Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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A little nitpicking in pursuit of scientific literacy

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I was reading this article a couple of weeks ago and was bothered by a couple of minor errors. The article’s kind of all over the place so I wasn’t even sure that I would bother blogging about it but since, as I type this, I’m at the airport waiting for my delayed flight to arrive I figured that I may as well.

Issue #1:

In 2015, nearly 13% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity (the current term for “hunger”). Many more are forced to rely on poor-quality foods that lead to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Well, actually food insecurity is much more complex than “hunger” and people who cannot afford adequate, nutritious food very often fall into that group of people experiencing food insecurity. For a nice concise one-pager about food insecurity, check out this factsheet from Dietitians of Canada. Also, obviously, just because someone is hungry doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re experiencing food insecurity. Food insecurity is a result of inadequate income; not a strenuous workout or a light lunch.

Issue #2:

none of the flour available to consumers is ground from GMO grains.

While genetically modified wheat is not commercially available, corn flour would often be produced from GM corn. Many gluten-free flours contain ingredients such as sugar beets that are genetically modified.

Issue #3:

Gluten-free is very popular right now, but even if you are one of the 1% of Americans with celiac disease, marketers are fooling you. Whole Foods sells “gluten-free” baby shampoo. First, please don’t eat baby shampoo. Second, gluten is a protein found in wheat. Meats, cheeses and personal care products don’t normally have wheat in them.

Actually, many shampoos and other personal care products do contain wheat. For children who have celiac disease or who are following a ketogenic diet for epilepsy, their doctors may advise parents to ensure all such products are gluten-free to err on the side of caution. Kids are curious, many of them will put soap in their mouths, or eat shampoo bubbles. I don’t think making cautious parents feel foolish is helpful. Maybe that’s just me though. Whole meats and cheeses do not contain gluten but breadings or sauces may contaminate these foods, pre-shredded cheese may have flour added to prevent clumping, and some cheeses are cultured on gluten-containing grains.

Aside from these issues, I agree with the author’s assertion that food-borne illness is a real concern. I think that this will continue to grow as we see a decreasing number of manufacturers producing an increasing amount of our food. We should also avoid food fads and endeavour to improve our scientific literacy.

 


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So, Maple Leaf is going to promote food security. Bologna for all?

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My first thought when I saw that Maple Leaf was launching a new food security centre was: “do we really need another food security organization in Canada?” As much as I love that this issue is gaining traction and increased attention, there are already a number of organizations in Canada working to promote food security (on a national level: PROOF an excellent research centre in Toronto, and Food Secure Canada). Not to mention all of the organizations that are working to fight poverty, which is the root cause of food insecurity.

As I read the article, I was impressed by the academic names attached. Although, I do find it rather telling that of the seven board members, four of them are Maple Leaf employees. My inner (okay not so inner) cynic can’t help but wonder if this is more of a public relations exercise for Maple Leaf than a true effort to increase food security of Canadians. Indeed, by the current projects they plan to support, I don’t anticipate that they’ll reach their goal of reducing food insecurity in Canada by 50% by 2030.

The projects they plan to support through their innovation fund are: an urban farm, community food hubs through a provincial food bank, and FoodShare. All of which are fantastic initiatives which will bolster food literacy in participants, but will likely have little impact on food security rates in Canada.

Dare I suggest that Maple Leaf might better tackle food security issues by addressing internal employment practices. Their lowest paid employees are making minimum wage and it sounds as though many struggle to attain a healthy work-life balance. Both of these issues are important factors in promoting food security. Meanwhile, the CEO of the company made the list of the top 100 highest paid CEOs in Canada last year; pulling in a cool $5,239,735. This sort of inequity does not lend itself to promotion of food security. Perhaps Maple Leaf should work on getting their own ducks in a row, and ensure that their own employees are all food secure, before bragging that they’ll be spending the equivalent of less than twice their CEO’s salary on a new food security centre over five years. Additionally, rather than creating a new food security centre, they could donate the money to organizations like PROOF, Living Wage Canada, Food Secure Canada, and other organizations working to fight poverty across the country.

If we truly want to ensure Canadians are food secure we need to stop thinking about it as a food charity issue and start thinking about it as an income and equity issue. Food drives and food bank donations may make us feel good about ourselves and help to put a little bit of food in the mouths of hungry people but they do nothing to promote food security. If anything, these programs allow government off the hook as they can pretend that communities are doing their work for them by providing for those in need. As individuals we can make sure our elected officials are aware that we support a basic income guarantee and living wages. The media can help to get this message out there. Employers can help to ensure food security for their employees by providing job security, adequate wages, work-life balance, and benefits packages. The government(s) can create policies that will see a basic income guarantee and living wage put in place across Canada.


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Magical fat burning snacks

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As long as there continue to be articles about fat-burning foods I’m going to have to continue to write blog posts to counteract them. The latest to enter my radar was 20 Snacks That Burn Fat on health.com. A website that seems to be almost entirely devoted to magical food beliefs.

Without even looking at what these snacks are I can tell you that there is no such thing as a “fat burning” food. Food (with a few rare exceptions that some would argue are not actually food) contains calories. Calories provide us with energy to move and function and survive. Despite what diet gurus would have us believe, they are essential to life. Without sufficient calories we will starve to death. Of course, eating more than we need to perform daily activities will result in the storage of that excess energy as fat. This will occur with the overconsumption of any food. Yes, even those foods touted as “fat burning”.

