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.



Jamie Oliver and the hypocritical sugar tax

Jamie Oliver's Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

Jamie Oliver’s Apple Berry Crisp contains over 5 tsp of sugar in a teensy tiny 100 g serving (i.e. 1/10th of this box)

This opinion piece about the proposed sugar tax in the UK left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agree, Jamie Oliver is an hypocritical patronizing bully (remember that time he said “poor people” could well afford to cook better meals if they all have tellies?). On the other hand, the alternative solutions to the sugar tax offered in the article are quite likely to be even less effective. And I’m not being instilled with confidence by the author’s bio: “Alex Deane is an Executive Board Member of the People Against Sugar Tax campaign. He has a spare tyre, because he’s freely chosen to eat too much.” 

According to their website the PAST don’t receive any funding from food and beverage companies, only from private individuals. Of course, there’s no telling precisely who those individuals are and whether or not they have any ties to the food industry. PAST states that by not seeking money from food or drinks companies, “It means that people can be confident that our campaign has no conflicts of interests, and that we are the voice of the people”. Assuming it’s true, that all their money comes from people who just really don’t want to pay extra for pop, I’m still not sure that makes them the voice of the people. People who have money to burn on campaigns against campaigns against sugar certainly aren’t likely to be your average citizens. Interesting, considering that their central argument against the sugar tax is that it will be most damaging to people living in poverty. Since when do a bunch of conservatives and libertarians care about people who are struggling to make ends meet? I guess when it’s convenient to use them to make their argument sound noble.

I too have said that a sugar tax will unfairly hurt people living on limited incomes. I too don’t believe that a tax on sugar is the answer. However, I don’t think that the so-called solutions proposed by the PAST are any better, in fact, I think they detract from the real problems. Suggesting that improved nutrition labelling and “encouraging children to do more exercise” are far more patronising “solutions to obesity” in my mind than a sugar tax would be. Come on. These solutions once again place the onus on the individual and as a result imply that we all just need to make better choices. If only we could understand nutrition labels and get off our fat lazy asses a little more we would all be slim and fit and healthy. No matter that neither of these solutions addresses their central argument. You think that people living in poverty are going to benefit from improved nutrition labels and being told to exercise more as long as they don’t have to pay extra tax on pop and candy? This makes no sense at all.

The onus needs to stop being placed on the individuals. Sugary treats should be more expensive. Not because a higher tax is placed on them though, but because the food industry is no longer subsidized and offered tax breaks to create these products. Grocery stores could also stop selling these items as “loss leaders”, stop accepting money from the companies making these products to place them in prominent displays, stop giving them the prime eye-level shelves, and selling them at checkouts. Other stores that by all rights should not be selling food (I’m looking at you office supply stores, house-ware shops…) could stop selling candy and other food. Until we start realising that profit is not the be all and end all, and that the abundance of food, particularly “sometimes” foods that should not be consumed on a daily basis, is actually costing us more as a society in healthcare significant change in obesity rates and lifestyle related diseases is unlikely. We need to change our environment and shift our priorities. The presence or absence of a sugar tax is not the answer and arguing about it is taking us farther away from the real problems at hand.


Herbalife part 2


I received quite the response to my Herbalife post last week (thanks guys!). A number of comments on both the post and facebook made me think that I should do a brief follow-up. I got so caught-up in exploring the sketchy dynamic of the company itself that I spent very little time looking at the products they’re peddling.

Naturally, it’s always best to get your nutrition from whole foods. While many supplements and protein snacks are generally benign, there are some supplements that can actually cause considerable harm. We know that the supplement industry is not well regulated and there have been a number of exposes in the past few years of supplements containing ingredients other than those listed in the package. Well, it turns out that Herbalife supplements may also warrant closer scrutiny.

A reader was kind enough to send me the titles to some articles in the Journal of Hepatology to read. One of these, from 2007 was entitled: Slimming at all costs : Herbalife-induced liver injury. This article shares a number of cases in which severe liver injury was determined to have resulted from the use of Herbalife products. Unfortunately, because the users were taking anywhere from 3 to 17 different Herbalife products, investigators were unable to attribute the injury to a particular product. While a paper “revisiting” these claims against Herbalife was published in the World Journal of Hepatology in 2011, it’s hard not to be suspicious of their conclusion that the Herbalife products could not be linked to the cases of liver toxicity as the authors were all affiliated with Herbalife.

