bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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5 things low-carb gurus don’t want you to know

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I hate these lists: 5 foods you should never eat, 8 foods for a flat belly, and one I saw last week “10 Things Dietitians Say About Low-Carb Diets That Don’t Make Sense“. I should confess that as a dietitian, the headline alone immediately got my back up. Still, I took the bait and clicked the link.

Some of the stuff on there was quite reasonable, and some of it inaccurately portrayed dietitians and nutrition. It drives me nuts that we study nutrition for 4+ years in university, do internships, and must demonstrate continuous learning to maintain our professional status as registered dietitians, and yet those from other professions (and non-professions) are constantly proclaiming to the world that we’re nutritionally biased ignoramuses. Okay, so I didn’t exactly read this list with an open mind. No apologies.

Here are my top 5 retorts to this post and others in the same vein:

1. Low-Carb Diets Are Hard To Stick To

Have you ever tried a low-carb diet? There’s a reason why nearly everyone you meet who’s on a low-carb diet is singing its praises at a month or two in. How many people do you know who’ve consistently followed low-carb diets for years? Probably not many. There’s a reason for that. They are hard to stick to. Sure, you can feel physically satisfied on a low-carb diet but there are other aspects of it that can make it difficult to stick with. There’s the social aspect of food. It can be hard to follow a low-carb diet when others around you aren’t, forgoing birthday cakes and pizza. There’s also the restrictiveness that comes with a strict diet. You lose a lot of options when you cut-out or dramatically reduce carbohydrate intake. Finally, if you’re at all athletic, it can be extremely hard to train and perform at your best without carbohydrates.

2. The Opposite of Low-Carb Is NOT Low-Fat

Why is it that every time I hear someone poo-pooing on dietitians for our reluctance to support low-carb diets claiming that we push low-fat diets? The macronutrients are: carbohydrate, fat, and protein. While we all vary in our needs and desires for each of these, they all play a role in a healthy diet. I don’t know any dietitians who promote low-fat diets. Yes, in the past, because nutrition research is often flawed, we believed saturated fat was unhealthy. Most of us are over that. As I’ve said before, real dietitians eat butter.

3. Low-Carb Diets Are Not Proven To Be Safe In The Long-Term

As dietitians, it’s our job to provide people with the information that they need to make informed choices. When the average life span is over 80 years in Canada a two year study is but a drop in the bucket. Yes, you can probably be healthy on a low-carb diet. You can also be unhealthy on one as well. A diet of steak and bacon is low-carb, as is a diet of vegetables and fish. It’s a lot easier to get all of the nutrients that you need when you consume a greater variety of foods.

Yes, the Inuit ate high-fat low-carb diets. Will your low-carb diet consist predominantly of raw meat and seal blubber? I thought not.

4. Just Because You Can Be Healthy Following A Low-Carb Diet Doesn’t Mean That You Should

You can be healthy following all sorts of diets. You can also be unhealthy following them. A low-carb diet can be healthy, as can a vegan diet. You need to figure out what works best for you. Don’t let nutritional gurus convince you that their diet is the only way to go.

The main draw of a low-carb diet generally isn’t health anyway, it’s weight loss. These are not one and the same; no matter what the gurus may say. A healthy weight very much depends on the individual and health is not just physical. There is no shame in deriving pleasure from food.

5. We Don’t Like Diets

It’s nothing personal. We’re not eschewing your beloved low-carb diet because we have shares in the wheat industry. We tend to be wary of any diet because they are restrictive and have end dates and “cheat days”. The way you eat should be a way of life that you can maintain until the end of your life (which will hopefully be in the distant future because you’re following a healthy, enjoyable, varied, and balanced diet).


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Are we all really getting too much protein?

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This story is one of the oldest ones. When I was study nutrition in university I remember learning that most of us eat more protein than we need. While it’s undoubtedly true in most cases. It’s a little bit more complicated than: we eat more protein than we need to, end of story.

It’s important to note that there are a number of times that protein requirements are increased, such as for athletes, those recovering from injuries, and those endeavouring to lose weight. However, the recommendation for adults is roughly 45-50 grams of protein per day; more precisely, 0.9 grams per pound of body weight. We can easily eat this in one meal. And the problem is that many of us do eat this in one meal, neglecting the rest of our meals.

New research is indicating that we can’t utilize anymore than 20 grams of protein at one sitting. This means that, while we may be consuming plenty of protein at supper time, we may still not be getting enough protein. Many of us neglect breakfast. Even if we consume breakfast it’s often toast or cereal and many of us don’t get any more than 7 grams of protein in the morning. Distribution is important. To optimize protein utilization we should aim to consume 15-20 grams of protein at each meal. This may mean rethinking breakfast, and supper for that matter. Try to incorporate protein-rich foods at breakfast (e.g. eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, Greek yoghurt) and try to eat more meatless meals for supper. When having meat for supper don’t make it the biggest item on your plate. Treat meat like an accoutrement and make vegetables the stars of your suppers.


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Sorry, dietitians just aren’t sexy

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Something that’s been weighing on my mind a bit lately is the disappointment that many people seem to have with dietitians and the reasons for this. Basically, it boils down to the fact that we’re not sexy. Nope, we can’t tell you the next great superfood you must buy daily (spoiler: there is no such thing as a “superfood”). We won’t recommend any breakthrough weight loss supplement; sorry, whatever Dr. Oz is selling we’re not buying. We won’t tell you “never eat these five foods“. And we won’t tell you that paleo, Atkins, low-carb, low-fat, gluten-free, vegan, <insert any trendy diet here>, is the best diet.

