Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Is it possible that chocolate milk actually saved Andrew Scheer’s son’s life?

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The other evening I was alerted to the latest absurdity in politicizing things that should not be politicized by an Instagram story posted by a fellow RD (thanks Pamela). I promptly went on a rant to my poor boyfriend and the fetus who made a valiant effort to escape my rage by pushing through my belly. This is precisely why I’m taking a break from twitter. It took some deep breaths and a chapter of a book to calm me down enough to go to sleep. So, now I’m going to dredge it all up and rant to you.

Okay, so this is probably old news by the time you’re reading this but I still need to get it all out. Did you see the utterly absurd news story about the esteemed federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaking at the Dairy Farmers’ of Canada annual meeting? If not, you can check it out for yourself. Highlights include his pledge to review the new Food Guide. Why? Because, according to him, “the process was flawed” and there was a “complete lack of consultation”. Are you shitting me Andrew?!!! There was SO MUCH consultation. I know this because I, like any other Canadian, was able to participate in the process. I’m not sure where he came up with the idea that there was no consultation but I’m pleased to see our Health Minister Ginette Petitpas calling him out for “spreading lies”. Maybe his issue was that industry and lobby groups were not invited to the table. However, they were all perfectly welcome to provide input in the same manner as anyone else in Canada, and boy did they attempt to use their clout to influence the process.

Scheer then proceeded to claim that “chocolate milk saved my son’s life”. I know you want to win over the farmers buddy but that is an utterly absurd comment. Apparently his son was a “picky eater” and somehow the consumption of chocolate milk was the only thing that saved him from imminent death. I mean, come on. If your child is only eating toast, bacon, and “very plain grilled meats” as Scheer claimed then chocolate milk ain’t gonna save his life. This is just another shining example of someone who thinks they’re an expert in nutrition because they eat. If your child is a “picky eater” may I be so bold as to suggest working with a registered dietitian to promote life-long healthy eating habits before stocking up your fridge with chocolate milk.

That’s not even the best part though, he went on to say that, “The idea that these types of products that we’ve been drinking as human beings and eating as human beings for millennia — that now all of a sudden they’re unhealthy — it’s ridiculous.” Um… We haven’t been drinking chocolate milk (at least not as we know it now) for millennia but let’s assume he meant milk in general. Nowhere in the new guide does it advise against drinking milk. No one from Health Canada has claimed that milk is “unhealthy”. Milk, and dairy, are still included in the Food Guide. I’d also like to note that there are many people in the world who are unable to digest the lactose in milk or who suffer from milk allergies or who choose not to consume dairy products and who somehow manage to live long healthy lives without the regular consumption of chocolate milk.

I find it completely enraging that the current brand of Conservative seems to think that the best thing they can do is to undo everything that the previous Liberal government has done before them. In addition, it is unconscionable that politicians are politicizing our health and well-being. Evidence-based measures, policies, and healthcare should be non-partisan issues and politicians should not be sacrificing the welfare of the residents of Canada in order to win votes from industry groups.


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Is milk out?

I’ve been hearing a number of complaints and concerns about the new Food Guide. The one I’ve been hearing the most is that “dairy is out”. I’d like to dispel that. No, dairy is not “out”. Yes, the “milk and alternatives” food group is gone; as is “meat and alternatives” but milk and dairy products still fit within the protein group in the new guide.

The Food Guide now recommends a proportion-based approach to eating, rather than a more prescriptive portion-based approach. Rather than telling you how many servings of each food group to have every day, and how big a serving is, the new guide simply advises you make half your plate vegetables (and fruit), one quarter protein foods, and the other quarter whole grains. It promotes consuming plant-based protein foods “more often”. This is pretty subjective and should – in theory – make it a lot easier for people to adopt. For some people this may mean consuming plant-based protein foods in larger amounts than animal-based proteins. For others, this may mean consuming plant-based sources of protein more often than they usually do. In a country that’s extremely meat-centric this could mean something as simple as adding more beans to a chili and cutting back on the meat slightly.

I’d also like to point out that given that a quarter of your plate should be devoted to protein foods you can easily mix and match to your heart’s content. This might mean that you have lentils and salmon (like I did last night), cheese and bean casserole, tofu and chicken, etc. It might mean that at one meal your protein comes from milk or meat but that at another it comes from legumes or nuts. Snacks can (and generally should) also include a source of protein. If you eat three meals and two snacks a day this means that there are ample opportunities for you to consume protein from a variety of foods, including milk products if you desire.

Personally, I think that having a food group specifically for milk (and alternatives) was unwarranted and I’m glad to see it go. There are many people who can’t consume milk products (due to lactose intolerance or an allergy) as well as those who choose not to and it is entirely possible to consume a nutritious diet without the inclusion of milk. For those who are concerned about where people will get their vitamin D and calcium from without milk products there are other food sources of these nutrients.

