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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Canada’s not-so-innovative strategy to achieve healthy weights

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A few weeks ago, to little fanfare, the government of Canada announced an “Innovation Strategy” to achieve healthy weights in Canada. My coworker alerted me to it and got me going out on a rant on a Friday afternoon. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some good stuff in here: promoting active neighbourhoods to increase access to green spaces and encourage active transportation, promoting traditional foods, and early childhood interventions for priority populations. However, for the most part I was hugely underwhelmed by the strategy.

Most of the initiatives involved some form or other of food charity, such as expanding the community food centre model. While I appreciate the CFCs efforts to improve on the traditional food bank through the addition of cooking programs, gardens, and social inclusion, when it comes down to it, they’re still a charitable organization doing the work that our government should be doing. These programs also still put the onus on the individual to seek out and access the available services, rather than implementing programs that would be universally available. Also, I understand the desire to target people living on low incomes and experiencing food insecurity but I don’t believe that obesity and unhealthy lifestyles are something that only affect that population.

I know that it would be more complicated than throwing some money at some existing programs but I think that there are many things that the government could have chosen to do that would have a much greater impact on the health of Canadians. How about a national school lunch program? This would reach every child in school without stigma and would ensure that children had the nutrition needed to learn and grow. How about bringing back mandatory home economics or teaching food literacy in schools and supporting school gardens? Yes, I realize that the curriculum is under provincial jurisdiction but there must be some way to get this back in schools. That would ensure that all children learned food skills rather than just those attending limited classes. As we know, food skills are lacking across all income levels in Canada and are not just an issue for those living in poverty. How about subsidizing fresh vegetables and fruit making it easier for Canadians to afford these nutritious foods? I know that this one is working its way through government right now, but how about putting a ban on marketing to children? And not just “junk” food but all food as we know that children (and even teens, and let’s face it, adults) are ill-equipped to contend with the marketing abilities of the food industry (possibly more on this next week). How about increasing access to registered dietitians so that people who want to speak with a RD can do so? How about collaborating with doctors, farmers markets, and grocery stores to enable all physicians to “prescribe” vegetables and fruit? These initiatives would have far greater reach and impact than the ones selected by the government. It really makes me wonder who’s informing these decisions there and it enrages me that our governments continue to throw our money at piecemeal initiatives that are unlikely to make any significant long-term change in our health.


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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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Weight Watchers, SNAP, Ultra-processed food, and Front-of package labels: a few short rants

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I have a few things I want to rant about that aren’t really sufficient for full blog posts on their own so I thought I’d do a few mini-posts today.

Weight Watchers

As you’ve probably heard, Weight Watchers announced that they’ll offer free services for teens a few weeks ago. The backlash in the RD community was pretty powerful (check out #wakeupweightwatchers on Twitter). Despite that, I did see a few RDs defending the organization with the argument that overweight and obesity is a health concern for teens and that Weight Watchers has been proven to be effective. While obesity can certainly be a risk factor for a number of chronic diseases, I still don’t think that Weight Watchers is appropriate for teens. While it has been shown to be effective for some adults, there is no evidence to support its efficacy or safety for teens and weight is not the only measure of health (and is not in any manner a measure of worth). I don’t think that it teaches a healthy relationship with food to be considering it in terms of points and weight and I worry that the impact of enrolling a teen in Weight Watchers may be more harmful psychologically and physiologically than beneficial.

SNAP

Apparently the GOP wants to replace some food stamps with a “Harvest Box” that will force “nutritious” foods on recipients. There are soooo many things wrong with this idea. 1. it does not increase food security as providing pre-selected foods to those in need is not allowing them to access food with dignity; 2. dietary needs and preferences vary widely. Will the foods in these boxes be appropriate for men and women and children of all ages and walks of life? Will there be sufficient calories for all ages and lifestyles? What about people who need to consume special diets due to certain conditions (e.g. celiac disease), allergies or intolerances? What about various cultural preferences, religious preferences, or personal preferences? People always complain about “liberals” creating a nanny state but this, this is a true nanny state telling people they are not capable of making their own food choices; 3. This is supposed to save the government money. But when you will now have to source food, package it, and distribute it, as opposed to reloading a debit card I’m really not sure how that will result in any cost savings; 4. What kind of quality will the food be if the point is to save money? I suspect it will not end-up being an improvement over choices people make on their own and there will likely be more food waste due to delivery of unsuitable foods; 5. While assuming the government knows best regarding what people living on limited incomes need the government is perhaps forgetting that people relying on assistance may not have access to all of the kitchen equipment and tools necessary to cook foods provided in these boxes. Not everyone has a full kitchen, power, gas, pots pans, knives, can openers, etc. Time is also often a barrier for people on limited incomes making foods that require lengthy preparation impractical; 6. Has the government consulted with those using SNAP if they would like to receive boxes of preselected food or how they think the system could be improved? A significant issue with many government programs (and many things in general) is that the end user is not consulted making for ineffective and poorly designed services.

Ultra-processed Food

Everyone’s all mad that the classification system for what makes a food ultra-processed isn’t perfect. Yet, we can’t call food “junk food” anymore because that’s offensive even though I don’t think anyone really takes offence to the term and everyone knows what it means. We need some sort of way to categorize food to be able to have meaningful research and discussion. We also need to realise that nothing is perfect and maybe just settle the fuck down and say, “yes, this method has flaws but it’s better than nothing and we will acknowledge that it’s not perfect and deal with it until we have a better way to do things”. Or should we just say eff-it, let the people eat snack cakes?

New Front-of-Package Labels in Canada

Health Canada is currently in the second phase of FOP consultation and you should go have your say. It will only take a few minutes. While they caved to industry and lost the stop sign option, there’s still an opportunity to add your thoughts at the end so, if you want, you can tell them they should make the image more powerful.