There are no shortcuts to health. There are no foods that you should never ever eat (I mean, obviously, there are some foods that should be consumed on an occasional basis, such as candy, and others on a regular one, such as vegetables). But we’re never going to tell you not to eat something. We’re also never going to tell you what diet to follow. Our job is to help you figure out the diet that works best for you and how to optimize it to make it as enjoyable and healthy as possible.

Yes, I know that there are loads of other people out there who are more than happy to tell you that their diet is the best, the only, the diet to end all diets. I know that, that level of certainty can be alluring. It’s much more appealing to have someone tell you exactly what you may and may not eat when you’re struggling on your own. It’s not easy to hear that no foods are off the table and that no superfood is going to swoop in to the rescue. However, let’s not confuse confidence with competence. Dietitians are here to help you make the best choices for you, not to impose our own dietary regimes on you. Maybe we’re not sexy or fun or exciting but we’ll be here for you when all of those other diets let you down.


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Lessons from salty restaurant meals

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Last week a study was released showing that sodium levels in chain restaurant meals are still ridiculously high.

The researchers found that some meals contained roughly the maximum amount of sodium an adult should consume throughout an entire day. Sure, some people only eat one meal a day, but this isn’t a recommended pattern of eating, and most of us eat at least three times a day.

While I agree with the researchers that there need to be regulations to ensure that restaurant meals, and packaged foods for that matter, contain lower amounts of sodium and menus are labelled, I think that there are a few more important lessons to be learned here.

First, I just have to say the thing that bothered me the most upon hearing the story on the radio was the man from the restaurant industry who stated that sodium is necessary for flavour and food safety! I get that salt is a common preservative but when I’m eating at a restaurant I’m going for fresh, quality food. The thought that high levels of salt are added to food to make it safe is rather alarming to me. As for the flavour comment, that’s what salt shakers are for. Customers should be given the option of adding more salt to their food. Obviously you can’t remove salt once it’s in a meal (well, at least not at a restaurant table, perhaps in a lab) so why not use the least amount of salt possible, flavour with herb, spices, and lemon zest, and allow customers to add more salt if they desire.

Okay… on to what I think are the important lessons to be learned here… One, this study only looked at restaurants with at least 20 locations. That means local restaurants were not included. Many of these places employ excellent chefs who use fresh ingredients and don’t rely on salt to make their meals flavourful. Talk to the chef if you have concerns about ingredients, find out if nutrition information is available for your favourite dishes. Ultimately: avoid chain restaurants; buy local.

Two, you should be preparing the majority of the meals you eat yourself. Sorry, but you can’t trust anyone. Only you can take care of yourself. Try to use minimally processed ingredients and read labels on any packaged foods you purchase. Restaurants are lovely for a treat but they shouldn’t be providing you with the majority of your meals. Be your own personal chef.


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Is your “green monster” a nutritional nightmare?

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I recently came across a blog post decreeing green smoothies to be a nutritional no-no. Great, so people finally find a way that works for them to get a bunch of veg and fruit in one go and now we tell them that these drinks might be the death of them.

Green smoothies seem like a no-brainer. If you’re making them at home you can easily control what goes into them and ensure that they’re packed with nutritious foods and not calories from things like frozen yoghurt. I know a lot of people who find it difficult to eat breakfast in the morning; smoothies can be a great way to get breakfast in as liquids may be more readily tolerated than solid foods first thing in the morning.

Now that people are hooked on green smoothies the fearmongering begins. Why should you fear your green smoothie? Well, raw cruciferous vegetables, such as kale, a staple in many green smoothies, contain goitrogens. These are substances that interfere with thyroid gland metabolism by inhibiting the absorption of iodide. When consumed in large quantities, they may cause goiters. Goitrogens are also found in turnips, cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and water.

Iodide (not to be confused with the toxic iodine, despite “iodine” being used interchangeably with iodide) deficiency hasn’t been a significant health concern in developed countries in many years because we generally cook cruciferous vegetables before eating them. In Canada, fortification of table salt with iodide is also mandatory. However, with the diminished use of the salt shaker and the popularization of sea salt (which is not fortified and loses iodide during processing) it’s likely that iodide will become a nutrient of greater concern in countries such as Canada.

Before you start reaching for the iodide supplements (which, by the way, you’ll find as kelp or bladderwrack, not as iodide/iodine) you should be aware that at very high amounts (more than 1.1 mg per day), iodide consumption can inhibit thyroid hormone synthesis. Even without consuming fortified table salt, most North Americans consume more than enough iodide per day as iodide is used as a sterilizing agent in dairies and restaurants, a conditioner for dough in bakeries, and in food colourings. Iodide is also found in saltwater fish (both fin and shell), molasses, seaweed, plain yoghurt, milk, and eggs. Some protein bars and multivitamins also contain iodide.

Back to your green smoothie. Should you be concerned about the effect your daily smoothie might have on your thyroid gland? Probably not. Unless you’re guzzling green smoothies for breakfast lunch and dinner, are consuming a cruciferious vegetable-heavy raw-diet, and have an existing thyroid condition it’s unlikely that a green smoothie once a day, or less, is going to have anything but a positive impact on your health. The most important feature of a healthy diet is variety. Consuming too much of anything be it green smoothies, potato chips, bread, or bananas, is unhealthy. Eating a balanced diet containing a variety of foods helps to ensure that you’re getting all of the nutrients you need. And yes, a green smoothies can be a part of a balanced diet.