bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Reverse food snobbery: Who has time to cook lasagna after work?

My friend Meaghan shared the above infographic with me last week to see what I thought. I thought that it was worthy of a blog post.

I think that it’s over simplifying a complex issue. How can you possibly put frozen peas in the same category as a packaged frozen lasagna? Frozen peas (and other frozen vegetables) are picked and frozen at their prime, meaning that they’re often more nutritious than their “fresh” counterparts on grocery store shelves. However, as you can see, even with their selection of lasagna, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a frozen lasagna that’s as healthy and nutritious as one that’s homemade. Who the heck is cooking lasagna as a weekday supper anyhow? Ain’t nobody got time for that! Let’s see some more realistic comparisons of quick and easy homemade suppers.

I’m not sure what the deal is with the packaged stir-fry pictured on the infographic. It appears to be a box but I would think that they’re referring to a frozen stir-fry mix. Sure, if you’re buying the frozen mixed vegetables without a sauce, they’re going to be easy to turn into a healthy stir-fry. However, if they’re already coated in a sauce you’re probably going to get more sodium, sugar, and fat (possibly trans fat) than you would if you made your own sauce.

Minimally processed packaged foods can be a great healthy time saver. However, you can’t equate buying pre-cut vegetables with a frozen tv dinner. As a dietitian, one of the main messages I hope to impart on people is the importance of cooking their own meals. If you’re trying to lose weight or just to be healthier this is probably the best thing you can do for yourself. And sorry, but taking a box out of the freezer and nuking it doesn’t count as cooking. I’d like to see the true cost of the frozen meals they’re pushing if you also factored in the shortened health-spans due to poor nutrition.

There’s also the not so subtle “reverse snobbery” (I’m stealing that one Meaghan) in the post accompanying the infographic. The implication that the average person doesn’t have time to cook and that their time is far too valuable to be spent *gasp* cooking. Yes, we’re all terribly busy, although we do somehow manage to find time to watch Big Brother or binge watch Orange is the New Black. I think that we, as a society, need to re-evaluate our priorities and put cooking right up near the top. The thing is, cooking doesn’t need to be a long torturous laborious process. There are plenty of healthy and delicious meals that you can whip up in less than half an hour after work. If you’re cooking for more than one, you can also enlist the help of other members of the household. You can prep ingredients the night before or batch cook on your days off. You can make extra portions so that you can have your own homemade nutritious frozen dinners ready to grab when you’re short on time. Cooking is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.


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A little bit about the Starbucks mini frappuccino

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I have mixed feelings about Starbucks addition of “mini” frappuccinos to their menu. There’s a part of me that’s glad to see it because their “normal” sizes tend to be monstrosities. At least this is offering customers who want a sweet blended icy treat a better option. However, there’s another, more cynical, part of me that hates this limited time promotion.

Really, Starbucks, if you wanted to offer healthier options for your customers then you wouldn’t make them “limited time” offers. You would also maybe try to actually make them healthier rather than just smaller. Because let’s face it, a S’mores Frappuccino isn’t really the healthiest of options at any size. And since when is 10 oz “mini”??! Ten ounces is a perfectly reasonable normal serving size for a beverage. It’s only because of our years of super sizing that we have come to reside in a world in which a ten ounce beverage is miniature. Miniature for Shaq or Sultan Kösen perhaps, but not for the majority of us. This is all just a marketing ploy to get more of us to spend our money on their products and to feel good about doing it.

Okay, so let’s ruin that delicious blended icy treat for you just a little bit more shall we? An average (assuming the grande, i.e. 16 oz is average) Starbucks S’mores Frappuccino packs in a mere 500 calories (approximately what many of us should consume at an average meal), 20 grams of fat, and 68 grams of sugar (that’s about 17 teaspoons of sugar). But the much more reasonably sized “mini” version contains only 230 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 31 grams of sugar (a piddly near 8 teaspoons of sugar). Fine if you’re having it as a treat or a dessert, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the mini frapp is a good or virtuous option or a justification for having a cookie or brownie on your order as well.

While not sweet or blended, I’m partial to the iced latte which, of course, isn’t even listed on their menu board. With just ice, espresso, and milk it’s a far less indulgent treat but it’s cold and caffeinated so it meets all of my criteria.

