Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Scientific illiteracy will be the death of us

Maybe it’s nothing new but it seems to me that there’s an ever increasing lack of scientific literacy in government and I worry about the impact that this will have on all of us. Just a few recent examples of this illiteracy include a relatively innocuous twitter post by the Ministry of Health in Ontario touting the supposed benefits of consuming dark chocolate. This despite the fact that research does not support this assertion, nor did the article that the post was linked to.

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Another more worrisome example was a recent op ed by Thomas Mulcair (former leader of the federal NDP) in support of naturopaths because:

In today’s world, people are more informed than ever and you need a compelling reason to remove their right to make decisions for themselves. There are many alternative medical practices, old and new, that are providing treatment, comfort and relief to patients but that cannot be fully explained by science. They now need to be regulated in the public interest, not prosecuted on the pretense of protecting the public.

*Major cringe*. Sorry, but protecting the public is not a pretence. Given the misleading use of the title “doctor” among professions such as naturopathy and chiropractice (is that a word?) it is increasingly important that the public be protected from charlatans offering pseudoscience disguised as medical treatments. Yes, there are certainly problems with modern medicine but that doesn’t mean that the government (who is to blame for most of these problems through lack of doctors, short appointments, and long wait times) should ease the way for Canadians to access unproven treatments.

Democratic candidate Andrew Yang tweeted out his excitement about appearing on the Doctor Oz Show saying that he had “made a lot of people smarter about their health”. Even though Oz has done more harm than good at this point with his enthusiastic promotion of countless “miracle cures” and other quackery.

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The most alarming example I can think of is the recent bill in the States forcing women to have ectopic pregnancies reimplanted in the uterus. Something that is impossible. Rep John Becker who was responsible for the anti-abortion bill, upon facing huge backlash from the public and the medical community, admitted that he hadn’t consulted with doctors on the matter and “how was he supposed to know” that such a procedure was impossible. Which I think pretty much sums up the whole problem. How are our government officials, representatives, departments, etc supposed to have knowledge about topics on which they have no education or experience? Well, this is why they have staff who they should be using to do research before they go drafting harmful and impossible laws, writing dangerous op eds, and shooting off inaccurate social media posts. If somehow by some miracle anyone working at any level of government is reading this post, I implore you, have your staff (or even reach out yourself) consult with experts in whatever field you are hoping to legislate or promote before you do anything public. And please know that registered dietitians are the professionals you want to consult when you are doing anything related to nutrition. Federally in Canada you have access to dietitians through Health Canada or Dietitians of Canada. In Ontario you have public health dietitians who would be more than happy to be consulted through ODPH (Ontario Dietitians in Public Health).

 


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Does removing gluten make foods healthy?

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Based on some suggestions I’ve seen recently for “healthy” muffins and recipe searches for various baked goods I feel that a refresher on gluten is in order. I’m just going to put it right out there: the absence of gluten in a recipe has absolutely no bearing on how healthy it is.

For those who are unaware, gluten is a protein found in certain grains, the most common of which is wheat. Gluten helps to provide structure and texture in baked goods such as breads. Gluten is neither inherently healthy or unhealthy. Now, some people do have to avoid gluten in their diets if they have celiac disease, an allergy, or an intolerance, for that small percentage of the population, eating food containing gluten can make them sick. For the other 90-something percent of us though, gluten is perfectly healthy and safe for us to consume. In fact, some research has shown that a gluten-free diet may actually be less healthy than a glutenous diet. A gluten free diet may be low in fibre and some vitamins and minerals.

In addition, gluten free flours and packaged foods aren’t cheap. You’ll spend considerably more for gluten free products than you will for their gluten-full or potentially gluten contaminated counterparts. And while gluten free options have come a long way over the past few years, many of them are still inferior in taste and texture to regular gluten containing versions.

So, unless you have a medical condition which precludes you from eating gluten there is no health (or flavour, or financial) benefit to avoiding it. Be grateful that you don’t have to live your life in fear of being “glutened” and enjoy your gluten-filled baked goods.


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What is a milk allergy?

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I can’t believe I haven’t written a post since August! I was naive to believe that I would have time to keep up with things like blogging with a newborn. Even as I type this I’m nursing her and it will probably take me a couple of days to finish writing this post. I’m not complaining, it’s just that my priorities have changed and feeding this little nugget takes up most of my time. However, feeding her has also prompted me to write this post. She has a suspected cow’s milk allergy (suspected because they won’t do allergy testing on infants) and by the comments I’ve gotten from people it seems that there’s a lot of misunderstanding about this allergy.

Food allergies in general are reactions to proteins found in foods. In the case of a cow’s milk allergy, that reaction is to either the whey and/or casein protein found in milk. Babies with a cow’s milk allergy will react to the protein passed to them through breastmilk as well as to the protein in most infant formulas. This means that breastfeeding moms must remove dairy from their diets. For some moms this may just mean obvious sources of dairy such as milk, cheese, and yoghurt (note: eggs are not dairy – I actually read an article by a doctor listing eggs as dairy *face-palm*). More sensitive babies may require complete removal of all dairy-containing foods from their diets, even foods in which a milk product is a very minor ingredient. Babies who are formula-fed will require special hypoallergenic formula in which the proteins are broken-down so that they can digest them.

