Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Have you ever “undone” all your hard work at the gym with a burger? This post is for you.

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Have you ever said, or thought, something along the lines of “I cancelled out my workout by eating doughnuts”? How about “I just undid all my work at the gym by having pizza for supper”? Or, “I earned this treat because I ran today”? I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of saying those sorts of things. Many of us probably have. For some reason I seem to have become acutely aware of it recently.

I see articles, blog posts, tweets, overheard conversations, where people make statements like those in the examples above all the time. Since it’s the New Year, I expect that a lot of people are making health and fitness related resolutions. I’ve shat all over such resolutions in the past so I won’t do that again today. Instead of resolving to lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, undergo metamorphosis, perhaps we should consider resolving to shift our mindsets.

The thing is, you’re never cancelling out, undoing, or negating physical activity by eating too much or eating foods that aren’t super healthy. You’re also never earning them by putting in time on the dreadmill. We need to separate the two. Remember when I talked about my problem with many food tracking apps and websites? We often overestimate how many calories we’ve burned during a workout. It’s more than that though. It’s that both exercise and nutrition contribute to our health and well-being but they are both completely separate entities and we need to stop thinking of them as two sides of a scale.

Regardless of what you eat, exercise is still beneficial. Exercise can improve your sleep quality and duration, it can help reduce stress, it’s important for both physical and mental health and can reduce the risk of many diseases. Conversely, regardless of how much you move, a healthy diet is still beneficial. Good nutrition can reduce the risk of many diseases, provide you with energy, can help you recover from injury… Obviously, the two are important contributors to good health. Obviously, you’re going to reap greater benefits if you are both physically active and eat a nutritious diet. However, if you workout and eat a cheeseburger you haven’t then cancelled out your workout. You’ll still be getting some benefits from being active. You’ll still be better off than if you sat on your butt all day and then ate a cheeseburger.

So, stop being so hard on yourself. Stop thinking you’ve failed if you haven’t done an hour of spin and followed that up with a kale salad. Try to separate your thoughts about exercise and your thoughts about nutrition. Your workout happened no matter what you ate afterward. A burger and fries doesn’t erase a swim.


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Can eating chocolate reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes?

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A recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition reportedly showed that regular consumption of chocolate could reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Naturally, I wondered if that was really what the study showed.

Looking at the study, there were a few things that stood out to me. The research was done using a food frequency questionnaire, a notoriously inaccurate measure of diet. Besides the fact that this measure is often inaccurate, is the fact that we couldn’t tell if it distinguished between types of chocolate consumed. While the authors made much of the potential link between polyphenols in chocolate and reduced risk of T2 diabetes, we don’t know if the study actually looked at types of chocolate that were rich in polyphenols. By the article, we can’t tell if they made any distinction between dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate bars, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, and so on. Without accounting for different types of chocolate (many of which contain negligible quantities of polyphenols) there’s no way to attribute the reduced risk of T2 diabetes to the consumption of polyphenol-rich chocolate.

Perhaps more importantly though, there’s no way we can draw any conclusions regarding causation. This wasn’t a longitudinal study so we don’t know if people who have T2 diabetes are avoiding eating chocolate (quite plausible) or if there’s some other reason why people who eat chocolate are less likely to have T2 diabetes than people who don’t.

I also wondered about the true significance of the results. For that I consulted with my math expert, Scott. His take was that the sample size wasn’t very large and that it was limited to Luxembourg. This makes it difficult to generalize the results to populations outside of Luxembourg, for example, North America, as there could be other differences between Canadians and Americans and Luxembourgians (is that the right term?) that would make it impossible to apply the findings to our population.

He also said:

Although they followed proper testing and analysis, I’d be concerned about variables that they did not include in this study, such as location and what might be in their environment or particular diet (food items not mentioned) that may distinguish this sample from say a sample in North America. I am also wary anytime the analysis includes a questionnaire or feedback rather than pure conclusions based on observed tests and results. As you well know from interviewing people at stats can, there are more than admitted “fake” stats and responses… Yes, I do see a correlation between the two, I would require further testing to be conclusive on the hypothesis.

I followed up this analysis by asking him if he thought the standard deviations were of concern. To my untrained eye, I thought that it was possible that the range for each result was large enough that there might, in actuality, be no real difference between each group. Scott said:

I would support that claim, you would want the SD to be much closer to the mean than those results. I suspect the SD would fluctuate with any other sample size tested under those conditions.

And there you have it. While it’s possible that there’s a reduced risk of having diabetes to chocolate consuming Luxembourgians, there’s more research to be done before anything definitive, especially for other populations, can be concluded.


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Have Millennials bucked the obesity trend?

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Something about this article rubbed me the wrong way. And it wasn’t just the ever-shifting arbitrary generation names. But, I have to say, it drives me nuts. I remember when I was just entering my teens, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X came out. Generation X was definitely older than me. Years later, my youngest brother fell into Generation Y, and I was left in some weird void between X and Y. Now, somehow, my brothers are both Millennials, I’m a Gen Xer, and Generation Y has vanished. I just don’t understand how the names and categorization of generations can keep changing. Anyway… End rant one.  Onto the more topical rant for a nutrition blogger.

The article states that a new report shows that Millennials are the only generation (relative to Generation Xers and Baby Boomers) to have bucked the obesity trend. Yes, despite Millennials reporting higher alcohol and cigarette consumption, and lower fruit and vegetable consumption in comparison to the other two currently existing generations.