If you do love the blended sweet beverages, I’ve created a healthier version of the frappuccino:

In advance: freeze strong coffee in ice cube tray(s).

Blend together: coffee ice cubes (about 1/2 tray worth), 1 frozen banana, 1 heaping teaspoon of cocoa powder, 1 tbsp almond butter, 1/2-1 serving of mocha flavour vega one, milk (to consistency). Serves two.

Nutrition (approximate – used 3/4 cup of 1% milk and 1/2 packet of vega one for this analysis):

180 kcal, 7.3 g fat, 3.1 g fibre, 12.3 g sugar (about 3 teaspoons, from banana and milk), and 10.2 g protein.

Let me know what you think if you try it and feel free to share your own healthy iced coffee recipes!


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Is 63 grams of liquid sugar the answer to high cholesterol?

A friend recently shared this tweet with me:

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She had asked the tweeter for more details but hadn’t received a response. My response: “Ugh. No wonder so many people don’t trust us as dietitians”.

Of course, it’s Florida orange juice that imparts these benefits. Because oranges from other locales couldn’t possibly impart the same benefits (<— please note this should be written in the yet to be developed sarcasm font). Even so, is the benefit even all that meaningful? I’d argue no.

While I can’t be certain that the study I found is the one the tweeter was referring to it was the top hit and was sponsored by Tropicana orange juice so it fits the bill. The study looked at a very small group of individuals with elevated cholesterol. There were only 25 participants, 16 healthy men, and 9 post-menopausal women. This means that the results cannot be extended to apply to pre-menopausal women or “unhealthy” individuals. There were additional strict criteria that participants had to meet: 1. have initial fasting plasma triacylglycerol (blood lipid) concentrations in the normal range, 2. be habitual or occasional orange juice drinkers, 3. be free of thyroid disorders, kidney disease, and diabetes, 4. have an alcohol intake of ≤2 drinks/d, 5. not be receiving hormone replacement therapy if female. With such a small sample size of people meeting such precise criteria, no concrete conclusions can be drawn from this study.

However, the researchers still drew conclusions. Namely that three cups of orange juice a day can lower LDL and increase HDL blood levels. They found that HDL levels were increased by 21% and the HDL-LDL ratio was decreased by 16%. That sounds fairly impressive but is it really? Well, no, not really. The average HDL level increased from 1.0 to 1.3. Anything over 1.0 is good anyway so they weren’t all that badly off to begin with. The HDL-LDL ratio really only changed because of the increase in HDL as LDL levels went from an average of 3.6 to 3.5. Not a significant change.

What the study doesn’t tell you is that cholesterol recommendations are only made in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease. If your risk level is low then an LDL of under 5.0 is fine. If your risk is high then an LDL of less than 2.0 is ideal. Risk level is determined by family and medical history. None of these factors were discussed in the current study despite the fact that the cholesterol levels measured are essentially meaningless without being placed in the context of CVD risk.

Can we just go back to that THREE cups of OJ a day again? The researchers found no significant change in cholesterol levels at one or two cups of OJ a day. Only at three cups a day. That’s a considerable amount of orange juice. Considering that a serving size of juice is 1/2 cup and most dietitians recommend no more than one serving per day I find it hard to fathom recommending 6 servings of juice every day for a slight increase in HDL levels. The researchers note that as OJ increased fibre intake decreased. They didn’t mention any other aspects of diet. There was no comparison to consumption of whole oranges, other fruit or vegetable juices, or any other dietary changes. Based on this study alone I would absolutely not advise anyone wishing to improve their blood cholesterol levels to drink 63 grams (more than 15 teaspoons) of liquid sugar daily.


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Sexifying food

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Apparently the hot new trend at the grocery stores is gender-specific food. *insert massive eye roll here*

There are breads specifically formulated for marketed to men and women. Trail mixes. Cereals. Snack bars. Who knows what they’ll come up with next. At least, unlike many personal care products, the versions for women don’t appear to be more costly than the versions for men.

