bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Of strawmen in food swamps who exclusively eat carrots

The Statist Guide to Healthy Eating in the National Post last week had me all like:


Maybe the author, Soupcoff, was trying to be inflammatory. In that case, she certainly succeeded.

Recent news has come out about so-called “food swamps” in Toronto. These swamps are areas that are plentiful in less nutritious food options and lacking in things like grocery stores and farmers markets where fresh, minimally processed foods can be purchased.

Soupcoff argued creating policies and zoning to promote healthy eating is ridiculous; as is the notion of a “food swamp” in the first place. Instead of creating places where the healthy choice is the easy choice we should just be teaching people how to make healthy choices.

According to Soupcoff, “If we want people to eat healthier, treating them as grown-ups and giving facts is probably going to be far more effective than elaborate zoning plans to engineer equal kale distribution.” Sorry, nope. If people are surrounded by food options that aren’t very nutritious then they’re far more likely to choose those options on a regular basis than if they’re surrounded by healthy food options. I certainly believe that most people could benefit from greater nutrition education. However, for people to make healthier choices we need to be redesigning our environments so that those healthier choices are easier to make. Kale or no kale.

Soupcoff then goes off on a tangent, bringing in a strawman, to tell us that people who exclusively consume carrots are less healthy than people who consume a balanced varied diet and an occasional chocolate bar. As if this has anything to do with making healthy food choices easily available to all.

Interestingly, Soupcoff is the National Director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation. A far-right-wing organization that supposedly fights for the freedoms of Canadians. Apparently, creating environments which promote food security and provide healthy food options is somehow infringing on our basic rights and freedoms. Go figure.


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Burger King rules in New Brunswick schools

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Burger King image by Mike Mozart on flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A few weeks ago it hit the news that Burger King has the contract to provide hot lunches for the Anglophone East School District in New Brunswick. Some people were upset that a fast food restaurant is being paid to provide children with lunches. Others defended the program by stating that the foods provided meet the provincial school nutrition policy.

Without knowing exactly what foods are being provided through this program, I would be remiss in dismissing the program as unhealthy. The article simply states that burgers can’t be served more than twice a week, fries aren’t served at all, and they also offer salads and apple sauce. I admit that these claims don’t instil me with much confidence that the offerings are truly healthy, balanced, varied choices. After all, a healthy diet isn’t the absence of the least healthy foods. Offering burgers “only” twice a week isn’t exactly a paradigm of health. Nor is apple sauce and what I’m speculating would be an iceberg lettuce-heavy salad. But that’s just speculation. Perhaps BK is offering a variety of nutritious salad options.

I do think that it’s unfortunate that the decision as to which company receives the RFP to provide schools with lunches is made based on what company can meet the guidelines for the lowest price. Instead of looking at what other hot lunch providers can offer by way of variety and nutrition above and beyond foods permitted, it’s all about the money. Far be it for schools to consider the import of good nutrition on health, behaviour, and the ability of students to learn.

The issue goes beyond the nutritional value of the food being served. Having Burger King provide the hot lunches also allows them to advertise within the schools and build life-long customers out of young children. BK may be providing the food at a lower cost than other providers could but that’s because they’re a huge corporation that sells relatively inexpensive mass-produced food products. They’re also getting more than their money’s worth by being allowed to advertise in schools in this manner, and don’t think for a second that this isn’t exactly why they’re doing it.

In an ideal world, schools would have their own cafeterias with staff and nutritious food prepared for all students at lunch. Unfortunately, our world isn’t ideal. At the very least, school boards could be ensuring that RFPs give preference to local companies rather than large multinational fast food conglomerates.


Protein: the latest killer lurking in your food

Image by noodles and beef on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Image by noodles and beef on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Oh good, just what we all need, more fear mongering. That’s one thing we certainly don’t get enough of as part of our current diet. So, what’s the latest to spark fear into the tummies of eaters everywhere? Protein. Yep, apparently, our “obsession” with protein is actually making us sick. This according to Garth Davis, a surgeon, and author of the forthcoming book Proteinaholics. Cute name, no? Right up there with Grain Brain and Wheat Belly.