What makes people believe that some foods have the magical ability to result in net energy loss? Generally it’s based on the misinterpretation of the thermic effect of food (TEF) and the indigestibility of some components of certain foods. TEF is higher for some foods, such as those high in protein and hot spices, than in others. Basically, all it means is that a greater amount of energy is needed to digest those foods than others with lower thermic effects. For example, if you eat a butter cookie, you’re going to absorb a greater percentage of the calories in that cookie than you would if you ate a bunch of nuts because your digestive system needs to expend more energy to digest nuts than it does to digest simple carbs and fat.

Regardless of the level of spice in a food, protein, or the quantity of indigestible components, such as cellulose and some types of fibre, no food is going to result in negative net calories and no food is going to specifically target and deplete fat stores in your body. Instead of forcing yourself to scarf a bunch of celery because you want to lose weight and then eating a box of cookies because you’re hungry and miserable, try focusing on nourishing your body and enjoying your food. Think less about weight and more about how you feel. There are no magic weight loss foods but it’s pretty amazing how much better you feel when you eat mostly whole foods and break free from the diet mindset.

 


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Follow Friday: Holiday donations

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This holiday season, if you’re like me, you have people on your list who are nearly impossible to shop for. Giving a donation to a worthy organization in their name is a great way to give back and honour them. Of course, there are plenty of food drives and opportunities to help people with immediate needs, but if you want to go beyond that and attempt to have more of a lasting impact with your donation, here are a few food-related organizations you might want to consider donating to:

Community Food Centres Canada has locations throughout the country and grew out of The Stop in Toronto. The Stop began as a food bank but became so much more. Now community food centres offer food literacy education; opportunities to grow and cook food with fellow community members. Many have markets and serve as hubs for community members to come together over food. This holiday season you can make a donation in a loved one’s name to your local centre, or to the organization in general through their “My Food Hero” campaign.

The World Food Programme is a donation-based organization working to fight hunger and promote food security around the world. You can learn more about donating to them, or others ways you can help here.

Food Secure Canada is devoted to bringing a national food policy to our country. Their goals are: “zero hunger, healthy and safe food, sustainable food systems.” In addition, they provide education opportunities for anyone who’s interested through webinars and conferences. You can support their work here.

On a local level, you might consider donating your time or money to a community garden, community oven, community kitchen, food security network, or a poverty roundtable.

I’m sure that there are loads more worthy organizations, these are just a few that came to mind. Feel free to add more in the comments.


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Doctors giving nutrition advice probably shouldn’t reference Pete Evans

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I saw this article last week and had mixed feelings about it. I know that we were all supposed to read it and be horrified that a doctor was reprimanded for giving patients nutrition advice. After all, shouldn’t doctors be doing more to help patients manage their health through lifestyle changes? But… there’s so much that this article doesn’t tell us.

Just to start by clearing the air, obviously you all know that I’m a dietitian. Of course I’m going to feel a little defensive of my profession. The orthopaedic surgeon in question was undermining recommendations given by dietitians at the hospital where he worked. All because he had studied some nutrition on his own. Can you even imagine the outrage that would occur if the tables were turned and a dietitian undermined advice given by a doctor?! I’m certain that the RD would lose her (or his) licence, not just be given a slap on the wrist and told to stop working outside the scope of their practice.

Everyone think that they’re experts in nutrition simply because they eat (yes that’s hyperbole, please don’t send me your #notalleaters comments). So many people believe that doctors are all knowing. Unfortunately, it would seem that some doctors fall prey to this mode of thought as well. Doctors specialize. A doctor who works in oncology is going to have an entirely different knowledge-base and skill set from a doctor who works in neurosurgery. Doctors should not be expected to know everything. Yes, family doctors should be better equipped to provide nutrition advice but an orthopaedic surgeon should defer to the dietitians on-staff. It takes an incredibly high level of self regard to believe that you are more of an expert in a field in which you did a little self-study than a regulated health professional who studied the subject for over four years, is immersed in it on the job, and who must complete on-going education to maintain their credentials.

There’s some amazing irony in the article as well. The author references a television episode with the doctor in question and celebrity chef Pete Evans. For those who are unaware, Evans is a notorious charlatan and has faced entirely warranted criticism for promoting unsafe infant diets amongst other questionable nutrition practices. A few paragraphs down, the author goes on to say:

In addition there are numerous unqualified “gurus” giving advice about what we should and should not be eating. Surely it is preferable to have a doctor giving nutrition advice rather than unqualified individuals, many of whom have a product or program to sell.

Um HELLO??? Pete Evans is the epitome of the unqualified guru with a product to sell. Just prior to this statement, the author even admitted that the majority of doctors receive very little formal nutrition education. So, no. It’s not preferable to have a wholly unqualified doctor providing nutrition advice to people. In a way, it’s worse than having a self-proclaimed “guru” providing nutrition advice because people trust their doctors.

If the doctors referred to in the article truly cared about the well-being of their patients they would refer to appropriate professionals when needed, including registered dietitians. They should also work together with those professionals to provide the best care possible for their patients. Rather than assuming that they have superior knowledge of a subject which they were not adequately trained in.

How about rather than complaining foul when someone is rightly called-out for practicing outside their scope of practice, we talk about the real problem here. That our healthcare system is designed to treat illness rather than prevent it from developing in the first place.