bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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If I quit meat will I lose weight?

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This article was ALL OVER my twitter feed last week. I couldn’t help but wonder how much truth the headline “To shed pounds, going vegetarian or vegan may help” contained. You know, I have no doubt that it may help. I also have no doubt that it may not help, and that it may not be the only option.

The article states that the study (meta-analysis) concluded that following a vegetarian or vegan diet lead to greater weight loss than following an “average American diet”. At which point I was like “are you kidding me?!!“. Of course following a prescribed vegetarian or vegan diet is going to lead to more weight loss than a terrible diet consisting of heavily processed foods and few vegetables (aka the “average American diet”)! Especially when you’re only looking at the results over the course of the study. We all know that it’s easier to lose weight than it is to keep it off.

I was also left wondering how the authors decided which studies to include in their meta-analysis. There were only 12 studies used and I can’t imagine that there were only 12 studies that met their inclusion criteria. Is it possible that they were “cherry picking”? Someone want to do some pubmed searching and let me know? I don’t really have time for that so I suppose I’ll let them slide on that count and just leave the suggestion out there.

The authors themselves state that at most, the studies lasted for 18 months and it did appear that weight loss on these vegetarian and vegan diets was often not sustained over time. Therefore, while it’s possible that people will initially lose weight on vegetarian and vegan diets they may not keep the weight off over time. This may be due to reverting to normal dietary intake or to increasing consumption upon conclusion of study participation.

While this article tells us that at least 12 studies have shown vegetarian and vegan diets to be effective methods of short-term weight loss it doesn’t tell us if other diets are any more or less effective. There was no comparison made between low carb, high fat, high protein, calorie counting, mindful eating, or any of the kazillion diets that people undertake to lose weight. Perhaps there is an equally, if not more effective way to lose weight. As everyone is different, I would hazard a guess that, while going veg might help one person to lose weight it might not help another. Don’t feel that you have to give-up roast chicken to lose weight, and don’t be discouraged if you give-up meat and don’t see a change on the scale. There are many factors that contribute to weight loss, the consumption of animal products may or may not be one in your case.


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Eat for your microbes: lose weight fast, gain control of your blood sugar in only one week!

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Photo by Pacific Northwest Laboratory on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I know that I really shouldn’t comment on this research without reading the actual journal article but that hasn’t been published yet and I can’t resist jumping into the fray. Is there a fray? Not really. I just keep seeing people retweeting this and everyone seems all excited about the possibility of these individualized and I need to put a little rain on the parade.

The article starts off sounding great. Who doesn’t want a bespoke diet? Considering the number of people who have asked me as a dietitian to “just tell me what to eat” I think that most people want someone to hand them a nice little meal plan. Of course, most meal plans would be “bespoke” in a sense as any professional worth their credentials is going to tailor the menu to the client. But, I’m not here to quibble about what exactly makes a meal plan bespoke.

So, apparently the researchers looked at how different people react (in terms of blood sugar) to the consumption of different foods. They found a wide range of responses and linked those responses to the types of gut microbes residing in the participants digestive tracts. Then in another study (of only 20 participants) each participants was given a unique diet to control blood sugar and one that was designed to increase blood sugar. Unfortunately, the diets aren’t described in the article so it’s hard to say how much they differed for each participant. There’s also no explanation as to how this ties in to the earlier research looking at the microbiome. In a shocking turn of events, on the diets designed to control blood sugar some (again the article doesn’t indicate how many) participants blood sugar levels returned to normal. On the “bad” diets they had blood sugar spikes that “would be described as glucose intolerant” according to one of the researchers. Essentially, they exhibited diabetes or similar conditions.

The article then goes on to say that this research somehow shows that calories aren’t the only player when it comes to weight loss. What? I thought the research was looking at blood glucose levels. There was no mention of weight change in participants. While I certainly agree that there are many other factors at play, in addition to calorie consumption when it comes to weight management, I fail to see how this research examined this issue at all.

What makes me a little more leery about this study is that the researcher says it’s surprising that ice cream (for example) doesn’t cause huge blood sugar spikes, and that buttered bread has less impact on blood glucose than unbuttered bread. Have these people not heard of glycemic load before? Of course blood glucose responses are going to be mitigated when high carbohydrate foods are consumed with fat or protein. That’s why it’s important to look at how people are consuming foods rather than examining the effect of specific foods in isolation.

I’m trying to withhold full judgement until the research is published. I think that the human microbiome is a fascinating emerging area of research. However, on the basis of this article all I’m envisioning are more scam diet books urging people to eat for their microbes.


