bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The true cost of healthy eating

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I’ve ranted about the problem with the over-simplification of food insecurity before but I’d like to expand on that rant. Someone recently shared a link to a recipe for Spicy Tuna Guacamole Bowls on Budget Bites. I thought that they looked yummy so I bookmarked the recipe. The recipe does look great, and I do plan to make it, but I have an issue with the costing.

 

The cost for each ingredient is based on the quantity used in the recipe. Obviously, most ingredients cannot be purchased in such exacting amounts. Thus, the cost presented for the recipe is not an accurate reflection of what the meal actually costs to make. Yes, you may already have some of the ingredients in your pantry, but let’s assume that you don’t.

 

I priced out the ingredients needed for the recipe at my local grocery store. It may not be the least expensive place to shop but we also need to bear in mind that if you are food insecure you may not have a car, or the time, to afford the luxury of shopping around. In cases where there was more than one option available I selected the least expensive item. Here is my costing:

 

Brown rice: $3.99

Cucumber: $.99 (this is not the lovely English cuke, but the kind with the skin you need to peel and the tough seeds because the English cuke was $2.99!)

Frozen shelled edamame: $3.69

Carrots: $2.89 (there were no loose carrots so I had to buy a whole bag even though the recipe only called for one)

2 cans of chunk light tuna: $3.58

Container of guacamole: $4.69 (In this case, an avocado would have been cheaper at $.99, on special, so we’ll go with that option.)

Cilantro: $2.49

Sriracha: $4.99

GRAND TOTAL: $23.61, or $5.90 per serving.

 

That’s not a bad price for a meal but it’s a far cry from the “$7.45 recipe / $1.86 serving” stated on the website.

 

Out of curiousity, I decided to go back an price out the Bittman infographic that prompted the original rant.

 

Romaine lettuce: $3.99

Potatoes: $1.89 (these were available singly so I weighed four of them)

Lemon: $.79

Whole wheat bread: $2.69 (I cringed to choose the cheap “whole wheat” not “whole grain wheat” variety. I also question the inclusion of this in the meal. Potatoes should suffice as a starch.)

Chicken: $14.30 (ouch!)

Milk: $2.28 (for one litre)

Olive Oil: $5.99 (This was the smallest, most affordable option. Fortunately, it was available in extra virgin.)

Salt: $1.99

Pepper: $5.19

GRAND TOTAL: $39.11, or $9.78 per serving.

 

Bittman had this meal priced at $13.78 total.

 

While many people will have some staples in their pantries, others will not, and these items will need to be replaced at some point. It’s also important to note that there is the hidden cost of labour incurred when preparing meals at home. The time spent grocery shopping and cooking and washing dishes is all time for which you are not being paid. It is time that would be saved by picking up a fast food meal.

 

This is not intended to discourage you from eating healthy and cooking meals at home. For those of us who are not food insecure, cooking for yourself (and your family) is probably the single most important thing that you can do for your health. It can also be a great way to bond with family members or housemates and involving children in food prep encourages them to enjoy new foods. With planning and budgeting, healthy home cooked meals are attainable by most of us. However, for those of us who are struggling to make ends meet, and for whom time and calories may outweigh cooking and nutrition, these calculations of meal costs are erroneous.


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Revisiting Dr Esselstyn

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A reader recently commented on a blog post from over a year ago: <a Something's Greasy About Dr Esselstyn's Diet. He suggested that I take a look at some recently published research supporting the diet (and, I think, revise my previously stated opinion).

One of the links was to a series of case studies presented by Dr Esselstyn. As we know, case studies can be interesting, especially in cases of rare conditions, but are not readily generalized. As coronary artery disease (CAD) is a fairly common condition, I feel that it’s more prudent to focus on larger research studies when developing recommendations for the public.

The other link was to a study conducted by, you guessed it, Dr Esselstyn. The study followed 198 CAD patients who were counselled in plant-based nutrition for approximately 44 months. Upon follow-up it was found that 21 were non-compliant (what ever that means… more on this to follow). The remaining participants all showed significant improvement, and only one experienced a related medical incident (i.e. stroke) during those 44 months.

The biggest issue with this study is that there was no control group. There is nothing to compare the participants with. It’s entirely possible that a group, provided with all the same medical treatments and advice, minus the nutritional counselling would have fared just as well. It does seem unlikely, but without the inclusion of such a group, there is no way to be certain that the nutrition counselling (and subsequent adherence) was the reason the participants fared so well. In addition, there was no control for any potential confounding factors. The authors didn’t control for anything. That means that the success could have been due to physical activity/exercise, sleep, stress reduction, socioeconomic status, etc.

