Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Toast: The killer lurking in your breakfast

Darth Toast photo by Wendy Copley on Flickr

Darth Toast photo by Wendy Copley on Flickr

I recently read this article in the Daily Mail about elevated levels of acrylamide found in some packaged foods such as baby cereals and potato chips. Just to be clear, acrylamide is not something that’s added to food, it’s a potentially carcinogenic substance that’s formed when foods are cooked or processed at high temperatures. This is particularly common in foods that are high in starches and sugars; think, baked goods, potato chips, fried foods, toast, etc.

According to Health Canada, we don’t know the level of acrylamide that’s safe to consume. The conclusion that acrylamide causes cancer was drawn from animal research. As acrylamide is pretty common in most of our diets, it’s likely safe at some level.

I found it interesting that the Daily Mail article failed to note what “elevated levels” meant. This article would be far more interesting if it included “normal” levels and the higher than usual levels of acrylamide that were found in these foods. As it stands, this article is just another example of fear mongering. The advice it gives is to avoid cooking potatoes beyond golden brown, and toasting bread to the “lightest acceptable” shade. It also advises against storing potatoes in the fridge as that increases the sugar levels (but we already knew that, right?) , hence leading to increased levels of acrylamide if baked, roasted, or fried.

Worried about acrylamide in your food? Your fear may or may not be warranted. As with much dietary research, the cancer link was established in animal research and has not been replicated in humans. Epidemiological research has not, thus far, supported a link between acrylamide in our diet and cancer (1). The best things you can do are things that you should already be doing… Limit your consumption of potato chips, french fries (and other fried treats), baked goods, try not to burn your food, and don’t feel too badly if you don’t like the crust.


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No big fat surprise that butter is being touted as the next Superfood

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Why, oh why must we take everything to the extreme? Is it because simple healthy eating is boring? We have to have “clean eating”, “superfoods”, “low-fat”, “low-carb”, “cleanses”, “high-protein”, yada yada. The latest mantra to irk me “slather on the butter”. I know, I know, I said it first “real dietitians eat butter”. But this doesn’t mean that we have to eat it to excess. What am I on about now? An article in the Daily Mail that I came across on the weekend: Can eating fatty meat, whole milk and lashings of butter help you LOSE weight?

Okay, most of us in the nutrition world have accepted that low-fat was a grievous error. Taking anything to the extreme is a nutritional error. Just because something is not “bad” for you, or even good for you, doesn’t mean that you should consume more of it. The logic seems to go: apples are delicious and nutritious; therefore, an entire bag of them must be even better. In this case, we’re not even referring to foods that we know to be healthy when consumed regularly. We’re referring to foods that were unfairly demonized but have not been shown to lead to good health when consumed daily.

Perhaps, the article in the Daily Mail does not accurately portray Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise. I haven’t read the book, so I can only comment on the news article. Encouraging people to eat more cream, high-fat red meat, butter, and other foods high in saturated fat is not the solution to the obesity epidemic that the Daily Mail would have you believe. Yes, you can lose weight eating anything; remember the Twinkie Doctor? This doesn’t mean that you’re healthier (especially in the long-term).

Apparently Teicholz claims that removing the fat from milk means adding more carbohydrates. No. When you remove fat, you are not adding anything. Yes, an equivalent quantity of skim milk will be higher in carbohydrate (not sugar though) than whole milk. That’s simply a result of what’s left behind when you remove the fat. It’s also higher in protein, minerals, and vitamins. We wrongly vilified saturated fat, let’s blame carbs.

Health and the battle against obesity should not be a nutrient blame-game. How about we stop demonizing and glorifying foods and nutrients and accept that there is a place for bread and a place for butter in a healthy diet.


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The “real food” fallacy

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All of a sudden, it seems that Zoe Harcombe is everywhere. She was providing ludicrous nutrition advice for sufferers of yeast infections (thanks @RD_Catherine for the link). Sorry y’all yoghurt won’t cure yeast infections. Yes, choosing a yoghurt with probiotics is great for overall health but it’s more because of the by-products produced by the bacteria (e.g. B vitamins) than because of the bacteria themselves. Unfortunately, most of the bacteria in yoghurt will not survive your stomach acid.

What I really want to address though, is her popular article in the Daily Mail (thanks to @ERHWG for sharing the article and her rage): Diets Make Us Fat. The Solution is Simple. The basic premise is that we need to eat “real food” as opposed to fake  “manufactured food”. Calories don’t matter, and we shouldn’t be counting them. All that matters is eating “real food”.

But what is “real food”? I don’t think you’ll find many dietitians who disagree with the importance of cooking and eating more vegetables, fruits, and minimally processed foods for overall health and weight loss. However, I don’t think the division between “real” and “fake” food is particularly useful. Nor is the vilification of whole grains. Grocery shopping is complicated enough and people are hard-pressed for time. Making them feel guilty for buying anything in a package is not going to help them to adopt healthier habits.

It’s also possible to be over weight when consuming a “real food” diet. You know why? Because calories do matter. I’ve met plenty of people who are over weight who eat very healthy diets. Simply telling people that if they eat “real food” is not going to solve the obesity crisis. If I was over weight and someone gave me this advice I would be insulted. Not everyone who is over weight or obese is subsisting on a diet of big macs and kit kat bars. Consuming more calories than we need, regardless of the source, will result in weight gain.

Finally, the reason that diets don’t work is because they’re short-term fixes. Not because people are necessarily consuming the wrong types of foods or because they’re counting calories. The problem with diets is that they have an end date. They are not sustainable lifestyle changes. The other reason that they don’t work is because our food system is broken. Our environment is structured such that the unhealthy choice is the easiest choice and it’s a lot of work not to be over weight. Placing the onus on the individual and suggesting that if they only stopped counting calories and ate “real food” doesn’t even come close to addressing the true societal roots of the obesity epidemic.