Apparently Millennials have an obesity rate of 20%, compared to 32% and 33% amongst Gen Xers and Boomers, respectively. Which would seem to be good news on the surface. Is it really though? I’m not sure it has much meaning at all. Most people gain weight as they age so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see the rates amongst Millennials (provided they don’t keep shifting the damn generations around) increase in a few years.

The article also raises the important point that weight is not necessarily an indicator of health. So what if Millennials aren’t overweight. If they’re leading unhealthy lifestyles I’d say that’s more of a concern than their weight. I’d also hazard a guess that Gen Xers would have lead similarly unhealthy lifestyles, and had lower (than they currently do) rates of obesity when they were the age that Millennials are now.

Then, when I see the way they determined how healthily everyone eats, I wondered about the entire survey. This is what was asked: if they “ate healthy all day yesterday”. That’s so subjective as to be completely meaningless. For one person eating healthy all day might mean eating a plant-based diet. If they also ate some ice cream or chocolate or chips did that mean they didn’t eat “healthy all day”? What about the avid Bulletproof coffee, protein shake drinking person? The juice faster? Or the person who thinks that the salads at McDonald’s are healthy? I just don’t see responses to this question as being meaningful.

So, let’s not get too excited about Millennials beating the obesity crisis or whatever. Let’s focus more on figuring out how to get more people to the place where they’re leading healthier lifestyles and survey makers away from subjective judgemental questions about how healthy people ate on the previous day.


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Only the thin die young

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I’m all for looking at overweight and obesity in new ways. I absolutely believe that it’s possible to be overweight and healthy. I am, however, sick of seeing claims that being overweight is protective against death. The implication being that those of us who are “healthy” weights are actually more likely to die than those who are slightly overweight.

Yet another article came out last week touting the headline: People deemed overweight may actually have a lower risk of dying than those who are healthy, study says. The fact that we’re all going to die notwithstanding there are other significant issues with such claims.

To start, I’d like to take exception to the headline itself. Who writes these things? If they had inserted weight after “healthy” it would have made quite a difference. As it’s written it implies that “healthy” and “overweight” are two discrete mutually exclusive categories. This is not the case. It’s entirely possible to be overweight and healthy. It’s entirely possible to be “healthy” weight and unhealthy.

Now that, that’s out of the way, let’s get to the bigger problems with the study results, as covered in the news article. When people are ill, especially mortally ill, they often lose weight. As a result, when looking at death rates and weight it’s incredibly difficult to tease these issues apart. Thus, claims that being overweight protecting against death are essentially meaningless and potentially detrimental. I say detrimental, because if people are dissuaded from eating healthily and exercising regularly by the suggestion that it’s healthier for them to be overweight then it’s quite likely that their health will suffer. We also know that many chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension can be better managed with weight loss, following a balanced diet, and incorporating regular physical activity. While it’s possible that being overweight is actually protective, it’s more likely that the apparent association between lower weight and death is a result of weight loss during illness.

The other significant problem with the claim that overweight is protective against death is that it doesn’t take into consideration quality of life. Many people who are overweight will be prescribed various medications to keep related conditions in-check. This may result in a longer lifespan than someone who’s “healthy” weight who, because of appearing to be in good health (as a result of the conflation of overall health and healthy weight) may go without similar treatment. The “healthy” weight individuals may lead shorter but higher quality lives without the side effects of medications (i.e. they may have shorter lifespans but longer healthspans).

To sum it up: yes, you can be healthy and overweight. You can also be unhealthy. Ditto for both for “healthy” weight. Regardless of your weight the best way to ensure that you lead the longest healthiest life possible is by taking care of yourself.

 


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Mars has a new health (read: marketing) initiative

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Not having internets yet (we moved last weekend) has put a cramp in the blogging. Sorry for leaving you all post-less on Wednesday. I’m currently posted up at my fave local cafe with a pina colada tart and a vat of coffee, using the wifi, the sacrifices I make for you guys ;)

Have you heard that Mars Food has launched a “global wellness initiative”? This Health and Wellbeing Ambition will ostensibly develop and promote healthier food choices. Skeptical? Yeah, me too. I’d love to think that this would be effective but I’m inclined to think that it’s more lip-service and marketing than a genuine concern for the health and well being of people.

The key changes that they’ll be making include:

  • providing consumer guidance on the package
  • changing the Mars Food website to include a list of “occasional” products (those to be enjoyed once per week) and a list of “everyday” products
  • reducing added sugar (in a limited number of sauces and light meals by 2018) and sodium (an average of 20 percent by 2021) and adding vegetables and whole grains
  • expanding multi-grain options so that half of all rice products include whole grains and/or legumes; and will also ensure that all tomato-based jar products include a minimum of one serving of vegetables

Honestly, I don’t see any of these “changes” being dramatic or making a significant different in the health of consumers. I’m curious what the consumer guidance on the packaging will look like. However, I can’t imagine anyone going to the Mars website to check to see how often they should be consuming chocolate bars. It’s not the Ben’s rice that’s having a negative impact on peoples health (well, I guess that depends on the individual, but generally speaking…). It’s the incredibly inexpensive chocolate bars (yes, that’s only one piece of a complicated puzzle) that are available everywhere in prominent displays.

Just as a bit of an aside, tomato sauces will include a minimum of one serving of vegetables?! What sauces are these that they don’t already? Unless they’re increasing the serving size, there’s no way that this can be achieved by simply adding more vegetables. It’s the sort of statement that sounds good until you actually think about it. At which point you realise that all of the statements made by Mars are that sort of statement. Designed to make the company look good without making any real significant effort or meaningful change.