Vitamin D is pretty near impossible to consume enough of through food sources alone anyway, at least during the winter months in Canada and Health Canada recommends all adults over the age of 50 take a supplement of 400 IU/d. I’d also like to point out that milk is fortified with vitamin D as are most plant-based milk alternatives (always check the label to be sure). Other food sources of vitamin D include: egg yolks, salmon and other fatty fish, some meats, and other fortified foods which may include things such as orange juice and cereal.

Non-dairy food sources of calcium include: dark leafy greens (like spinach, collards, and kale), soy beverage, canned fish (eat those bones!), tofu (if prepared with calcium), beans, nuts, seeds, and even blackstrap molasses.

If you are concerned that you may not be meeting your nutrient needs through your diet I recommend keeping a food journal and making an appointment with a registered dietitian.


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Do dietitians follow the Food Guide?

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The above inane tweet last week prompted me to post a couple of tweets in which I screamed into the void about a) people not following dietary guidelines anyway and b) weight not being indicative of health. Which then lead to me posting the following poll:

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Obviously, this is a completely unscientific poll but it does show that the majority (83%) of RDs who responded do not generally follow the dietary guidelines for their respective counties. This could be for any number of reasons. Most didn’t respond with a reason. Those who did said that they weren’t big on fruit of dairy or the carbs (that’s the grains food group) are too high. Personally, I suspect that some days I’m low in vegetable and fruit consumption or milk and alternatives. Other days I’m definitely over. And if I’m being completely honest, I have something from that “other” food group (aka sometimes foods) on the daily.

The truth is, the Food Guide is just a guide. It’s not a bible. It’s intended to provide people with all of the nutrients and energy they need to be healthy and active but everybody is different. We all have different needs and preferences. I know that people really like to rag on dietitians and say that all we do is preach the food guide but I’m here to rain on that parade. Dietitians are people too and we enjoy food for more reasons than just as fuel. We are not robots that run on kale and quinoa. I think that most of us think that the food guide could be improved (and fingers crossed it will be whenever they finally come out with the new version) but we also know that it’s just meant to be a tool.

Food Guides are meant to guide people toward nutritious food choices. They encourage a variety of foods from all of the food groups. The overall message that people should be taking from a food guide is that there are healthy choices in all the food groups and eliminating any one food group may result in deficiencies. Also, that eating only one type of food from each food group (e.g. lettuce as your only veg or bread as your only grain) is not going to provide you with all of the nutrients that you need. However, it’s also important to listen to your own body and nourish it accordingly. If you’re not hungry don’t sweat the fact that you’ve only had 5 servings of vegetables or 4 servings of grains. Conversely, if you’re extra hungry one day, don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to the servings recommended in the Food Guide.

Healthy eating really doesn’t have to be complicated or rigid. In fact, if you think that you’re eating healthily and you’re finding that it is complicated or rigid then you diet (or relationship with food) probably isn’t all that healthy after all.


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The Food Guide needs to rise above dietary dogma

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A while ago I remember reading an article by some doctors about how the updated Canada’s Food Guide should be promoting a low-carb, high-fat (LCHF) diet. Then last week there was another article about a “prominent Ontario doctor” who asserts that the new Food Guide is being based on “very bad science”. And I’m just so frustrated that doctors, who we all know receive minimal nutrition education, are getting so much press for their self-serving misinformed opinions.

First of all, these doctors all serve to benefit if their particular dietary dogma is promoted. The doctors pushing the LCHF agenda make a living by putting people on this diet. The doctor who said the new Food Guide is based on “very bad science” and should instead contain specific diet recommendations (e.g. low-fat, DASH, LCHF) has received money from the Dairy Farmers of Canada in the past (and as we know, they are highly opposed to the potential shift from the current Food Guide food groupings).

Secondly, they seem to have a poor grasp of population health and the purpose of a national food guide. When we’re talking about population health we’re talking about improving the health of the entire population. We are not trying to address specific medical concerns of illnesses. We’re also not trying to put the entire country on a weight loss diet, which seems to be the perspective that these physicians are taking. Similar to the daily recommended intakes for vitamins and minerals, which are based on the average amount that a healthy person requires each day, the food guide is intended to promote a healthy dietary pattern for most healthy Canadians. Obviously we are all different and our needs and optimal diets will vary, hence the fact that this is called a guide. It’s not a prescriptive diet, it’s one size fits most with some personal tweaking, not one size fits all straight off the rack. It’s not meant to address every, or actually any, disease states. That’s why we have dietitians and doctors and primary healthcare to help individuals with specific health concerns. It’s meant to promote a healthy pattern of eating among as much of the population as possible. It’s not at all, “picking a specific dietary plan for all Canadians is the wrong approach and that, like all clinical processes, treatment should be considered based on individual patient needs” as the doctor in the second article said. It’s providing general guidance on healthy food choices for those who aren’t in need of clinical treatment.

The narrow focus on clinical care and treatment in the realm of healthcare does a disservice to us all. As does the medicalization of eating. In order to promote health and wellness in our communities and country we need to move back upstream and start preventing the need for many doctor visits, hospital stays, and medications. That sort of thing is achieved through population-based measures that address the social determinants of health and general guidelines such as Canada’s Food Guide.


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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.