Davis proposes that we’re all eating too much protein and that it’s having dire health consequences. According to the article an average 150 lb adult in the US consumes the equivalent of more than 6 eggs worth of protein in a day. I’m not sure how the math was done to obtain this conclusion (I guess that “more than” must be integral) as I have six large eggs clocking in at 6 grams of protein a piece which would be 36 grams of protein for the day which is actually less than the recommended 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day. In fact, it leaves our “average adult” about 18 grams of protein shy of the recommended adequate intake. Not to mention the fact that while the AI is expected to meet, or exceed, the needs of most individuals, it doesn’t account for those who have increased nutrient needs such as athletes, those who are injured (particularly people suffering from burns), pregnant women, the elderly, etc. To the article author’s credit, she does go on to mention that there are some researchers who believe that the AI for protein should be increased, providing some balance to the article if you manage to read the whole piece.

Another good point made in the article is that we get protein from many foods, particularly foods that people don’t think of as protein sources. Things like grains and vegetables. However, this is undermined by the example provided comparing the protein content of a packet of Mr Noodles with the protein in a Clif Bar. An unfortunate choice because your standard Clif Bar isn’t a protein bar, it’s an energy bar. This may sound like a minor quibble but when most protein supplements provide around 20 grams of protein per serving, comparing an energy bar with 11 grams of protein (still nothing to sniff at) to Mr Noodles (which have 10 grams in the chicken flavour used for comparison but as few as 4 grams in some other flavours) is rather foolish. To digress from protein for a moment… While the Clif Bar is also high in sugar (about 5 teaspoons!) it does contain other vitamins and minerals and fibre while your packet of Mr Noodles will give you more than half a day’s worth of sodium. I know that the focus of the article was protein but it’s important not to make the focus of nutritional comparisons single nutrients.

Onto the dangers of our proteinaholic diets. Ketosis. Which, based on the article, you would think occurs after consuming a single protein supplement (sans carbs) and leads to nausea, fatigue, and headaches. Apparently feeling miserable is why you lose weight, you’re simply less inclined to eat. While I’m not a supporter of ketosis for weight loss (I love carbs and I don’t think that very-low carb diets are sustainable) I think that there may be some confusion between ketosis and ketoacidosis here. Ketosis is the result of following a low-carb diet (not necessarily a high-protein diet) and may initially result in symptoms such as frequent urination, dry mouth, and headache. People who are in ketosis often report a sense of euphoria and a lack of hunger once these initial symptoms pass. Nausea and vomiting may occur in the case of ketoacidosis which is when ketones build-up in the blood, making it acidic. This can happen to people with diabetes, during starvation, and in conjunction with other medical condition, not on a low-carb diet.

Animal proteins apparently also make you fat, cause cancer and diabetes. Also, the amino acids (which are building blocks of proteins) leach calcium from muscles and bones. To address the first statement: animal protein might cause you to gain weight, if you consume too much of it. So might cookies. Consuming excessive calories from any source can lead to weight gain. Animal protein might be a factor in cancer development, certainly processed meats and burnt meat have been identified as risk factors. As for diabetes, there has been an association noted between higher consumption of meat and type 2 diabetes; however, there has been no causal link made to date. To address the second statement: this myth has been around for a number of years. Recent research indicates that protein consumption does not reduce bone density, in fact, it may actually help to boost calcium retention.

“Although it’s necessary for us to grow, it also helps grow cancer cells. It’s instructive that breast milk, which humans consume during the fastest growing period of our lives, derives just five per cent of its calories from protein.”

Funny, I thought it was sugar that was feeding cancer. If you believed all of the fear mongering out there you wouldn’t be able to eat anything. Do I really need to tell you that infants are different than adults? If breastmilk was the optimal way for humans beyond the age of 2 years to obtain nutrition then we’d all be drinking breastmilk on the daily. As we age, our nutrient needs change; in connection with increased caloric needs we also see increased protein needs.

We’ve seen so many diets purporting that this or that macronutrient is evil. I’m not saying eat more meat, most Canadians could certainly benefit from consuming less. However, it seems to me that people like Davis are conflating protein with meat. You can’t paint all protein-containing foods with the same brush and his message only serves to scare people away from protein in general. In my mind, this is not promoting a healthy way of eating. Nor am I saying that protein supplements are necessary, sorry Vega, they’re really not.

Davis says, “If I can’t convince you that protein is bad for you, I can’t convince you that water is wet.” Awesome. I’m looking forward to no longer having to towel off after I shower.


21 easy food swaps that will totally leave you feeling like you’re missing out


Image “Vegemite for Sue” by mobil’homme on flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence.

