bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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.


Should the food industry be allowed at the obesity debate?


This article: Food firms could be out of the obesity debate baffled me. The by-line reads: “Food and drink manufacturers must emphasize the role of exercise in reducing obesity or risk being sidelined in the debate and hit with stricter regulation, according to new research.” What? Isn’t that exactly what many food and beverage companies are doing? I seem to remember Coke, for example, having an ad campaign based around how many calories it takes to burn off a coke. Isn’t this one of the biggest problems with the current debate? That you can out-run your fork? That food manufacturers want us to believe that we’re fat because we don’t move enough, not because we’re not eating properly? Sorry, hate to break it to ya, but the most important factor in losing, and maintaining weight loss, is diet. And the best way to attain a healthy diet is to prepare it ourselves rather than relying on packaged, processed, manufactured foods.

Of course, the by-line obscures one of the major recommendations of the research. That recommendation is that the role of public health in education and health programming should be emphasized. Sadly, they do state that food manufacturers should be making greater efforts to reformulate their products to meet the weight management needs of the consumers. Honestly, I think this is a fool’s errand. It’s been done before; and look where all those low-fat and fat-free products got us? Here. Greater import needs to be placed on cooking and the food system needs to be restructured so that “junk” foods are no longer subsidized, while fruits and vegetables are.

I for one, don’t see it as any great tragedy if the food industry was to be sidelined in the obesity debate. Frankly, their inclusion only serves their interests and keeps the mistaken belief that individual responsibility is the key to conquering obesity alive.


Are apples the key to curing obesity?


A few weeks ago the media was reporting that apples may provide the cure for obesity. I was a little more sceptical. I mean, how many overweight and obese people do you know who eat apples? Probably lots. If apples were capable of curing obesity everyone would be thin.

My first concern was that this research was conducted on mice. That means that it may (likely) is not translatable to humans. A couple of things to consider: these mice were fattened up by being fed a very specific high-fat diet. Obesity is a complex condition with myriad factors. Unless the reason for people being overweight is due to consuming a similar diet to these lab mice, it’s quite likely that they will not respond to this weight loss treatment in the same manner as the mice. I also wondered how much apple the mice were fed. How much apple would humans need to consume to see similar results? Here’s where it gets crazy: the mice did not eat the apples. Yep, that’s right. We have no idea how much apple would be beneficial to humans as we don’t know how much would be beneficial to mice. Rather than feeding the apples to the mice, the researchers made a slurry of apple compounds and mouse faeces. They found increased levels of certain bacteria that are commonly found in the faeces of slim mice in the cultured faeces of obese mice. Their results were not statistically significant. They showed a trend toward increased levels of some bacteria and butyric acid, and decreased levels of other bacteria in the faeces-apple slurries of obese mice but none of the changes (save the decreased bacteria) were large enough to be statistically significant.

It’s impossible to say whether or not eating apples (how many, how frequently) would have similar effects on the fecal microbiomes of mice or humans. We also don’t know if these microbial changes do occur if they would result in weight loss. Without knowing this, it’s a ridiculously huge leap to suggest that consuming apples could be a treatment for obesity. This didn’t stop the authors from concluding that:

These results suggest that dietary fibre and phenolic compounds remaining in apples after IVD might help to prevent metabolic disorders driven by an altered microbiota in obesity, and potentially protect from an obesity-disturbed balance of microbiota.

It also didn’t stop the media from publishing articles with headlines like: “An apple a day could keep obesity away: Granny Smiths promote friendly bacteria helping us feel fuller for longer” and “Granny Smith apples can help prevent the damage of obesity“.

I do think that research into our microbiomes is going to provide insight into many illnesses and conditions. However, our individuals microbiomes are extremely variable. Suggesting that this research using mice will translate to obesity treatments for humans. It’s also extremely unlikely that consuming one healthy food will negate the effects of an overall unhealthy diet. That being said, apples are nutritious and it’s certainly not going to hurt you to have an apple a day.


