Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Healthspan app review

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I read this article about a “new app that identifies your nutrition gap” a little while ago. According to the article, the app (Healthspan) will make individualized supplement recommendations that you can order in-app based on your diet. Naturally, I was concerned. Ideally, we should be aiming to obtain the majority of our nutrients from food. I envisioned an app designed to push supplement sales and was concerned about the safety and accuracy of recommendations made through an app. I figured I shouldn’t knock it until I tried it though so I downloaded the free app and tried it out for a week.

Healthspan is very similar to other food and activity tracking apps in that you enter your daily food consumption and your physical activity. I’ve written about some of the pitfalls of these apps before, in particular their accuracy when it comes to calories burned and the notion of “earning” more food with exercise.

When you first download Healthspan you enter your weight, height, age, etc and it gives you your daily caloric intake to attain your goal. According to the app, for me to maintain my current weight I should consume 1143 calories a day. This is quite low and certainly lower than the number of calories I actually consume every day. Of course, I “earn” more calories through my regular exercise. Just for fun I changed my goal to see what my daily caloric allotment would be if I wanted to lose two kilos. I now have a measly 914 calories per day to work with. To put that in perspective that’s roughly the calories in a Big Mac and medium fries. A 900 calorie per day diet is generally considered to be a very low calorie diet and not recommended to be undertaken without medical supervision. The app however, provided me with no warning. It just readily lowered my daily calorie goal. Interestingly, when I further decreased my goal weight to 44 kg (which would render me significantly underweight for my height) my calorie goal remained at 914/day.

Healthspan does offer you the opportunity to obtain free supplement samples when you register. Unfortunately, they’re only available to those in the UK so I was unable to determine what the samples were. Following that, you can order supplements through the app but the description of this process given in the original article is a little off-base. The app doesn’t make recommendations based on your recorded dietary intake. Rather, you complete a questionnaire and based on your responses it recommends a multivitamin supplement. The recommendation seemed pretty generic for any woman of my age (see below). Despite this, it still concerns me that supplements are available through the app given the questionable quality and safety of many supplements available on the market.

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Aside from this, another rather significant issue I had with the app was logging my food intake. While it was quite user-friendly to enter foods and beverages I’d consumed, the selection was extremely limited and there was no way to determine ingredients in mixed dishes, nor to enter your own recipes or nutrition information. For example, I made a vegetable curry for supper one evening. There was a vegetable curry option I could add but there was no way of knowing if the ingredients were similar to the curry I ate and for anyone who’s ever had curry, you know that the recipes can vary considerably. The same held for other dishes such as smoothies, lasagna, granola, stir-fry, and so on. There was also a number of foods that I couldn’t find at all in the database and had to make my best guess at what would be most similar. Based on this, I question the ability of the app to record calorie and nutrient intake even remotely accurately.

Each day, the app gives you a score out of 100 that appears to be based on your physical activity and calorie consumption. However, participation in challenges also counts toward this score. Without participating in these optional challenges, I was never able to achieve better than a 60 on any one day. On most days, I was even lower than this. Personally, even though I wasn’t using the app to genuinely achieve any goal, I found this really discouraging. If I was actually trying to reach personal nutrition and physical activity goals I can imagine this score would be off-putting.

I know that people really like apps to track things like food and exercise but I’d give Healthspan a pass if you’re looking for an app for these things.

 

 

 


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Which fitness tracker gives you the best calories burned for your workout? An experiment

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Remember my rant a little while ago about how you shouldn’t think of exercise and food as an equation to balance? Or my post about not using the exercise component of calorie counting apps? Well, I just wanted to add a little more to that conversation today.

I use a Garmin watch to track my runs and occasionally I’ll look at the “calories burned” out of curiosity. After a pretty fast longish interval run I noticed that the calories burned seemed rather low so I started scrolling back through and was puzzled to find a shorter easier run that supposedly resulted in a very similar caloric expenditure. That left me wondering how Garmin determined the calories burned during a run. I looked it up and it turns out that it’s related to heart rate. Sometime the heart rate monitor is wonky and (especially when it’s really cold out) will register a heart rate that would be more likely seen when I’m sitting on my butt than when I’m out booking it through speed work. That means that my Garmin (erroneously) registers minimal exertion and thinks that I’m not burning very many calories.

Today I decided to do a little experiment. I wore my Garmin, as per usual, which is synched to my Strava account. I also fired up the Nike+ Run Club app for the first time in ages and I set out on an easy(ish) 10k run. After the run, I also entered the time spent running at the closest average pace into myfitnesspal. All of these apps have my height and weight. Any guesses what the results looked like?

Garmin: 463 calories

myfitnesspal: 517 calories

Nike: 526 calories

Strava: 1371 calories!!!!

Now, I have no idea how many calories I actually used during this run, I’d wager Garmin was probably closest to the mark considering that the heart rate monitor seemed to be working properly. But Strava, what the actual hell?? Considering that Strava gets all of it’s data from my run directly from Garmin I find it amazing that it estimated I burned nearly three times as many calories as Garmin thought I did. I’m sure that if I had other apps and trackers I would have gotten slightly different results from all of them.