A couple of RDs I know on twitter shared the this post recently and deemed it “food wankery”. An apt description. Let me fix that for you…

21 “easy” food swaps you can make now without missing out

  1. Sugar. Swap it for rice malt syrup less sugar. Sugar by any other name (including rice malt syrup) is still sugar. Try to avoid sugary drinks and keep sweet treats actual treats.
  2. Vegetable oil. Swap it for coconut oil what ever type of oil you prefer when cooking. Coconut oil does have a higher smoke point than most other oils making it a good choice for higher heats. However, it’s also very expensive. Use the oil that you prefer, can afford, and have on-hand. Despite what you may have heard, coconut oil is not a miracle food and “oil pulling” is bullshit but can be done with any type of oil. It’s important to consume a variety of types of fats so don’t toss your EVOO and butter and use coconut oil for all of your cooking; switch it up.
  3. White flour. Swap it for gluten free flour alternative <if you have celiac disease>. Most gluten free flours are far more expensive than white flour and don’t provide the same texture. It’s true that white flour isn’t the healthiest thing you can eat but refined gluten free flours are on-par with white flour or even less nutritious as they may not be enriched. Unless you have celiac disease there’s no reason to go gluten-free just make sure you’re consuming a variety of grains and that the majority of your servings are whole grain.
  4. White rice. Swap it for quinoa brown and wild rice mixes. Brown rice has more fibre and nutrients than white rice as it’s simply less refined white rice. Quinoa is not as protein-rich as the superfood marketers would have you believe. Sure, it’s great to switch it up but quinoa is another super expensive food.
  5. White wine vinegar. Swap for apple cider vinegar depending on the recipe. Unpasturized apple cider vinegar contains probiotics in the sediment (aka “the mother”) which may be beneficial. However, the flavour of apple cider vinegar may not always work for the recipe that you’re making and the small amount that you consume in a dressing is unlikely to provide any substantial health benefit.
  6. Wheat crackers. Swap for seed and vege crackers/snaps whole grain crackers. Seed and veg are fine but most crackers that contain them are still white flour based with a smattering or seeds or vegetables. Look for crackers with minimal ingredients and whole grains. You can also find some great legume based crackers and tortilla chips in stores now.
  7. Commercial muesli. Swap for rolled oats mixed with nuts, spices and organic dried fruits or simply fresh fruits. Okay, this isn’t a bad suggestion, although commercial muesli doesn’t usually have much added sugar anyway; most of it comes from the dried fruit.
  8. Commercial chocolate. Swap for raw fair trade chocolate. If you can find/afford/enjoy raw chocolate then go for it. If you enjoy “commercial” chocolate go for it. Try to choose fair trade so that the farmers get appropriately reimbursed.
  9. Wheat pasta. Swap for rice, buckwheat, quinoa or legume based pasta whole grain pasta. Choose whole grain for more fibre. Other pastas can also be good sources of fibre but many gluten-free options are actually lower in fibre. Read the labels and choose the best option that you enjoy.
  10. Packet muesli bars. Swap for a small handful of nuts and seeds, bliss balls — or bake your own or choose fresh fruit, hummus, veg, there are many snack options. What the heck are “bliss balls” anyway?! Something pretentious packed full of super expensive ingredients no doubt.
  11. Vegemite. Swap for a mix of tamari and tahini. I don’t have a suggested swap for this one either. Although one of my tweeps suggested “the inside of a trashcan” – haters gonna hate. Yes, vegemite is high in sodium (173 mg in 5 g) considering the quantity in one serving. It’s also a good source of B vitamins and consumed in small quantities occasionally there’s little harm in that. Switch it up with natural nut and seed butters.
  12. Table salt. Swap for sea salt or Himalayan crystal salt herbs and spices. Sea salt is no better for you than table salt. Try seasoning your food with herbs, lemon zest, and spices to cut back on sodium.
  13. Bottled sauces. Swap for simple combinations of fresh or dried herbs and spices to season foods. This is also acceptable. However, you can find healthy bottled sauces in a pinch. Look for no-salt-added options or better yet, make your own.
  14. Instant coffee. swap for freshly brewed plunger coffee, green tea or dandelion tea real coffee. Sorry, I’m a coffee snob. You should not be drinking instant coffee. Go for ANY OTHER coffee.
  15. Poppers. Swap for fresh vegetable juices or smoothies. fruit. I don’t know what poppers are but whole fruit is better than juice. Home made smoothies can also be a good choice as long as you’re not adding juice or sugar. Sweeten with frozen banana chunks.
  16. Soft drinks. Swap for sparkling water with lemon, lime, orange or pomegranate. This is also a good suggestion. I’ve been loving the Blue Menu sparkling waters this summer.
  17. Peanut butter. Swap for pure nut butter or a natural peanut butter without added vegetable oils. Choose peanut butters and other nut and seed butters without any ingredients besides nuts. There’s unnecessary added sugar, salt, and fat in most peanut butters. Beware of labels that proclaim “natural” that aren’t just peanuts.
  18. Nutella. Swap for raw cacao mixed with almond butter, or make your own with roasted hazelnuts, raw cacao, maple and coconut milk. it really depends what you’re using it for. We all know that Nutella is delicious but not nutritious. If you’re having a spread on toast go for a nut or seed butter unless you want to turn it into a chocolate bar. However, if you’re having an occasional treat or using it in a baked good unless you’re ambitious enough to make your own healthier version then a little’s not such a big deal.
  19. Potato chips. Swap for rice crackers <and a feeling of utter dissatisfaction and excessive consumption of other foods>. I’m sorry but I don’t know anyone who is satisfied by rice crackers when they’re craving potato chips. If you are, power to ya. If you’re like most other human beings, and you’re craving potato chips then allow yourself to have a small portion, don’t eat straight from a large bag. If you have a microwave you can make your own healthier portion-controlled potato chips.
  20. Cookies. Swap for bliss balls or bars. Again with the bliss balls. Are these akin to rocky mountain oysters? I won’t lie, sometimes I made energy balls for a snack but cookies are a whole other thing. Cookies are a treat. They’re not sustenance to get you through the sleepy morning hours between breakfast and lunch. If you want a cookie, go for it, preferably homemade, fresh from the oven. A “bliss ball” is unlikely to satisfy that craving and it’s better to have a little of what you want than a whole bunch of other random foods to try to fill that cookie sized hole in your tummy.
  21. Sweetened dried fruits. Swap for organic unsweetened dried fruit or fresh fruit. Unless you’re one of the few people who is sensitive to sulphites in dried fruit there’s no need to avoid dried fruit in order to avoid sulphites. Avoid sweetened dried fruit because dried fruit is already full of sugar as the sugar in fresh fruit becomes concentrated in dried fruit. Because dried fruit is sticky and full of sugar it’s also a great promoter of dental caries. If you do choose dried fruit you should have only a small portion, try to pair it with something like nuts or cheese, and be sure to brush your teeth after.

