Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Why we need to stop with the meat and alternatives

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Ever since the new Food Guide consultations began the dairy and beef industries have been pushing back hard. They’re afraid that if the traditional food groups are dismantled, and if the food guide encourages people to consume more plant-based sources of protein, as has been put forward in the consultation, that there will be decreased consumption of dairy and beef. It’s understandable that they would want to protect their interests. After all, going from being featured prominently in the current (and previous versions) of the Food Guide with food groups named: Milk and alternatives and Meat and alternatives, to receiving little-to-no mention is a bitter pill to swallow. On the other hand, it’s a hugely positive step for the health and wellness of Canadians.

You see, words matter. “Alternative” is generally different than the norm. According to the dictionary, the definition of alternative is, “one of two or more available possibilities.” By naming food groups “Meat and Alternatives” and “Milk and Alternatives” we’ve positioned animal products as the norm and plant-based sources of similar nutrients as differing from the norm or abnormal. This positioning makes it sound like meat and milk are the front-runners and the “alternatives” runners up. This does a disservice to the health and budgets of many Canadians, particularly those living on low incomes, as meat is positioned as something to aspire to and the “alternatives” (which are often more affordable options such as beans, lentils, and tofu) as inferior.

I think that the standard Canadian home-cooked meal is often some variation on meat and potatoes. Having taught cooking classes for people living on low incomes for the past few years I have found that even if participants are open to trying new foods and recipes they are often unable to sell their family members on beans and lentils and other more affordable sources of protein. One of the few negative pieces of feedback we receive is that participants would like more meat in the meals we prepare. For many reasons we emphasize vegetables and “alternative” sources of protein in our classes. Among those reasons are: nutrition, food safety, variety, and affordability. Meat is generally one of the more expensive foods at the grocery store. By creating the impression that meals centred around meat are something to aspire to we’ve really done a disservice to Canadians. The majority of us don’t consume even the minimum recommended servings of vegetables and fruit each day and don’t consume enough fibre.

Milk is widely encouraged as a beverage with meals, on cereal, with snacks, and for sports recovery. It’s been positioned as the beverage for growing children and for seniors for bone health. While not quite as costly as meat, serving for serving, it’s still a pricey beverage in comparison to water and many other drinks. Setting aside vitamin D, which milk is fortified with, there are many other sources of the nutrients we commonly consume milk to obtain. Calcium is found in many leafy green vegetables, tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds. Protein is found in beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and tofu.

All this to say, that despite the push-back, I think that (if Canadians pay attention to the new Food Guide when it’s released) ditching the current configuration of food groups, or even just the current naming of food groups, will be beneficial to the health and pocketbooks of most of us. If we stop seeing plant-based sources of protein as “alternative” and start recognizing them for their delicious value then maybe we can get out of that meat and potatoes mentality and start enjoying a wider variety of nutritious meals.


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Guys, we had it all wrong. This man has solved food insecurity!

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

You would think that I’d have had my fill of ranting about food insecurity and food bank-type “challenges”. Apparently not.

I came across another article last week in which the author bragged about how easy it was for them to follow the SNAP challenge. You know, the one that Gwyneth Paltrow made waves with her purchase of 7 limes on her meagre budget.

The author of the current article took exception to a couple of the rules; i.e. not using food purchased prior to the start of the challenge and not accepting free food. He complained that because of this rule he wasted three eggs and half a pound of spinach. I understand the frustration with wasting food but surely those could have been given to someone, consumed before beginning the challenge, or the spinach could have been frozen for use after the challenge. As for not accepting free food, I assume that’s to make it a level playing field as participants could have friends buy them lunch or have access to free food at meetings and events that people living in poverty would not have the opportunity to take advantage of. Yes, there is free food available to people in poverty through meal programs and food banks but how wrong would it be for someone playing poor for a month to use these services, thereby literally taking food from the people who need it the most.

Okay, to the point. Our author brags about how easy it was to make inexpensive nutritious meals. While he does make a good point that fast food isn’t as cheap as many people believe, he also fails to note that for someone who has a small amount of time and money (and perhaps limited cooking facilities and cooking skills) bulk purchases of nutritious foods may not be possible and quick and easy calories from McDonald’s might be the solution.

