bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Grocery store lessons: a tale of two pasta sauces

Further to all of my discussion about sugar in food and nutrition labels I wanted to share with you the following nutrition facts label that has me stumped:

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Apologies for the poor photo quality. Hopefully you’re able to see that the nutrition facts panel indicates that there’s no sugar in this pasta sauce. That’s grand and all, no one wants a sugary tomato sauce. It’s also puzzling because tomatoes (and many other vegetables) naturally contain sugar. So how does one end up with zero grams of sugar in a 1/2 cup serving?

Compare this to another pasta sauce:

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This second sauce, despite having no added sugar, still contains 6 grams of sugar per serving. This is much more the norm  than the sauce in the first photo.

I know that people are trying to cut back on sugar. That’s great. But this is another example of why you might want to pay more attention to the ingredients in a food than to the nutrition facts panel. These are very similar products but tell rather different stories when it comes to sugar content. One supposedly contains no sugar, while the other contains about one and a half teaspoons in a serving. Even if you’re trying to cut back on sugar there’s really no point in getting riled up about a little bit of sugar naturally occurring from vegetables.


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The bloody blood type diet is back

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If you really want to drive a dietitian to drink you should have a conversation about ridiculous fad diets in front of her/him (yes, there are a few male RDs, I swear). But I digress. So, here I am, innocently minding my business, when a couple of women nearby start conversing about their gluten-free diets and how much better they feel when they actually follow them. As in, when they “cheat” they eat a bunch of processed refined glutinous food. Then, as if I’m not being tormented enough, one of them starts extolling the virtues of the blood type diet. Yes, I too thought that one was passé. I guess, like mullets and crocs, we will never truly be free of the “eat for your blood type diet”. If you haven’t heard of it you’re lucky. I’m not going to provide you with a link because if you honestly want to read about that drivel you can google it.

Yes, woman number two proceeds to tell woman number one about how great she feels when she’s following it and lists a number of the foods she can eat on this diet. All of them are nutritious whole foods. Both women marvel at the miracle of gluten-free blood-type diets. I begin to question if I am perhaps dead and have gone to hell.

Ladies, I hate to rain on your fad diet parade but it’s not the gluten. It has nothing to do with eating for your blood type. You feel better when you’re not eating copious quantities of crap food because you’re not eating copious quantities of crap food. You don’t need a cleanse or a ridiculous diet to feel better. Just prepare and eat healthy food about 80% of the time and for the love of all that’s holy (or whatever), please don’t have these conversations in front of dietitians or your children. Children learn by observing and if they see their parent(s) struggling with food issues, following fad diets, falling off diets, guess who’s liable to end up following suit?


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The harm in fad diets

Many of us roll our eyes when we hear about people on fad diets. I think that most of us think, “oh well, it’s not doing them any harm. Let it run its course”. But what if these diets are doing people harm?  I’m not about fear mongering, you know this. Many of these trendy diets can be safe and healthy when followed properly. However, what about when they’re not? There is reasonable risk of deficiencies that could cause some degree of harm at worst, and at best prevent the adherents from attaining optimal health.

What’s the harm in a low-carb or gluten-free or paleo diet?

I’m lumping these two in together even though they’re not strictly the same, although it seems that they frequently go hand-in-hand. Here the risk lies in B vitamin deficiency. Yes, many B vitamins are available from animal foods. However, folic acid (which I blogged about a few weeks ago) was added to refined flour and cereals as a public health measure to prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy in 1998 (1). Eliminating grains from the diet may lead to increased risk of spina bifida, and other neural tube defects, in infants of mothers following these diets. It’s recommended that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid daily. Women who are following the above diets should be sure to follow this recommendation. The crucial window for neural tube formation is within the first 21-28 days of pregnancy. This means that if you wait to start taking a prenatal multivitamin once you find out you’re pregnant you may have already missed this window.

What’s the harm in a vegan diet?

While touted as one of the healthiest diets, a vegan diet can easily be deficient in essential nutrients. As with the low-carb diets above, a vegan diet may be low in some B vitamins. In this case, vitamin B12 is more likely to be the B vitamin of concern than is folic acid.

Vitamin B12 is important for many reasons. We need B12 for blood cell formation, nerve function, and brain function.

Vitamin D is also a concern in vegan diets as it’s primarily found in milk, fish, and eggs. During the winter months it’s difficult for most of us, vegans and non-vegans alike, to get enough vitamin D from food alone.

What’s the harm in a low-sodium diet?

This isn’t even so much a risk of low-sodium diet but of a diet that eschews table salt in particular. Now that sea salt is the salt selection of foodies and many of us are avoiding salt shakers there is potential for insufficient iodine consumption. Table salt is fortified with iodine, sea salt is not.

Iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in poor mental development. Iodine is important in thyroid function and deficiency may result in the development of a goiter.

Now, to be fair, when consideration of balance, variety, and nutrients is taken into consideration all of these diets may be healthy. I think that it’s also worth mentioning that the average Western diet is probably less nutritious than all of the above diets. Most people consume too few vegetables and fruits, too much sodium, sugar, and fat. Most of us, even those of us consuming relatively healthy diets, don’t get enough potassium, vitamin D, magnesium, and fibre. While the focus should definitely be on whole food, it’s worth considering what nutrients your diet may be low in and making an effort to consume more foods rich in those nutrients or even considering taking a supplement if you’re finding it hard to meet your nutrient needs through food alone.


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Google’s new calorie counting app may be dumb but that doesn’t mean counting calories is

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Apparently Google is developing a “smart” food diary that allows you to track calories simply by taking photos of your food. This concept has been around for a little while and is still notoriously inaccurate. From that standpoint, I agree with the reviewer in the verge who called the smart food diary “dumb”. However, I disagree with their reason for calling it dumb.

He states that “calorie counting doesn’t work”. Um. What? Tell that to the countless people who have successfully maintained weight loss with the help of tracking their food intake. Sure, no one thing works for everyone and calorie counting is not 100% accurate. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a useful weight management tool.

You see, the thing about calorie counting is that it’s not really about the calories, or the counting. It does give people a rough idea of how many calories they’re consuming and a sense of how much to increase or decrease depending on whether they want to gain or lose weight. In addition to that, it increases mindfulness. When you have to record everything you eat it makes you pause before you mindlessly snack out of boredom or anxiety or whatever non-hunger related reason that you might be tempted to eat. It can also help you to get a better idea of what and when to eat. If you see that you’re skipping breakfast and then snacking all night then you might be prompted to aim to start your day with a more substantial breakfast to help curb excessive snacking later in the day. Or if you find that you’re always tired in the afternoon you might see that there’s room for improvement at lunch time or that you might need to add a snack and more water to your afternoon routine.

Yes, in the sense that cutting 3, 500 calories does not generally translate to a pound of weight lost over the course of a week, calorie counting “doesn’t work”. However, as a tool to help guide your food choices and timing, food diaries can be invaluable.


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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!