There are a few other issues I have with this research. The article states that:

Initially the intervention avoided all added oils and processed
foods that contain oils, fish, meat, fowl, dairy
products, avocado, nuts, and excess salt. Patients were also asked to avoid sugary foods
(sucrose, fructose, and drinks containing
them, refined carbohydrates, fruit juices, syrups, and molasses). Subsequently, we also
excluded caffeine and fructose

However, “We considered participants adherent if they eliminated dairy, fish,
and meat, and added oil.”

My issue with the diet prescribed by Dr Esselstyn was the lack of healthy fats. I have no issue with a vegetarian diet (yes, I’m still not convinced that oil, fish, and dairy products are unhealthy, especially for those who do not suffer from CAD) which is what the adherent participants followed. This means that they could have added nuts, seeds, nut butters, sugar, coffee, avocado, and so on, to their diets and still been adherent. A far cry from the original Esselstyn diet. In turn, I also wonder what the non-adherent participants consumed. Did they eat some fish or meat? Drink some milk? Or were they chowing down on fast food and Hungry Man dinners on the regular? Without knowing these things we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that the Esselstyn diet is superior to all other diets when it comes to treating CAD.

Naturally, there’s also the issue that (despite stating that the authors had no known conflicts of interest) Dr Esselstyn is the author of a number of heart health and lifestyle books that would surely take a hit in sales were research contrary to his hypothesis to be published.

Sure, this study warrants further research into the benefits of plant-based diets (and Dr Esselstyn’s very low-fat plant-based diet) for CAD patients. I’d like to see some larger studies with control groups conducted. Until then, I’ll still be cooking with oils and enjoying my guacamole.

 

 


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Milk myths and vegan propaganda

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You know that I’m no great lover of milk. I have written a number of times about chocolate milk (for my newer readers here are just a few of those posts: The chocolate milk and exercise myth, Is chocolate milk essential to good nutrition?, Don’t cry over chocolate milk). Chocolate milk is delicious because it is essentially a liquid candy bar. White milk is definitely a better choice from a nutrition stand-point. Personally, I loathe a glass of milk (my mum can vouch for my life-long efforts to avoid milk consumption) but I’m more than happy to put it on my cereal, add it to a smoothie, or use it in a recipe. Despite my distaste for milk as a beverage, and a food group, I still think that it has nutritional merits and that people who enjoy it should not be discouraged from drinking it. Putting my personal opinions about milk aside, I was frustrated to read the article 5 Ridiculous Myths About  Cows Milk this week.

Myth 1: You need cow’s milk to get calcium

It’s true, you don’t need milk to get calcium. There are plenty of other food sources of calcium. However, the statements that, “the calcium contained in cow’s milk is barely absorbable to the human body” and, “The most calcium-rich foods on the planet comes from plants, especially leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and broccoli” are not entirely true.

It seems that calcium absorption from milk products and kale is similar (1) – about 30-35%. Spinach is notorious for being loaded with calcium that is not bioavailable to us – about 5% (2).

Myth 2: Cow’s milk will give you strong bones

Contrary to the claim that cow’s milk will actually result in weakened bones, there is no reason to believe that it will hinder bone strength. Although, there’s also no reason to believe that milk consumption will strengthen bones either. The best way to ensure strong bones is to engage in regular exercise, especially strength training.

Myth 3: Cow’s milk isn’t cruel

Here’s where the article really goes off the rails. The discussion of veal is irrelevant to the discussion of milk. Dairy cows and cows raised for meat are not one and the same. Yes, we have all seen the recent mistreatment of dairy cows. I’m willing to bet that this was the exception and not the norm. Just like humans, cows need to be relaxed to produce milk. Most dairy farmers treat their cows with love and respect.

Myth 4: Cows need to be milked

I can’t argue with this one. Obviously this is a matter of supply and demand. If cows are regularly milked, they will continue to produce milk, even without calves to feed. If cows are not regularly milked, and do not have offspring to feed, they will cease milk production. I’m not sure how this factors in as an argument against milk consumption by humans.

Myth 5: Cow’s milk is for humans

The argument is that cow’s milk is intended to feed baby cows and that no other species consumes the milk of another. Honestly, there was a time when I was like, “yeah, this makes sense. It’s so unnatural for us to drink milk from another species.” Then I thought about it a little more. We do A LOT of things that no other species do. Just from a food standpoint alone: we cook our food in a variety of ways, we preserve food in a number of ways, we eat at restaurants, we combine ingredients to make a recipe… Just because no other species does these things doesn’t mean that we should cease doing them as well.


