Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Down with “cake culture”

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Shout out to the Faculty of Dental Surgery at Britain’s Royal College of Surgeons for taking one for the team. At the start of the year they released this statement encouraging workplaces to “cut cake culture”. Which prompted opinion pieces such as this one: Royal College of Surgeons’ warning on ‘cake culture’ leaves sour taste. What a nice change it is to have another profession being smeared as food police. Dietitians welcome you to the club with open arms.

In all seriousness though, as a dietitian and a human who works in an office and who eats food (and even cake), I wholeheartedly support the statement by the Faculty of Dental Surgery. Sugary treats have become the standard in our culture. Many workplaces have cakes for birthdays, retirements, wedding showers, baby showers, holidays, promotions, pretty much any occasion we can come up with. Maybe these celebratory cakes wouldn’t be such a big deal if they weren’t just one piece of a larger ultra-processed excessive food environment. Unfortunately, they are and we can’t just look at a celebratory workplace cake in isolation. We also need to consider the fact that there are other “treats” in the workplace. Food at meetings, well-meaning coworkers bringing in homemade goodies, leftovers from meetings, candy bowls, vending machines, potlucks, rewards of pizza or meals out. These are just the landmines that people must navigate while at work. Outside of work there’s fast food outlets everywhere, there’s food for sale near the checkout in nearly every store (I’m looking at you Canadian Tire, HomeSense, Staples, Bed Bath & Beyond, et al), nearly every social interaction involves food. Workplace cakes are no longer the innocent celebratory treats that they were in the past.

The opinion piece is disdainful of the stance of the Faculty of Dental Surgery on workplace cakes. The author believes that energy would be better spent focusing on workplaces conditions such as that we’re never really “off” or packing people into cubicles like “battery hens”. Also worthy causes but not exactly within the purview of dentists. There’s also the logical fallacy of framing the argument as if one can care about workplace cakes or one can care about “real” problems in workplaces. This doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. I can be concerned about my workplace food environment and other workplace conditions at the same time. The author then goes on to raise additional workplace food environment issues. Certainly proper meal breaks, access to nutritious food, and a culture that values long workdays over productivity and work-life balance are all important concerns. Again, not so much from a dental perspective. However, they along with the “cake culture”, all play a role in our ability to make healthy choices.

Questioning the need to celebrate every occasion with cake is not an attack on women, as much as the author might like us to believe. What’s worse here: offending the fictional Margaret by limiting the number of occasions at which she can bring in cake, or failing to provide a supportive food environment for all staff? Anyhow, if the right approach is taken, there should be no offence caused.

Creating a positive food environment at work can be difficult. Food and emotion and reward are so closely intertwined in our society. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. With time, understanding, and diplomacy it is possible to make real positive change at work. No one should be acting as the food police, and no one should be acting as a food “pusher”. We all need to be more understanding of the fact that for many people a piece of cake is not a simple pleasure.

If you’d like to create a healthy food environment at your workplace, or are just curious about the idea, I highly recommend checking out the Ontario Society of Nutrition Professional’s Toolkit: Creating a Healthy Workplace Nutrition Environment. This toolkit can help you figure out where to start with creating a healthy nutrition environment at work, how to get buy-in, and provide you with many other resources.


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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.