bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Don’t do the crime if you can’t stand the cold food in the kitchen

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In the news last week was an exposé of prison food in British Colombia. Allegedly, prisoners have become ill after eating food distributed to prisons from a central kitchen. Sometimes prisons have run out of food before all of the prisoners have been served, leaving inmates to go hungry. Based on the comments, it seems that most people believe that prisoners should suck it up. After all, they’re criminals and are lucky that they’re getting food from our tax dollars. How dare they ask for food that’s safe or even nutritious. Just a taste of some of the comments:

Just looked at their menus they eat better than I do! Ohh and I work and pay taxes! These bums have a lot of nerve complaining. Try working for a living, try feeding your children and being a good parent. They blame society inequality and drugs for all their problems… The reality is there’s only one person to blame the one in the mirror! Do inmates children on the outside have enough to eat? Are they warm at night? Theses looser bring children into the world and forgo their responsibility…

Don’t like the food? Don’t put yourself in a position where you may go there.

Cry me a river. A murderer complaining that his prison food is not to his liking.

I know, I know “never read the comments”… I did it for you!

I think that many people are missing the point. Everyone deserves access to safe and nutritious food. If our prisons are intended to rehabilitate people who have committed crimes (which they ostensibly are) then nutritious food is an important component of that process. A number of studies have shown that nutrition affects cognition and behaviour (1, 2, 3). I’m sure that most of us have anecdotal experiences of the effects of poor (or good) nutrition on mood and behaviour. I know that I felt pretty crappy after the weekend I survived on primarily poutine, coffee, and beer. And that was one weekend! Imagine the effect that long-term malnutrition can have on mood and behaviour. I’m not saying that prisoners should be eating gourmet meals every day. However, if we want to rehabilitate inmates and have more of them re-enter society as contributing members then we need to provide them with the tools they need to do so. Good nutrition, and the ability to prepare nutritious meals upon release, is one of these tools.


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Food as medicine

How many of you have seen memes like these?:

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imgres-1The sentiment is nice and all. Obviously a healthy diet is a huge factor in preventing and treating many illnesses. But to be honest, I loathe these sorts of memes. To me, they suggest that it’s your fault if you get cancer because you ate a bag of potato chips. It’s not. There are many factors that contribute the development of diseases. They suggest that that treats don’t have a place in a balanced diet. They do. Healthy food can be delicious but what’s a life without the occasional ice cream cone? They also imply that somehow you can cure any disease with food. I’m sorry, but eating more broccoli is not going to cure lupus, you can’t cure AIDS with apples. While food plays a role in health, medicine does as well. We shouldn’t consider replacing essential medications with food. Medicine is medicine. Food is food.


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Stephen McNeil gets a failing grade for his response to Nova Scotia’s poor health report card

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Provincial Health Report Card from the Conference Board of Canada

I was driving home from work a couple of weeks ago, listening to the CBC (as per usual), when a segment came on about the recently released provincial health report cards. Nova Scotia did not fare well. We received an overall “D” grade, brought down by our “D” grade for cancer mortality. We also scored poorly on ratings for infant mortality, mortality due to respiratory diseases, and overall life expectancy. Our Premier, Stephen McNeil, made a statement to the effect that while the government does play some role in the health of Nova Scotians, we need to take more ownership of our heath. He said that we should eat better, exercise more, and drink less alcohol. WHAT?! 

I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised after the ill-informed op-ed piece by our Minister of Health last year. Really, though, has our Premier never heard of the social determinants of health? How is it possible for someone in such an important governmental role not realise the impact of government on the health of citizens? It’s hard for people to be healthy in our society. In a province where working longer hours is expected, where unhealthy processed foods are more widely available and affordable than nutritious foods, where the weather and poorly cleared sidewalks make even going for a walk difficult, where urban sprawl limits active transportation, where doctors are in short supply and wait times for specialists are outrageous, where many health care plans don’t cover dietitian’s services, where the government profits from the sale of alcohol, where jobs are scare and pay dismally, and so on, the onus should not be placed on the individual to improve population health. It’s the government’s job to make healthier choices more accessible for citizens and to provide us with the services and opportunities we need to be healthy. It’s embarrassing that our Premier would place the blame for our collective poor health on citizens of Nova Scotia when the environment we live in so clearly sets us up for illness.


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Will an avocado a day keep the doctor away?

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Avocado photo by Paree on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Last week everyone was all excited about new research touting the health benefits of avocados. The gist of it being that everyone should eat an avocado a day to lower improve their cholesterol profile. Now, I love avocados, but I still had to take a look at the study myself.

The first thing I noticed was that the research was “supported by a grant from the Hass Avocado Board” and that the lead author, Dr Kris‐Etherton, is a member of the Avocado Nutrition Science Advisory. According to one of the news items I heard, she insisted that she still would have published the research if it had not shown avocados to impart special benefits on cholesterol levels. Despite this, it’s still a significant red flag to me that the research was supported by the Avocado Board.

This was also a rather small study, looking at 45 individuals over five weeks. While the results were interesting, a larger study would be needed to draw any definitive conclusions. What were these interesting results? Bearing in mind that dietary adherence was self-reported, 90% allegedly stuck to their prescribed diets, and all participants maintained their starting weights. Participants were assigned to one of three treatment diets: low-fat, moderate-fat, or avocado. All three diets were found to lower LDL-C and total cholesterol. However, the avocado diet decreased both (LDL-C and TC) significantly more than the low- and moderate-fat diets. The avocado diet was also the only diet found to decrease the number of small, dense LDL particles (the really bad guys).

Okay, so avocados may impart health benefits. Does this mean we should all exponentially increase our grocery bills and start eating an avocado a day? Probably not. The participants in the study were predominantly white, overweight and obese, healthy Americans. If you’re not part of that group, the results may not apply to you. The study also only ran for five weeks and did not incorporate other life style changes such as exercise and weight loss. We can’t say if eating an avocado a day would impart the same health benefits to someone of a lower weight, different ethnicity, or disease state. We also don’t know if the benefits would continue beyond five weeks or if eating an avocado every day would be more beneficial than increasing exercise and/or losing weight. What about the effects of all three of these together?

Avocados are delicious and full of good nutrients. I don’t want to discourage anyone from eating them if they enjoy them. However, they are expensive, and their use in the treatment of conditions such as elevated cholesterol needs further investigation before we start prescribing an avocado a day.