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The other evening I was out with my brother and his girlfriend and she stopped at Starbucks to order an iced coffee. I haven’t ordered an iced coffee in years but it reminded me of the first time that I did from a Starbucks. I ordered my iced coffee, black, got a straw, took a sip, and was surprised to find that it was sweet. I went back up to the counter, thinking that there had been some mistake, apparently there was. It was my mistake for not specifying “unsweetened”. Since when did sweetened iced coffee become the default for iced coffee? They wouldn’t automatically put sugar in a hot coffee, latte, or espresso, so why assume that customers want their cold coffee sweetened?

This is a great example of what’s wrong with the food system in North America. The healthy choice is not the easy choice. I should have to ask if I want sweet coffee. Or add the sweetener myself. It shouldn’t be the default. That sweet coffee left a bitter taste in my mouth.


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Leave the veg for the rabbits, you’re going to die anyway

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A few weeks ago, Dr Sharma shared this article (on twitter and on facebook), without comment. It’s an article by the dreaded Zoe Harcombe about why we shouldn’t be striving for at least five servings a day of fruit and vegetables. No, it’s not what you think. She’s not suggesting that people should have more than 5 servings of veg and fruit a day, she’s suggesting that people should have fewer servings of veg and fruit a day. “Great,” I thought, “Zoe strikes again“.

After working myself up into a bit of a rage about the article I noticed the date on it. January 2011. When I first saw that I thought that I wouldn’t blog about it after all as it’s not current. My second thought was, “whatever”. If I’m only seeing this for the first time there are probably others only seeing it for the first time as well.

Harcombe argues that recent research showing the lack of protection against myriad chronic diseases through increased vegetable and fruit consumption means that we should cease encouraging people to eat more vegetables and fruits. And everyone rejoiced and ate doughnuts for dinner and lived long and healthy lives dying peacefully from old age in their sleep! Dietitians, nutritionists, and other health professionals were suddenly out of work as there was no more chronic disease to contend with. If only.

In the article, Harcombe states, “no doubt some dieticians and nutritionists will reject my arguments. But science backs me up.”
Well, she got the first part of that statement right, at least.

A great deal of Harcombe’s hypothesis centres around the assertion that vegetables and fruit don’t contain many vitamins or minerals. She concedes that vegetables do contain vitamin C and some A and K. Fruit apparently is only good for potassium. According to Harcombe, meat and other animal products are superior sources of most vitamins and minerals. This truly is a load of nonsense. Veg and fruit can be good sources of many vitamins and minerals. Not to mention the fact that they are usually good sources of water and can provide greater volume to your meal with few calories. Food is not just about individual nutrients. It’s about taste and texture and pleasure. Imagine eating a salad without vegetables. Think about the pleasure of eating a fresh blackberry off the brambles. How dull food would become if we didn’t have vegetables and fruit in our diets.

Harcombe moves on from her argument about the lack of vitamins and minerals in vegetables and fruit to say that some dietitians will argue that they are a source of antioxidants. She doesn’t object to this statement but instead says that she would rather not ingest oxidants in the first place. What was it that she said earlier? Oh yeah, “Science backs me up.” Might be time for a review of the oxidizing process, Zoe. If she’s avoiding oxidizing agents I want to know how she’s managed to survive without breathing air or drinking water. Our environment is chockfull of oxidizers. We should certainly avoid adding to them ourselves by avoiding smoking, excessive sun exposure, excessive alcohol consumption, etc. However, avoiding “chemicals” as Harcombe suggests is both ridiculous and impossible. Everything is chemicals. We are chemicals.

There is too much in this article to address it all. I mean, I could, but it’s too nice out as I’m typing this, and would you really keep reading if I went on and on? I just want to touch on one more issue with Harcombe’s vendetta against vegetables and fruit.

Harcombe takes issue with the belief that vegetables and fruit are important sources of fibre in our diets.

“The fact is, we can’t digest fibre. How can something we can’t even digest be so important to us, nutritionally?”

Apparently Harcombe doesn’t mind being constipated. Nor does she recognise the importance of fibre in prevention of heart disease. The desire to feel satisfied after a meal? Also not important. Even if these things are not important to her fibre serves other important organisms inside our bodies. That indigestible fibre is food for the bacteria living in our digestive tracts. Those same bacteria that provide us with things like vitamin B12, protect us against GI upset and harmful micro-organisms. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the importance of our gut bacteria but it seems that they do a lot more for us than we ever realised.

So, if we are to listen to Harcombe and throw those five-a-day away, what are we to eat? Her top five foods: liver, sardines, eggs, sunflower seeds, and dark-green vegetables. That’s right. After telling us that vegetables and fruit are overrated and should be left for the rabbits, Harcombe then turns around and recommends vegetables in her top five foods. I rest my case.