You don’t have to swap the foods that you enjoy for expensive pretentious foods to be healthy. Try to eat healthy foods that you enjoy 80% of the time and really savour those treats the other 20%.


Hunger Awareness Week #HungerWeek


I originally posted this back in 2012. As it’s national Hunger Week, and I must confess, I don’t know what to blog about, here it is again:

Food Insecurity is Not Simple Math

A recent study showed that healthy food is actually less expensive than “junk” food. This study eschewed the usual caloric comparison of foods for a portion-based comparison. Based on this comparison the researchers found that many healthy foods are, in fact, cheaper than their less nutritious counterparts. For example, a serving of carrots was found to be less expensive than a serving of potato chips. I agree that healthy food is not necessarily all that expensive and some options (e.g. beans, legumes, and root vegetables) can be quite economical. However, I have several major issues with this study.

Having worked with people experiencing food insecurity I know that the first concern of most of them is getting enough calories into their family members and keeping them as full as possible. So, even if this study is showing that by portion size and by edible weight, healthy foods are less expensive than unhealthy foods this is not how the majority of people who are suffering from food insecurity are thinking. They’re trying to get caloric bang for their buck. Sadly, carrots are not going to give them as many calories for their dollar as pop and hot dogs are.

Even if we accept what the study is telling us, there is a lot more to consider beyond the face-value of these foods. Many of these healthy food items are not ready to eat as is. Do you know anyone who’s going to eat onions straight-up? How about dried chickpeas? These foods require cooking skills, equipment, and additional ingredients (e.g. herbs, spices, oils, etc. to make them palatable). Many people, be they food insecure or not, are lacking in the food skills department and may not have the confidence or knowledge to cook a rutabaga. Do they have a stove to use? What about pots? Knives? Vegetable peelers? All of the additional ingredients and supplies can add a considerable amount of cost to the meal.

Another major issue when it comes to food insecurity is oral health. If your teeth are sore or missing it’s going to be mighty difficult to chow down on raw carrots and apples. Potato chips and spam are much easier to manage when you’re lacking quality teeth.

So, sure, serving for serving some fresh vegetables may be less expensive than “junk” food but food insecurity is not simple math.