What really got my blood boiling was this:

“It’s about mindset, not money

I believe food insecurity is due to a combination of issues, but after living a month on such a strict budget I don’t believe money is one of them…

SNAP provides more than enough for a month’s worth of food, and that food insecurity is more of an education issue than a money issue.”

Such willful ignorance. To have the gall to accuse people who are living in poverty that it’s their “mindset” turns my stomach. Such an unfortunate conclusion to reach at the end of a challenge which is intended to help a person better relate to others, not proselytize to them. While there are many factors that contribute to food insecurity, income is number one. There’s also: time, knowledge, skill, confidence, access to food, access to cooking tools and facilities, space to store food, having a stove or a refrigerator, having recipes… Certainly, education can be a factor in helping people who are experiencing food insecurity but if it were the true problem then we’d see a lot more people with all incomes suffering from food insecurity. You can teach people how to cook and that soup is a great nutritious meal to make all you want but if they can’t read recipes, don’t have a large pot, a decent knife, ability to get to a store with affordable produce then they’re not going to be making soup.


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Hunger Awareness Week #HungerWeek

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I originally posted this back in 2012. As it’s national Hunger Week, and I must confess, I don’t know what to blog about, here it is again:

Food Insecurity is Not Simple Math

A recent study showed that healthy food is actually less expensive than “junk” food. This study eschewed the usual caloric comparison of foods for a portion-based comparison. Based on this comparison the researchers found that many healthy foods are, in fact, cheaper than their less nutritious counterparts. For example, a serving of carrots was found to be less expensive than a serving of potato chips. I agree that healthy food is not necessarily all that expensive and some options (e.g. beans, legumes, and root vegetables) can be quite economical. However, I have several major issues with this study.

Having worked with people experiencing food insecurity I know that the first concern of most of them is getting enough calories into their family members and keeping them as full as possible. So, even if this study is showing that by portion size and by edible weight, healthy foods are less expensive than unhealthy foods this is not how the majority of people who are suffering from food insecurity are thinking. They’re trying to get caloric bang for their buck. Sadly, carrots are not going to give them as many calories for their dollar as pop and hot dogs are.

Even if we accept what the study is telling us, there is a lot more to consider beyond the face-value of these foods. Many of these healthy food items are not ready to eat as is. Do you know anyone who’s going to eat onions straight-up? How about dried chickpeas? These foods require cooking skills, equipment, and additional ingredients (e.g. herbs, spices, oils, etc. to make them palatable). Many people, be they food insecure or not, are lacking in the food skills department and may not have the confidence or knowledge to cook a rutabaga. Do they have a stove to use? What about pots? Knives? Vegetable peelers? All of the additional ingredients and supplies can add a considerable amount of cost to the meal.

Another major issue when it comes to food insecurity is oral health. If your teeth are sore or missing it’s going to be mighty difficult to chow down on raw carrots and apples. Potato chips and spam are much easier to manage when you’re lacking quality teeth.

So, sure, serving for serving some fresh vegetables may be less expensive than “junk” food but food insecurity is not simple math.


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Gwyneth Paltrow and the Seven Limes

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Photo (7) Seven limes by Wikioticslan on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A few weeks ago everyone was mocking Gwyneth Paltrow’s food choices for a week-long food stamp challenge. Admittedly, they were a little ridiculous. I mean, it was nice to see that she chose things like dried beans, frozen peas, eggs, and some fresh vegetables. However, along with everyone else, I thought “seven limes??!“. Unless she got an amazing deal on those limes they seem like a nutritionally foolish expense. I saw some people posting their superior $29 selections. When Gwyneth failed to last more than four days on the challenge it seemed like everyone was more than a little gleeful. I saw others bragging about their success.

As much as we all like to take pleasure in Gwyn’s failures, I think that we may have lost the point. The point of this food stamp challenge is to show people how difficult it is to survive on such a limited food budget. To that end, it’s a good thing that Gwyneth failed. If she had happily lived on that little food budget then that would mean that all people living on food stamps should be able to contentedly survive on $29 of food a week.