It’s difficult for me to properly assess the ingredients in Heralife products as their website lacks nutrition and ingredient information and I lack a lab to analyze the composition of the supplements (and the desire to use my money to purchase them). However, just looking at some of them from the website raises some questions. There’s a “herbal tea concentrate” listed under weight management. Yet, the description states “A delicious tea blend of green tea and orange pekoe…”. Green tea and orange pekoe tea are not herbal teas. Green tea supplements have also been linked to liver failure so I find this product concerning. There’s also a mysterious product called “Total Control”, “Liftoff” which is essentially Redbull in effervescent tablet form, “Herbalife24” which supposedly restores through antioxidants (which research is showing may cause more harm than good in supplement form) and vitamin A (which can be toxic in high supplemental doses).

These are just a few Herbalife products. They may be perfectly harmless, although it’s extremely unlikely that they’re actually beneficial. However, without knowing what’s actually in them I would never take the risk of purchasing and ingesting them. Save your money and your health and don’t buy risky supplements.


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.


The science behind Herbalife


A while ago I received a request to blog about supplements, in particular Herbalife. I’ve procrastinated on it for a little while because I figure you’ve read about one weight loss supplement scam, you’ve read about them all. Plus, I wasn’t all that familiar with Herbalife and the products they sell and I knew it would take me a little time to look at all of them.

The product lines include: core products, weight management, targeted nutrition, energy and fitness, and outer nutrition. They include everything from soy nuts to protein shakes to canola oil capsule. Yep, canola oil in a capsule. Why anyone would ever want to pay for capsules when you can buy a lovely jug of canola oil at the grocery store for what I’m sure is a much more reasonable price (prices aren’t listed on the Herbalife site) and can actually use to cook with is beyond me. It takes all kinds I suppose.

Herbalife even has a little tab at the top of their website entitled “science“. Which would be awesome if it actually linked to science to support the use of the products their selling. Sadly, no, this is what you get:

“Herbalife products are made from beneficial ingredients and developed using world-class scientific technology and research. Our protein shakes and snacks, vitamins and dietary supplements, energy and fitness drinks, and skin and hair care products, combined with healthy eating and exercise, can help you enjoy a lifetime of good health.”

They then provide a link to a PDF where you can “learn more”. This is a one pager, with plenty of images, that says:

“Herbalife products are formulated by our team of scientists and Ph.D.s for consumer benefits. They also ensure that the science behind our products is substantiated through scientific literature and clinical trials. We share knowledge and best practices through our key partnerships with the most advanced and established ingredient suppliers in the world.”

They name their chairman of the board, David Heber MD, PhD. Naturally, I looked him up. At first glance he appears quite reputable (aside from his willingness to peddle questionable nutritional supplements). He’s a professor at the UCLA school of medicine, an endocrinologist, nutrition specialist… But wait, if you just add “quack” after his name in google you get some much more interesting results; such as, this blog post about his authorship of several questionable diet books, his promotional video for pistachio nuts, and his research (funded by POM Wonderful) you guessed it, extolling the wonders of pomegranate juice. One blog not enough for you? How about a listing on Quack Watch linking to the article Herbalife Cozies Up With UCLA? Which outlines the financial benefits Heber receives from Herbalife in exchange for his promotion of their products? Or this post on Science-Based Medicine detailing the tangled web of Heber’s nutritional genomics research, funding, and chairmanship of the Herbalife board?

This is their credible scientist. A man who is receiving substantial profit from the sale of Herbalife supplements as well as funding for his research. No conflict of interest there. Nope.

Making Herbalife an even more questionable business is the fact that it appears to be a pyramid scheme. You can become an Herbalife distributor and make money selling Herbalife products to others. Despite this sales technique, a judge dismissed a case accusing Herbalife of being a pyramid scheme in July of this year.

The Herbalife website entices you to “get your Herbalife Coach today”. This coach will help you with your goals, product selection, and provide you with solutions and support during your journey to health. Who are these wellness coaches? People who sign-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors through people who signed-up to be Herbalife distributors. You get the idea. Apparently there’s some online training that you can take. I’m sure that’s pretty much like being a dietitian. I was hoping to find a disgruntled former Herbalife coach online who would reveal what the coach “training” entailed, but all I turned-up was this article about a woman who lost a large sum of money as a Herbalife distributor. And this blog post by a woman who was angered by her experience with an Herbalife Health and Wellness Coach. Essentially, as a Herbalife coach you’re a glorified sales person.

So, to sum it all up: Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.