Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Are dietitians getting too sexy?

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A few years ago I wrote a blog post that really hit a nerve with other dietitians. It was about how dietitians just aren’t sexy. This was in the sense that we don’t hop on trends (unlike other unregulated professionals) and instead are moored in evidence-based practice. Unfortunately, I’m noticing a disturbing trend in dietetics and I’m concerned about the future of my profession.

There have always been some dietitians who believe in unproven practices such as detox, fad diets, and questionable supplements. It’s a shame to see others promoting such nonsense as I feel it reflects poorly on all of us but it’s always been the minority. It’s also been somewhat understandable because it can be a tough field in which to find a secure job. And we probably all have some beliefs that aren’t based in evidence. Experience is important in combination with scientific evidence. However, I feel like in this age of fake news where nothing means anything anymore, that this is infiltrating dietetics at a higher level.

Recently there’s been the introduction of “integrative functional nutrition” which sounds very scientific and pretty great, “A central theme of IFNA training is learning to identify “root causes” of disease in a methodical and systematic fashion rather than the mundane prescription of medical nutrition protocols based on a diagnosis”. Who doesn’t want to get to the root causes of illnesses? I think the main frustration with Western medicine is that there’s often a failure to dig deeper to find the root cause for ailments and simply a treating of symptoms. This is why so many people turn to unscientific alternative health practitioners for help. Unfortunately, “integrative functional nutrition/medicine” tends to be code for the smooshing together evidence-based practices and unproven unscientific practices. The creation of bodies of dietetics incorporating these practices lends false credibility to them.

Last week I attended a nutrition conference. It was generally a really great conference with presenters sharing a variety of perspectives and evidence. There were also presentations by people with lived experience. I think there’s a great deal of value in learning from people who have experience with various conditions, circumstances, illnesses, etc. However, the final presenter was by an individual who had “cured” a severe mental illness through nutrition and supplements with the aid of a Christian doctor in the US. I’m not in a position to question this person’s experience but the presentation made me extremely uncomfortable. I don’t doubt that nutrition plays an important role in supporting mental health. Although I do doubt that we can cure most cases of mental illness through nutrition.

As dietitians, we are always trying to promote ourselves as credible sources of nutrition information. Yet here we are, welcoming a presentation from an individual who was treated by a doctor whom would be dubbed as a quack by most. This guy readily fails Dietitians of Canada’s “Five tips to help you spot misinformation“.

1. Is the person or product promising a quick fix like fast weight-loss or a miracle cure? Check!

2. Are they trying to sell you products such as special foods or supplements? Check!

3. Do they provide information based on personal stories rather than on facts? Check!

4. Is their claim based on a single study or a few research studies? Not sure if the claims are based on any research so yeah, Check!

5. What are the person’s qualifications? Unfortunately, he’s a medical doctor which makes it sound like he’s a qualified professional. But we all know that doesn’t stop Dr Oz from operating outside of his scope of practice. Being a MD doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual is qualified to be providing nutrition services (most doctors receive very little nutrition education during medical school). As far as I can discern, he hasn’t received any specialized nutrition education so… CHECK!

Inviting people who are promoting such quackery to professional conferences undermines our credibility as nutrition professionals. It lends false credibility to their practices and allows these unproven beliefs to infiltrate dietetics. It makes it harder for us to present ourselves as credible nutrition professionals and undermines the ability of the public to trust us.

It’s discouraging to see people seeking out healthcare from unregulated professionals with questionable credentials and practices. But I don’t think the solution lies in taking the attitude that if you can’t beat them, join them. It’s important for us to continue to ground our advice in the best possible scientific evidence if we want to remain trusted healthcare professionals. Otherwise we may as well all burn our degrees and licences because they’ll become as meaningless as the credentials of all the self-styled nutrition gurus.

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Why industry shouldn’t have special input into the food guide

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With the recent public consultation on the new Canadian “food guide” just coming to an end I’ve been noticing a lot of push-back from industry. There was a letter from a MP voicing concern about the new food guide as the new guiding principles seem to be steering people away from animal-based sources of protein and encouraging the consumption of more plant-based proteins. “I am concerned that the guiding principles released by Health Canada for Canada’s new food guide may have significant negative impacts on Canada’s meat and dairy sectors, and also the health of Canadians,” said Miller.

There was also a news clip featuring a spokesman from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association voicing “concern” that Canadians will be nutrient deficient if they replace meat with chickpeas.

There’s been an entire website set-up by Canadian Dairy Farmers entitled “Keep Canadians Healthy” with the message being that people need to drink more (cow’s) milk and that the new food guide is going to “discourage Canadians from consuming dairy and meat products”. They go on to say that, “Left unchecked, Health Canada’s recommendations will not only cripple an important Canadian industry, but have long-term health consequences for all Canadians.” 

These examples are exactly why so many of us dietitians, doctors, and others have been complaining about the direct involvement of industry in developing previous iterations of the food guide. I can understand why those whose livelihood depends on the sale of dairy and beef would be concerned that the new food guide will (likely) not continue to serve as free advertising of their products. Although nobody really pays the food guide much heed anyway when they’re deciding what to put in their mouths.

The purpose of the food guide is to help Canadians to eat healthy. The food guide should be based on the best possible evidence. If you think that the dairy and beef (or any other food industry for that matter) has your health at heart you are sorely mistaken. Their goal is to make more money by selling more product.

As a dietitian, it’s my professional goal to help people to eat better. I don’t have any products to sell. I consume dairy products and meat (although I don’t consume much meat). I’m not trying to destroy the beef or dairy industries. I can honestly tell you that most Canadians would benefit from consuming less meat and that it’s not necessary to drink milk to meet specific nutrient needs. Most of us could stand to consume more plants and more plant sources of protein. It’s highly unlikely that anyone in Canada is going to suffer from nutrient deficiencies because Health Canada finally grew a backbone and stopped allowing industries to shape the food guide. Also, the food guide is not going to be telling people to become vegan or vegetarian, it’s hopefully (and rightfully) going to encourage people to consume less meat and more plants.