All this to say, if you’re exercising and tracking calories burned, you probably shouldn’t give that number too much weight. Try to think of exercise as giving you health and fitness rather than taking away calories and weight.

 


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Is healthy food cheaper? Is that even the question?

 

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Continuing on with my ranting discussion about food security, I can’t help but comment on a study out of England that was getting huge media attention over the past couple of weeks. The study showed that “pound for pound” it was less expensive to eat healthy foods than to eat ultra-processed foods. The majority of the news stories concluded that poor people could be eating healthfully they just prefer to pay more for “taste and convenience”, according to one of the study’s authors. To which I say, check your privilege.

As I’ve said before, food insecurity is not a matter of simple math. While there are certainly myriad factors that contribute to our decisions about what to eat, lack of income is the root cause of food insecurity. Dismissing money as a concern on the basis of this study is wishful thinking more than anything. It’s also an insult to people who are struggling to make ends meet and feed themselves and their families.

Because some researchers went to the store and found that a pound of carrots is cheaper than a pound of french fries, the logical conclusion is that everyone should be able to afford to eat nutritious meals prepared from minimally processed ingredients? That seems like quite the leap to me. There’s no accounting for calories or ease of preparation in this comparison. Sure, a pound of vegetables may be less expensive than a pound of frozen ready-meals but I think that most people would agree that carrots do not make a balanced meal on their own. To make a nutritionally balanced meal, you’d need to round those carrots out with some dark green leafy veg, some protein like meat, fish, beans, or tofu (the authors acknowledge that meat and fish are the exception to their affordability rule), and a grain such as rice, quinoa, or whole grain bread. As most of these items need to be purchased in quantities greater than those needed for a single meal, it can quickly become more expensive to buy ingredients for a home cooked meal than it is to buy something already, or nearly, prepared. Yes, pound for pound, a bag of rice will be less expensive than frozen dinners but a bag of rice doesn’t make for much of a meal.

Stop trying to use your research to “prove” that poor people are choosing to feed their children junk. Take a good hard look at your own privilege and ask yourself how you can make this a more equitable society in which we try to help those who are struggling rather than shaming and blaming them.

 


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I DoughNOT recommend the Krispy Kreme Challenge

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Box pile at the Krispy Kreme Challenge. Photo by Dan Block. Used under a Creative Commons Licence

I feel like I’ve heard about the Krispy Kreme Challenge before but I’d never really paid it much attention. The other day, a post by Canadian Running caught my attention. It was about the challenge and I clicked on the link to read the full article. I have to admit that I actually had a feeling of revulsion as I read that participants in this challenge must consume 2, 400 calories worth of doughnuts and run 8k to complete the challenge which is a fundraiser for a children’s hospital (#facepalm). In case you missed my earlier rants about fast food charity, here’s a taste.

A someone who loves to run (I’ve run over 400 days in a row and am currently training for the Boston Marathon) and who loves to eat doughnuts, and sometimes even combines the two, I am not opposed to doughnuts. But the idea of eating 12 doughnuts, equivalent to 2, 400 calories, whether during a run or not seems like too much of a good thing. Considering that I would probably burn just over 400 calories on an 8k run, I would be ingesting an excess 2, 000 calories, essentially all of my calories for the day with none of the other important nutrients. In fact, I would have to run a full marathon (42.2k) to use the energy from all of those doughnuts. Curious how many calories you would burn during the Krispy Kreme Challenge? Check-out this calculator.

This sort of challenge just feeds into the (false) notion that you can compensate for whatever you eat through exercise. Because it’s for charity, you’re left feeling good about feeling ill from eating far too many doughnuts and running a relatively short distance. If you want to support the hospital, make a donation. This challenge is a total doughNOT.


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Will new nutrition labels make us all thinner?

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Not to be negative, but I saw this headline: How much will new nutrition labels help fight obesity and I immediately said “not at all” (in my head because I was at work and our office is open-concept).

I know the new (American) nutrition facts panel is supposed to help curb obesity because they’ve made the calories so damn big but personally I think it’s not going to help anyone to lose any weight. If people are counting calories and trying to lose weight making them bigger isn’t going to make weight loss any easier. If someone’s not counting calories it’s unlikely that a big bold calorie count is going to prompt them to change their minds about their purchases. I also think the emphasis on calories is not beneficial to anyone.

Yes, lots of people find calorie counting helpful when they’re trying to lose weight. I still yearn for a simpler time when we didn’t need this information. When we didn’t rely to heavily on prepackaged foods that managed to jam in so many calories and so few nutrients. Personally, I think that, for the average consumer, the ingredients label is where they should be looking more often than the nutrition facts panel. The NFP doesn’t tell you anything about what’s in the food you’re potentially putting in your mouth. It just tells you about the artful mastery of the manufacturer who wants to make sure you buy into the charade of fortified highly processed products as healthy choices.

Putting calories front and centre puts a negative lens on food. It takes away from food tasting good, being pleasurable, and providing us with energy and puts the emphasis on guilt and shame. Neither of which are things we should be associating with food.

Rather than focusing our efforts on fighting against obesity we should be fighting for health.