A cow’s milk allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance which is a reaction to the lactose which is a milk sugar, not a protein. Lactose intolerance is actually extremely uncommon in infants as lactose is present in breastmilk. Generally, lactose intolerance is something that develops as children age. This means that lactose-free dairy products are unsafe for people with cow’s milk allergy and mom’s who are breastfeeding babies with this allergy.

Some people with cow’s milk allergy may tolerate goat’s milk. Goat’s milk contains casein but a slightly different version than that found in cow’s milk. However, the similar structure means that some people who are allergic to cow’s milk will also react to goat’s milk.

In things that I never thought would be an issue: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked if a baked good is dairy-free and received the response that they contain gluten. Huh? I’m not sure if this is indicative of people genuinely not knowing what dairy and/or gluten is or if it’s a result of avoidance of both these things being trendy. For those who genuinely may not be aware: dairy is products made from cow’s milk such as ice cream, cheese, yoghurt, milk, and butter. Gluten is a protein found in some grains, wheat being the most commonly consumed.

Do you have a food allergy? I’d love to hear your stories of ignorant comments below.


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What came first: the fried chicken or the heart disease?

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Last month a study was published about fried food consumption and the risk of coronary artery disease. The study was conducted with US military veterans and concluded that: “In a large national cohort of U.S. Veterans, fried food consumption has a positive, dose-dependent association with CAD.” Meaning that the more fried food a veteran consumed, the more likely they were to have heart disease. But what does this mean for the average person?

It’s important to note that the vast majority of study participants were men (90%) and the average age was 64. It’s well known that heart disease in women is poorly researched and important to acknowledge that the results of this study don’t necessarily apply to women. There are also many factors that contribute to the risk of developing heart disease and the researchers took the following into account: race (insofar as to categorize participants as black, white, or other), BMI, alcohol use, education status, exercise, smoking status, pre-existing type 2 diabetes, consumption of fish, fruit, and vegetables. After controlling for these factors, the researchers still found a relationship between fried food consumption and CAD.

However, the authors neglected to control for one important factor: poverty. Poverty is a significant risk factor for many so-called “lifestyle-related diseases”, including CAD. Other lifestyle factors are often also enmeshed with poverty making it nearly impossible to determine true contributing factors. People who live in poverty often have poorer diet quality than those with higher incomes and may rely on fast food, including fried foods. If poverty is indeed a greater risk factor than fried food consumption, or if fried food consumption is a result of poverty, this means that simply telling people to consume less fried food may not be the most helpful advice. It takes a certain level of privilege to be able to “choose” to consume the recommended diet. It means having the financial means, time, access, and facilities necessary to prepare nutritious meals.

While the findings of this study support the common belief that fried food is not a healthy choice they also serve to entrench the belief that diet is all about choice when for many people it is not. We need to look further than fried food to determine the root causes of illnesses such as coronary artery disease if we truly want to work to reduce incidence of these diseases.


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Lose the Weight Watchers

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Last year Weight Watchers rebranded as WW because they wanted to pretend that they were about healthy lifestyles and not just weight loss. This week they announced the release of their new weight loss app for kids (as young as eight!) and teens. They’re trying to frame it as “helping kids and teens build healthy habits” but when the central feature of the app is food tracking don’t be fooled; this is Weight Watchers points for kids and creating a “bad food” “good food” dichotomy is likely to do anything but help these kids build life-long healthy habits.

An eight year old tracking every morsel of food they eat with the sole aim of losing weight is pretty much the antithesis of a healthy habit. Rather than help kids develop healthy habits this app is far more likely to instil them with an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies. And while I personally ascribe to the belief that weight is not indicative of health, I hope that all healthcare providers and parents can see why an app like this could be damaging to children whether or not they view “overweight” and “obesity” as a “problem”. Weight is not a modifiable behaviour and focusing on weight loss as an end goal doesn’t promote the adoption of healthy behaviours. Rather, it promotes restricted eating and quite probably disordered eating habits in order to attain that goal.

Given that very few adults successfully maintain intentional long-term weight loss, I find it baffling that WW claims that their new app is “evidence-based” and will somehow be more successful (if you are measuring success by pounds lost) in children and youth than similar programs have been in adults. It also makes me sad to see the quotes around “stopping arguments about food” so that parents and children get along better. Placing the responsibility for food choices in the hands of an app rather than working on fostering a healthy food environment at home may seem ideal but this doesn’t truly promote healthy behaviours. I know not everyone can afford to work with a registered dietitian (and not all RDs ascribe to the same school of thought when it comes to body weight); however, I recommend Ellyn Satter’s books which can be found at your public library if you want to help your child attain a healthy relationship with food.

It’s also important to keep in mind that WW is a for-profit business. They are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They are doing this because there’s money to be made – one month use of the app is $69 USD. They’re doing this because a “fun” app is an easier sell to parents who are concerned about their children’s weight than working on the division of responsibility, role modelling healthy behaviours and positive relationships with food, and cooking and eating nutritious balanced meals together as a family. They’re doing this because weight bias is so rampant in our society that many people can think of few things worse than being fat and parents are desperate to save their children from that plight. I get that. Parents just want their children to be healthy. Unfortunately, an app that encourages a restrictive diet mentality is likely to achieve the opposite of health promotion.