No food guide is ever going to be perfect. It’s never going to satisfy everyone and I’m sure that I’ll find something wrong with it when it’s released. However, as I’ve said before, it’s a guide, not a bible. It’s a tool to help people to make healthier choices. By using current evidence to inform the content, we’re already a step closer to a better tool.


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Science is not my religion

After I wrote about the study that supposedly showed that consumption of vegetables and fruit has no bearing on cancer development someone commented on facebook that I was undermining “real science” and supporting pseudo-science hacks. I think this raises an important issue when it comes to science and faith.

You see, while I am a supporter of science and detractor of pseudo-science, science is not my religion. I think that holding blind faith in anything is dangerous. Scientific research is hugely important but that doesn’t mean that every piece of research should be taken as gospel. Scientific studies can be flawed, they can be weak, they can be biased, and they can just plain be wrong. That doesn’t mean that we should ignore all scientific studies. It means that we should look at research critically. Whenever possible, we should look at larger bodies of research, rather than single studies, to draw stronger conclusions. We should look at research critically in order to base our decisions, beliefs, and advice on the best possible evidence.

Science is not infallible. That doesn’t mean that we ignore it. It just means that we need to examine it closely before deciding whether or not we accept results and conclusions drawn. Always question things. Be skeptical.

Rather than thinking that being critical of any piece of scientific research is on-par with supporting pseudo-science and quackery, we should think of blindly accepting the results of every piece of scientific research as being on-par with blindly accepting the advice of celebs and self-styled wellness gurus.


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Eating to change your eye colour

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I recently came across a post by David Wolfe (yeah, that guy) about the ability of a raw food diet to change your eye colour.

Apparently this is a thing ever since some raw food guru nutritionista chick made the claim that after changing from an unhealthy diet she cleared-up her constipation and her brown eyes became hazel/green.

Naturally I was skeptical. Even David Wolfe was. Yet, he somehow came to the conclusion that it was possible based on this article. The thing is, the article doesn’t actually support the claim that a raw food diet can change a person’s eye colour. It says that eye colour can change as we age, but this is generally referring to children, not adults and is unrelated to diet. It then carries on to state that significant changes in eye colour may be the result of a disease and anyone experiencing such changes should see an eye doctor. No mention of diet.

I did a little googling and found some other articles. None of which were written by anyone with any medical knowledge of eyes. Wolfe and this Vice article both mention “iridologists” which is pretty ridiculous. Iridologists are to optometry what phrenologists are to neurology. Essentially a great source of perhaps entertaining information but otherwise quackery. To be fair, even these iridologists seemed to think the notion of changing ones eye colour via diet was farfetched. Everything I could find through the googles was anecdotal.

I feel the need to voice my disappointment in seeing a dietitian’s name continually come-up in connection with this raw food eye colour change business. As dietitians we are obligated to provide evidence-based dietary advice. Neither advising people to choose a diet to change their eye colour, nor advocating for raw food diets for all are ethical for a member of our profession.

Next I turned to google scholar. Again, nothing. There is absolutely no scientific evidence of a relationship between diet and eye colour. Of course, it’s possible that, that research just hasn’t been done. And I will be happy to revise this post if a study is ever published showing that eye colour can be changed by switching to a raw food diet.

Even if eye colour can be changed by diet, who cares?! I mean, seriously. Having brown eyes does not mean that you eat unhealthily and are constipated. Having blue eyes doesn’t mean that you’re healthy and having regular bowel movements. Are we now judging a person’s health and habits based on eye colour? Could we get anymore superficial? Why would we want to go on an extreme diet just for the purpose of changing the colour of our eyes? A raw diet is not necessarily the healthiest choice. There are many reasons that we cook our food: to kill toxins and microorganisms, to increase absorption of nutrients, to improve palatability. Personally, I would rather keep my grey/blue eyes and enjoy my food.


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Skeptic or jerk? What’s the difference?

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Eternal Damnation by Stephen L. Cloud used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Last week I tweeted the question “When did skeptic become synonymous with a**hole?” (except without the asterisks because I’m much more brazen on twitter). Something I’ve been noticing a lot lately is that people seem to be using their self-proclaimed skeptic status as justification for being condescending and rude to other people. If you know me at all, you know that I don’t suffer fools gladly. It’s damn hard to bite your tongue in the face of ignorance and stupidity. However, I don’t understand why it’s become acceptable (especially on social media) to be patently rude to other people just because they have different opinions or beliefs than you do. And those are people that you’re attacking; not avatars, not bots. You’re not advancing your cause by insulting those who disagree with you.

The definition of skeptic (according to google) is: “a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.” I consider myself a skeptic. I question most things. I tend not to believe anything until I see evidence. That’s skepticism to me. It would appear that skepticism to many skeptics is belittling or insulting those who don’t hold the same values as themselves. Interestingly, most of those I’m seeing lately are not questioning accepted opinions, only tearing down those who dare to question the status quo. I’m pro science. That doesn’t mean that I unquestioningly accept every piece of scientific research and discredit every unproven theory. There is a plethora of terrible scientific research out there. Loads of poorly designed and biased studies are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. We also haven’t done all of the science that there is to science so there’s always the possibility that unproven theories will one day be proved. Being a skeptic means questioning everything, not just the non-science, and not just the beliefs held by others. We need to hold ourselves and our beliefs up to the same level of scrutiny as all others.

Insulting other people doesn’t make you a skeptic. It just makes you a jerk.