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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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Why I hate the caloric math game

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I have a beef with a lot of the all-in-one fitness/weight management apps. Many people benefit from tracking their calories when they’re trying to lose weight. I’m all for that. What I hate is the inclusion of calories burnt through exercise. I think that a lot of these apps over-estimate the number of calories expended during various activities. This can mean that if you’re looking at the bottom-line to determine how many calories you can eat without gaining weight you’re probably going to eat more than you need. I often tell people to either not track their exercise using these apps or to ignore the additional calories the app then tells them that they can have. Just use the nutrition side of the app. It’s wise to remember that even that’s not going to be 100% accurate, especially if you’re not weighing everything you eat. It’s just another weight management tool in a box of many.

Now for the real beef: I don’t like that these apps try to turn weight loss into a math problem. It’s not. We used to believe that cutting 3500 kcal would result in a pound of weight lost. We now know that it’s much more complicated than that. There are many factors contributing to the weight we are. Yes, how many calories we consume (and expend) are a huge factor in determining how much we weigh, and whether we lose, gain, or maintain our weight. I don’t want to diminish that fact. I’m not going to tell you that if you just ate cleaner you would lose weight. The cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter when it comes to weight loss. However, adding 350 calories by going for a walk is an oversimplification. It may also lead to an unhealthy way of thinking about food, exercise, and weight management.

Most of us easily consume more calories than we’ve burnt after a workout. Exercise makes you hungry and it’s a whole lot easier to eat 500 calories than it is to expend them during a workout. When we start thinking about exercise as a way to “earn” more calories we’re moving away from healthy eating and healthy fitness. While I’ve said that the cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter for weight loss, and I’ve also said that there should be no forbidden foods, eating primarily nutrient-rich whole foods is important for your health. A session at the gym shouldn’t be a licence to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient foods for the rest of the day. Focus on gaining health through the food you eat and the physical activity you do, rather than the numbers in an app or on a scale.


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The truth about weight loss

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I so often hear people complaining about how they’ve fallen off track with healthy eating, exercise, and need to lose weight. It’s so hard to sit silently by, but in my experience, most people don’t want to hear the truth. Fortunately, I have this lovely blog where I can write the truth and if you want to read it that makes me very happy, but I’m not interjecting my educated opinion into your pity party.

You say, “I need to get my ass back to the gym”. I hear, “If I just workout harder/longer/more often I’ll lose a bunch of weight and wow everyone at the beach this summer.” The truth: the vast majority of weight loss occurs in the kitchen. Most of us eat more calories than we burn in compensation for workouts, negating efforts exercise might impart on body weight. I don’t want to discourage anyone from exercising. If you know me, you know that I love to workout and that running is my drug of choice. There are plenty of good reasons to workout for physical and mental health. However, it’s unlikely that you’re going to lose much weight in the gym.

You say, “I need to start eating clean again”. I hear, “Im going to start an unpleasant diet that I won’t be able to stick to for the rest of my life”. The truth: Weight management is more about the maintenance than the loss. If you’re following a diet that you loathe and are forbidding yourself from having foods that you love, you’re not going to be able to stick with it for the rest of your life. If you can’t find a healthy diet that you can enjoy for life then you’re not going to maintain weight loss for life. Healthy eating can be delicious. Clean eating is bullshit. I don’t know anyone who enjoys eating boiled boneless skinless chicken breasts and steamed broccoli for every meal. You need to have variety. You need to cook the vast majority of meals yourself. And you need to find a way to include treats that doesn’t mean you’ve derailed your entire diet. As I’ve said before, if you want to see sustainable weight loss you need to make sustainable changes. There is no one-size-fits-all method of weight loss. You need to figure out the method that works best for you and ignore the nay sayers.

You say, “I failed”. I hear, “I am weak. If I was just more disciplined I could be thinner”. The truth: It’s not your fault. Our society is set-up in such a manner that it’s far far more difficult to be thin than it is to be over weight. We value putting in long hours at work, rather than spending time cooking with your family. It’s a point of pride to scarf something down at your desk rather than taking a lunch break. There is a proliferation of nutritionally questionable grab-and-go foods available, while most healthy choices necessitate time and planning. It’s not all down to you and you don’t have to go it alone. Most people benefit from having support and accountability when they’re trying to lose weight. You might want to go to a registered dietitian, join a weight management group like Weight Watchers or TOPS, or team up with a friend or your significant other.

You say, “I need to lose X number of pounds”. I hear, “I’ll do whatever I have to, to attain an arbitrary number on a scale”. The truth: The numbers on the scale don’t matter. It’s about how you feel inside your own skin. Not everyone can have the physique of a supermodel. We come in all different shapes and sizes and even those at the same weight may have very different body shapes. You may be able to torture yourself down to the same weight you were at twenty but if you’re miserable, then what’s the point? Stop judging yourself against others. Stop focussing on the scale. Health and weight are not the same thing.