Regardless of the choices that Gwyneth made, there’s little room for pleasure or flavour in such a meagre food budget. Note that there was no money for cooking oil, condiments, spices, or staples like flour and sugar. No coffee, tea, no chocolate! It’s nigh on impossible for someone to feed a family a basic nutritious diet when they are forced to rely on food stamps. More important here than Gwyneth’s failure to do so is the failure of the government to provide its citizens with the means to afford healthy, palatable food.


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McDouble Cheeseburger: The latest superfood!

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I love it when you guys send me blogspiration. I’d like to thank my friend Ian for alerting me to this article in the New York Post, praising McDonald’s McDouble cheeseburger as the “greatest food in human history”. Now, I’m pretty sure the author is attempting to get a rise out of us “macrobiotic Marxists” by describing those of us who care about nutrition with those terms. As I’m neither macrobiotic, nor Marxist, nor could I afford $300 on highlights each month. And really, these descriptions are contradictory. If my recollection of Marxism is accurate I think that affordable food would be something of import to a Marxist. I do find it a little absurd that the author suggests that those of us who care about healthy food do not care about affordability. As someone who has only money for bills and food I can assure you that I still care about the nutrient content of my food and I’m fairly certain that I’m not the only one.

So, what’s the argument anyway? Apparently the McDouble cheeseburger is actually a nutritional powerhouse: “It has 390 calories. It contains 23g, or half a daily serving, of protein, plus 7% of daily fiber, 20% of daily calcium and so on.” And it’s cheap. Only $1.00 in many US locations. I’m not sure what it costs in Canada. The McDonald’s website doesn’t tell me and I don’t really feel like trekking to McD’s to find out. I’m guessing it’s more like $3. Still pretty inexpensive. So, we’ve seen what it has going for it. But that’s not the whole story.

The nutrition information also appears to be slightly different in Canada. It clocks in at 430 calories, 24 g of protein, 2 g of fibre (that’s a pretty pathetic amount of fibre for a meal considering that adult males should get at least 38 g of fibre a day and adult females at least 25 g), 25% DV calcium. I admit, the protein and calcium aren’t too shabby. However, the article fails to note that the sodium is 1, 150 mg (about 77% of the recommended intake for most healthy adults!), 22 g of fat (11 g of saturated and 1 g of trans – this is quite a lot of fat and a fair bit of undesirable fat at that as it’s advisable not to consume any trans-fat). Beyond what’s on the nutrition facts label are a whole lot of missing ingredients. How about the fact that you should have vegetables constitute at least half of your plate. I don’t think the three little slices of pickle or the globs of ketchup count as vegetables. And how about the actual ingredients in that burger. The bun, according to McDonald’s contains the following:

Regular Bun: Enriched wheat flour, water, high fructose corn syrup and/or glucose-fructose and/or sugar, yeast,
vegetable oil (soybean and/or canola), salt, calcium sulphate, calcium propionate, monoglycerides, enzymes,
azodicarbonamide, AND MAY CONTAIN ANY OR ALL OF THE FOLLOWING IN VARYING PROPORTIONS:
diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, BHT, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, wheat starch, calcium
peroxide, wheat gluten, inactive yeast, sorbitol, dextrin, malted barley flour, ascorbic acid, citric acid, calcium
stearate, calcium iodate, silicon dioxide. CONTAINS: WHEAT, BARLEY. MAY CONTAIN: SESAME SEEDS

The beef patty is supposedly 100% pure beef. After all of the horse meat scandals in the UK I’m not sure that we can take their word for it but we have no reason not too. However, it’s also important to consider the environment in which the cows were raised, the diet they were fed (after all you are what you eat!), the conditions of the slaughterhouse and processing plant, as well as the handling by shippers and store employees. It’s definitely not a farm-to-table meal.

So, if you don’t care about your health or the health of the planet then yes, McDonald’s McDouble cheeseburgers sure are a bargain.