bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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.


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What is a “superfood”?

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superfood is a marketing term intended to convince you to part with more money for food products. Yes, some of the superfoods are affordable; think kale. But many of them are not; think chia, acai, spirulina, hemp hearts. There is nothing wrong with these so-called superfoods, if you can afford them and like them then munch away. However, I know that many of these things aren’t in my regular grocery budget. What’s a poor girl/guy to do if they want to be healthy but they can’t afford all of these superfoods?

Just because they don’t have the marketing budget behind them doesn’t mean that loads of ordinary vegetables and fruits aren’t “super” in their own right. Carrots are loaded with vitamin A, and are also a good source of potassium, and fibre, as well as containing folate, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, and other vitamins and minerals. Apples are a good source of fibre, as well as containing vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium, and phytosterols. Corn is a good source of protein, fibre, and contains a number of B vitamins, magnesium, and potassium. In fact, any vegetable or fruit is going to provide you with nutrients. The greater the variety you eat, the more nutrients you’ll get. There’s no need to worry if you can’t afford the superfoods all fruits and vegetables are super in their own ways.


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Asparagus: Cancer cure?

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As much as I dislike facebook, I must admit, it sometimes comes in handy for blog fodder. For instance, the post about asparagus that someone in my timeline recently shared. Now, I don’t want to discourage anyone from eating asparagus. Asparagus is both amazingly delicious and extremely nutritious. However, I feel compelled to refute some of the erroneous information in the post.

The post begins:

Subject: Asparagus DO NOT FAIL TO READ THIS AND SEND TO YOUR FAMILY &FRIENDS When I was in the USN, I was stationed in Key West, FL. I worked at the clin…ic at Naval Air Station on Big Coppitt Key just a few miles north of Key West.

Ever notice how the ridiculous posts on FB claiming to provide miracle cures and medical information always include extraneous details about the poster? I mean, who cares if you were in the navy and where you were stationed? This somehow lends credibility to your claims to have knowledge about nutrition and science? Apparently some people must think so, as I can think of no other reason why people continue to share these posts. Anyway…

The author claimed that some old man (a retired biochemist) told him that the reason why asparagus makes your pee smell is because it “is detoxifying your body of harmful chemicals!!!”. Sure glad that biochemist is retired! The real reason that your pee smells is because your body is breaking down sulfurous amino acids in the asparagus and excreting them in your urine. No food has the power to rid your body of harmful chemicals. Sorry.

The post then goes on to provide “evidence”, via four “cases”, that asparagus can cure cancer. The reason why asparagus can do this is alleged to be the presence of “histones“. These are alkaline proteins. Some histones may, in fact, be promising in the development of a cure for cancer. Regardless, while asparagus does contain histones, so do other foods such as all cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds, wheat, egg yolks, milk, garlic, etc.

Asparagus is undoubtedly a healthy food choice. Consumption of it, and other vegetables, and other whole foods, may reduce your risk of developing cancer. However, it’s giving false hope to people to tell them that they can cure their existing cancer by drinking two tablespoons of asparagus puree daily. Eat lots of vegetables, eat a variety of them. Don’t look to anyone food to save your life.


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Cancer-killing celery

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I was reading this article touting the benefits of celery for “fighting off pancreatic cancer” and naturally I wondered about the veracity of this news. I managed to get my hands (well, eyes) on a copy of the research on which the news article was based. It seems that very little of the news article was based on the actual research.

The study looked at the effect of two flavonoids: Apigenin (Api) and Luteolin (Lut) on the proliferation of pancreatic cancer cells in petri-dishes. While the news article states that eating plenty of celery can prevent cancer, the authors were examining the effects of the flavonoids on existing cancer cells so there’s not really cause to say that eating foods containing these substances will actually prevent cancer (although, eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables is certainly advisable to obtain many health benefits). That being said, the authors found that both Api and Lut inhibited growth and proliferation of tumor cells. The greatest benefit was seen when the flavonoids were administered to the cancer cells 24 hours prior to treatment with a chemotherapy. When the flavonoids were administered at the same time as the chemotherapy there was actually a decrease in effectiveness of the treatments.

The authors do not mention celery until the very end of the journal article. In the conclusion they state that:

Api is abundantly present in oranges, grapefruit, parsley,
onions, wheat sprouts and chamomile tea. 

Rich sources of Lut include apple skins, parsley, celery, broccoli, onion leaves, carrots, peppers, cabbages and chrysanthemum
flowers.

It’s hard to say how much celery (or other fruits and vegetables) you would have to eat to get an effective dose of Luteolin.

While this research does provide some hope that there may be cancer-fighting properties to every-day vegetables and fruits it doesn’t mean that you should run out and eat bushels of celery to ward-off pancreatic cancer. For now, eat at least five servings of vegetables and fruits every day and try to consume a wide variety.

 


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Another example of why nutrition advice should come from nutrition professionals

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A friend, and fellow dietitian, sent me the above screenshots. They were posted by a personal trainer. Of course it’s great to get people eating more vegetables and by no means do I want to discourage that. However, this is yet another example of why nutrition advice is best left to nutrition professionals.

Let’s start with the onions. High in fibre? It’s true, sort-of. Once cup of chopped onion contains a respectable 3 grams of fibre. Not exactly “high” but a “good source”. But… Who among us eats an entire cup of onion in a sitting? Certainly not I. At most, I would say I would have a couple of tablespoons. That brings the total fibre down to a whopping 0 grams. Oops. As for the other claims… Anyone telling you something is “great for fat loss” is probably full of it. No one food promotes fat loss. Following a healthy, adequate calorie diet, and healthy active lifestyle will promote fat loss (should you need to lose fat). Glutathione to reduce stress? Not according to WebMD. And just to be annoying, how on earth could eating onions reduce stress??? Will they ensure you don’t lose loved ones, keep your job, prevent moving? I think he must mean that they reduce the effect of stress on your body. Regardless, I’m pretty sure he’s mistaken. EWG did find pesticide residue on onions, however, they were ranked 50th (out of 51) so I’ll let him have that one; they are low in pesticides. Finally, onions do contain the prebiotic inulin. But, the onions aren’t what provide the benefits listed, the probiotics that use the prebiotics to grow are what provide the benefits. Both pre- and pro-biotics are needed to maintain a healthy digestive system.

As for the claim that grains don’t contain as much fibre as “you think” and therefore, you should consume the vegetables listed to obtain your fibre. Let’s compare: asparagus, cooked 1/2 cup = 2 grams of fibre, 1 cup of raw green pepper = 3 g fibre, 1 cup of raw broccoli = 2 g fibre, 1 cup of raw green cabbage = 2 g fibre, 1 cup of raw cauliflower = 3 g fibre, 1 cup of cucumber (with peel) raw = 0 grams of fibre, 1 cup of romaine lettuce = 0 g of fibre, 1 cup of raw mushrooms = 1 g fibre, 1 cup of raw spinach = 1 g fibre, 1 cup of raw zucchini = 0 grams of fibre. Now for the grains: 1 cup of steel-cut oats = 5 grams of fibre, one slice of multigrain bread = 2 g fibre, 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa = 2.5 g fibre, 1/2 cup of brown rice cooked = 2 g fibre, 3/4 cup of bran flakes = 5 g fibre…. I’d also like to mention that 1/2 cup of black beans contains 7.5 grams of fibre! As you can see, yes some of these vegetables contain fibre. However, grains also contain fibre, generally more than the vegetables. The moral here: include a variety of foods, including grains and vegetables, in your diet to meet all of your nutrient needs. Oh, and don’t take nutrition advice from those without a nutrition education.