The nutritionist quoted in the CBC article raises an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of, that people might treat these foods as supplements. It’s kind of a weird notion because we dietitians are usually encouraging people to get their nutrients from food and only using supplements when nutrient needs cannot be met by food alone. To suggest that it’s concerning that people might be using food to obtain their nutrients is pretty much the reverse of what we advise. However, when they’re making claims regarding specific nutrients I can see how it might be an issue. Consuming a bread with calcium, for example, is not going to meet your calcium needs.

I wanted to compare the bread for women to the bread for men. However, these products from Stonemill Bakehouse are now defunct. All I can find are front-of-package images. The women’s wellbeing bread contains hemp and quinoa and claims to contain calcium and vitamin D. The men’s wellbeing bread contains barley and rye and claims to be high in protein and fibre. Of course, there’s nothing that makes hemp and quinoa better for women than for men, just as there’s nothing that makes barley and rye better suited to men than to women. Stonemill removed the gender-specific labelling on these breads as a result of customer backlash (go customers!). Supposedly they had customer welfare in mind when they developed these breads. I can’t help but think that money might have been a factor as well. You know, the husband needs one loaf of bread and the wife needs another. There’s two loaves of bread sold, as opposed to one. They are still selling the breads but with new labelling and amongst the wellbeing breads on their website I can’t tell which ones are the made-over sex breads.

While some micronutrient needs vary between men and women, needs between individuals of the same sex are are likely to vary more. Gender or sex specific foods are more about marketing than meeting nutrient needs. Don’t buy into the hype.


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Sexism and snacks

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Of course I couldn’t resist reading the article Nutrition Bars Are Sexist? Oh, Okay when it came through on my Google nutrition news alert. The author writes rather condescendingly about a blog post: The Stereotype-Driven Business of Selling Nutrition Bars to Women

In the original blog post Stephie Grob Plante writes, more than fairly in my opinion, about the marketing of “nutrition” bars to women. These bars include Luna, thinkThin, and Eat Like a Woman. I’ve only seen the former in Canada. However, based on the packaging and the marketing terms I’m in wholehearted agreement with Plante’s assessment of these nutrition bars appealing to the expectation that women desire to be thin and to lose weight. You can see the same thing in the advertisements for Special K and, let’s be honest, pretty much every product that is targeting women. The notion is that women need portion-controlled grab-and-go bars to avoid uncontrollable over eating and subsequent weight gain.

On the other hand, you see energy and protein bars targeting men and athletes. These products focus on packing as many calories and as much protein as possible into a single bar. As Plante points out, the marketing suggests that men are more inclined to forget to eat and need something that they can grab and scarf down.

The responding article, written by Katherine Timpf states that Plante seems to have forgotten that “marketing is about stereotyping”. Oh, okay. Because marketing is rooted in sexist stereotypes that makes it logical that nutrition bars employ said stereotypes to market their products to women. Just because sexism is insidious doesn’t make it okay.

Timpf asserts:

The advertisements are targeted at women who want to lose weight because the bars are intended to appeal to women who want to lose weight. How could this possibly be considered controversial?

Um… It can be considered controversial because the stereotypes employed to market these bars to women are offensive. To tell me, as a woman, that I should eat a bar because it will make me thin is presumptuous. It also goes beyond the implication that I chose my foods to stay or become skinny. It implies that thin is ideal. That I will be more successful in life, and more desirable to men, if only I eat their specially formulated snack bar. Good grief.

Timpf also states that somehow this is an issue to take-up with God(??!!!) because he created men and women differently and therefore, we have different nutrient needs. Yes, okay, on average, men need more calories than women. However, nutrient needs vary more among individuals than between sexes. And one little bar is not going to have a huge impact on your nutrient consumption for the day anyhow.

There is one good point made by Timpf at the very end of her article. That’s the fact that most of these “nutrition” bars aren’t particularly nutritious to begin with and they’re full of highly processed suspect ingredients.

Obviously, making your own snacks is ideal. However, we’re all busy and sometimes a snack bar does come in handy. There are plenty of decent options available that don’t employ sexist marketing messages. You don’t have to support the continued use of sexist marketing tactics. Choose snack bars that focus on the ingredients, nutrition, and flavour rather than telling you that you need to lose weight.