship between the AND and the food industry, both through the group Dietitians for Professional Integrity, and through personal decisions. Despite what the author would have you believe, we dietitians are not all attending conferences and lapping up nutrition “education” provided by Hershey and Coke.

Sure, there are going to be some (as in any profession) who are going to unquestioningly accept any nutrition information provided to them in a conference or a webinar. However, from my experience, the vast majority of RDs are intelligent enough to question information presented to them (regardless of the source) and to filter out the wheat from the chaff.

Yes, as the author says, any reputable dietitian will also suggest that you should question any health information given to you. Doctors, dietitians, holistic nutritionists, none of us are infallible and the field of nutrition is constantly evolving. Dietitians are committed to life-long learning and to providing evidence-based advice. We are not droids for the food industry.


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Another salt study

This headline made me cringe: Bread and cereal highest contributors to children’s salt intake: Study.
One, because we’ve known this for years, and it doesn’t just apply to children. In Western nations most people obtain the majority of their sodium from bread products.

Two, as the director of the Federation of Bakers points out toward the end of the article, it’s not because bread contains high amounts of salt, per se, it’s because people consume large quantities of bread products. Despite the focus of the article (and apparently the researchers) on pushing the food industry to lower amounts of salt in bread, it’s unlikely that this is the best response. For one thing, the industry is likely to replace the salt with something else that will turn out to be worse for us. For another, we should be focusing on encouraging people to consume a variety of foods, particularly those that are minimally processed, rather than emphasizing reformulating current packaged foods. Different bread is not the answer, less bread is.


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Dietitians and brand recommendations

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The above tweet really bothered me. Why? For a couple of reasons. One, where is this data coming from? I assume it’s in regards to dietitians in the US, as that’s where the tweet originated. So, can we really paint all dietitians with the same brush? Would dietitians in other countries also be recommending products to clients by brand name 90% of the time in other countries? Are we even talking about dietitians in all areas of practice? After all, we’re a pretty diverse bunch, working in many different areas. 

Two, the implied assumption that this is a bad thing. Maybe I’m the only one, but I immediately felt like we dietitians were somehow doing a disservice to our clients by recommending foods by brand name. The 90% is really quite meaningless. It could mean that a dietitian recommends every food by brand, or it could mean that the dietitian recommends but one of all of the recommended foods by brand. 

Personally, I tend not to recommend foods by brand name. However, I can see times when it might be useful. For example, when telling a client with celiac disease about gluten-free products. Or when someone asks which coconut milk doesn’t contain preservatives or stabilizers. Or when advising someone about humane meat products available at the grocery store. Or when identifying a product which is unique in the market. I don’t think that recommending a product by brand name necessarily means that a dietitian is being influenced by the company in question. I don’t think that it should be taken to mean that his or her credibility is in question. It may simply mean that they are trying to simplify the navigation of grocery store aisles for their clients. 


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Is sugar the “new tobacco”?

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The headline reads “Why are health experts calling sugar the new tobacco?” Because it’s catchy and makes for great headlines, duh!

I know that a lot of people are going to be pissed off with me for not taking up the cause and demonizing sugar. Sorry guys. I agree that most of us consume too much sugar (and too much of anything is a bad thing). I agree that excess sugar can cause cavities. I agree that the vast majority of us like sweet foods. However, I don’t believe that sugar is truly addictive… There is a difference between addiction and desire. Just because rats like oreos and sugar “lights up pleasure centres” in our brains doesn’t make it addictive.

I keep seeing claims that our bodies process calories from white sugar differently than calories from other foods. This makes no sense. The common definition of a calorie (technically a kilocalorie) is: the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius (1). There is no way for your body to differentiate between “types” of calories. There is only one type! Your body also can’t distinguish between sucrose in white sugar and sucrose in an apple. It is a chemical compound. It is what it is.

Calling on the food industry to reduce sugar content of foods is a dangerous proposition, in my opinion. Remember when we asked food manufacturers to reduce fat content? They added salt and sugar. Remember when we asked food manufacturers to reduce sodium? Not that much ever came of this. Point being, when they take something out they put something else in to replace it. We now know that fat is not inherently bad for us, nor is sodium, nor is sugar. No one of these things alone is causing obesity. Rather than asking food manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their foods we should be calling for less heavily processed foods.

Sugar is not the new tobacco. It’s the new scapegoat in the obesity wars.