Book Review: Health at Every Size


Thanks to Helen at Food & Nonsense starting the RD book club I finally got around to reading Linda Bacon’s Health at Every Size. Unfortunately, due to time differences, the tweet-up to discuss the book is taking place at 6 am on a Sunday morning for me. I’ve scheduled this post to go live at that time as my feeble attempt at participating in the discussion without waking up ;) If you’d like to check out the discussion just search for the #RDBookclub hashtag (was that redundant? Probably) on twitter.

Helen was also kind enough to post some discussion questions so here goes…

1. Do you agree with the HAES assertion that health not weight should be the focus of nutrition interventions?

Absolutely. The focus should be on health and well being, never on numbers on a scale. That being said, weight management is one of the main reasons that people seek out advice from dietitians. I don’t think that we can just ignore this fact. As health care professionals it’s our job to help people to understand that the numbers on a scale don’t necessarily matter all that much when it comes to health. That being said, weight is often inextricably intertwined with health and nutrition.

2. Is a health approach practical in todays aesthetic focused society?

This is an excellent question and one that I found myself thinking about quite a bit as I was reading the book. It’s all well and good that we know that people can be healthy at many different weights but how do you translate that into acceptance and understanding? As much as we tell someone that they are healthy at their current weight, if they’re unhappy with that weight should we help them to lose weight or help them to accept themselves as they are? Oftentimes, neither of these options is feasible.

3. Do you feel that the main concepts in the book were adequately backed up by the research presented?

For the mist part I did. Although I must confess that I didn’t take the time to seek out all of the research Bacon used to back-up her arguments. A couple of things did bother me: One, I didn’t like how much she mentioned that if you do this or that you’ll probably end-up losing weight. If your book is about being healthy no matter what your size, and you’re preaching fat acceptance, then I don’t think that weight loss should be a frequently touted benefit of your approach. Two, I’m not sure how credible her evidence to support that overweight and obese people generally live longer than their lower-weight counterparts is. Weight loss is an extremely common side effect of many serious diseases. Thus, thinner people may be more prone to dying than larger people as a result of an underlying illness causing weight loss, not as a result of being thin. If we’re talking health at every size we need to be careful not to tip the scale in the other direction. People who are overweight, obese, average, or underweight may all be healthy. Also, death is not the only thing to look at. Obese and overweight people may be living for longer but how many of them are healthy during these extended life spans? Health span may be a more important consideration than life span.

4. How should nutrition professionals use this information in their day to day practice?

I think that nutrition professionals should use this information to help themselves overcome their personal biases and to educate their clients that weight is not the be all and end all when it comes to health. We should also use it to help clients realise that our own weight is not an indication of our health nor of our ability to do our jobs well. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had tell me that I’m a dietitian they might actually listen to because I’m slim, as though larger dietitians don’t have exactly the same knowledge and education as I do. As with any field, our weight is not an indication of our ability to perform our jobs well.

5. Were there any ideas in this book that you reject or find difficult to accept?  Why?

I think I covered this in question three. Oops! I was also bothered with a very small point in which Bacon was advising people on how to choose whole grains (p.79). She says, “Look for the word “whole” in the ingredients list.” Not entirely accurate. This is the point where I pondered whether or not it was okay to write in a library book. You need to see the words “whole grain”. Unfortunately, “whole” on its own is not sufficient. Anyway… This is a very small quibble in the scheme of things.

I did also find it difficult to accept that there is no relationship between obesity and disease states. While I absolutely believe it’s possible to be healthy (and conversely unhealthy) at any weight I do still believe that there is increased risk of developing certain conditions such as heart disease, some cancers, type 2 diabetes when you’re obese.

6. What is the main thing you took from this book? How has it been helpful to you?

The main thing I took from this book is the importance of self-worth and acceptance. We all need to stop aspiring to look like other people and learn to be happy being ourselves. Many of us also need to step away from the scale and stop letting the numbers on it define us. I also really enjoyed the chapters on food and fat politics.

For some more interesting perspectives on the HAES movement check out the following links: