bite my words

Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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.


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Would you wear a diet monitoring necklace?

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Have you heard about this WearSens necklace? It’s technology that you can wear around your neck to monitor what you eat and drink. Of course, the most talked about application is for weight management. Fortunately, the engineers who designed it are also hoping that it will be used for medical management. It has the potential to be used to monitor whether or not people have taken medications or breathing patterns of lung transplant patients. Much more worthy applications of the technology if you ask me.

Why don’t I think it’s a good idea for weight management? For one thing, it can distinguish between food textures but not specific foods. Therefore, it’s not a useful tool for calorie tracking. It wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between water and pop or yoghurt and pudding, for example. Sure, if you’re trying to eat or drink at specific times of day it could monitor that but it seems like an unnecessary (and, I’m assuming, expensive) method of doing so. More importantly, it attaches a sense of shame to eating. And people complain about the nanny state! Do you really want a sense of judgement literally hanging around your neck every time you eat or drink something? Yes, mindfulness is important in developing healthy eating habits. So is learning to enjoy food without guilt.


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5 things low-carb gurus don’t want you to know

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I hate these lists: 5 foods you should never eat, 8 foods for a flat belly, and one I saw last week “10 Things Dietitians Say About Low-Carb Diets That Don’t Make Sense“. I should confess that as a dietitian, the headline alone immediately got my back up. Still, I took the bait and clicked the link.

Some of the stuff on there was quite reasonable, and some of it inaccurately portrayed dietitians and nutrition. It drives me nuts that we study nutrition for 4+ years in university, do internships, and must demonstrate continuous learning to maintain our professional status as registered dietitians, and yet those from other professions (and non-professions) are constantly proclaiming to the world that we’re nutritionally biased ignoramuses. Okay, so I didn’t exactly read this list with an open mind. No apologies.

Here are my top 5 retorts to this post and others in the same vein:

1. Low-Carb Diets Are Hard To Stick To

Have you ever tried a low-carb diet? There’s a reason why nearly everyone you meet who’s on a low-carb diet is singing its praises at a month or two in. How many people do you know who’ve consistently followed low-carb diets for years? Probably not many. There’s a reason for that. They are hard to stick to. Sure, you can feel physically satisfied on a low-carb diet but there are other aspects of it that can make it difficult to stick with. There’s the social aspect of food. It can be hard to follow a low-carb diet when others around you aren’t, forgoing birthday cakes and pizza. There’s also the restrictiveness that comes with a strict diet. You lose a lot of options when you cut-out or dramatically reduce carbohydrate intake. Finally, if you’re at all athletic, it can be extremely hard to train and perform at your best without carbohydrates.

2. The Opposite of Low-Carb Is NOT Low-Fat

Why is it that every time I hear someone poo-pooing on dietitians for our reluctance to support low-carb diets claiming that we push low-fat diets? The macronutrients are: carbohydrate, fat, and protein. While we all vary in our needs and desires for each of these, they all play a role in a healthy diet. I don’t know any dietitians who promote low-fat diets. Yes, in the past, because nutrition research is often flawed, we believed saturated fat was unhealthy. Most of us are over that. As I’ve said before, real dietitians eat butter.

3. Low-Carb Diets Are Not Proven To Be Safe In The Long-Term

As dietitians, it’s our job to provide people with the information that they need to make informed choices. When the average life span is over 80 years in Canada a two year study is but a drop in the bucket. Yes, you can probably be healthy on a low-carb diet. You can also be unhealthy on one as well. A diet of steak and bacon is low-carb, as is a diet of vegetables and fish. It’s a lot easier to get all of the nutrients that you need when you consume a greater variety of foods.

Yes, the Inuit ate high-fat low-carb diets. Will your low-carb diet consist predominantly of raw meat and seal blubber? I thought not.

4. Just Because You Can Be Healthy Following A Low-Carb Diet Doesn’t Mean That You Should

You can be healthy following all sorts of diets. You can also be unhealthy following them. A low-carb diet can be healthy, as can a vegan diet. You need to figure out what works best for you. Don’t let nutritional gurus convince you that their diet is the only way to go.

The main draw of a low-carb diet generally isn’t health anyway, it’s weight loss. These are not one and the same; no matter what the gurus may say. A healthy weight very much depends on the individual and health is not just physical. There is no shame in deriving pleasure from food.

5. We Don’t Like Diets

It’s nothing personal. We’re not eschewing your beloved low-carb diet because we have shares in the wheat industry. We tend to be wary of any diet because they are restrictive and have end dates and “cheat days”. The way you eat should be a way of life that you can maintain until the end of your life (which will hopefully be in the distant future because you’re following a healthy, enjoyable, varied, and balanced diet).