Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Top 10 food and medicine myths brought to you by Big Food and Big Pharma

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Image by publik15 on flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

I know that everyone was rejoicing recently because Natural News was blacklisted from Google search results. However, it seems that such jubilation was a tad premature. Natural News wasn’t disappeared because of its propensity for propagating fake news and it’s right back in Google searches less than a month later. So, I feel that it’s worthwhile to respond to some of the nonsense that they’re spouting.

This article on the Top 10 Food and Medicine Myths You Probably Fell for at Some Point  particularly amused me due to the suggestion that “Big Food” and “Big Pharma” are in bed together. As if somehow there’s a conspiracy in which farmers, food manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies have some sort of stone-cutters type secret society. At their top secret meetings they’re supposedly conspiring to make us all sick while cramming more of our hard earned dollars into their overflowing deep pockets.

Let’s take a look at each of the ten myths…

  1. Milk… It does a body good. According to Natural News, drinking milk is bad because we’re the only species to drink it past infancy, and from (gasp) another animal; it’s just “not natural”. The truth: I think I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating that we’re the only species to do a LOT of things: cook our food, wear clothes, watch tv, etc.
  2. Red meat is worse for your body than chicken, turkey, or pig. Their argument being that ALL meat is bad for us. The truth: Plant-based diets may be healthier, but not all meats are created equal. Processed and red meat are linked with slightly higher cancer rates than is poultry. Not all meat is raised and slaughtered under inhumane conditions. This is just fear mongering. If you’re concerned about the origins of your meat, know your farmer.
  3. Organic canola is a healthy choice. I’ll concede that they make a good point here by saying that “everything is organic is not healthy”. However, the arguments canola comes from “toxic” rapeseed and canola contains trans-fat from processing don’t hold weight. The truth: Canola is bred to be low in erucic acid (the toxic component of rapeseed). It’s also high in mono- and poly-unsaturated fats (1). Liquid oils do not contain trans-fat.
  4. Organic soy (that’s unfermented) is good for you. The arguments here are so out-to-lunch that I’m not even sure how to address them. Supposedly, big food and big pharma are pushing organic soy products on us for some undisclosed nefarious reason. Supposedly soy contributes to a whole host of health problems. The truth: Unless you have a soy allergy, or are on thyroid medication, there’s no reason to worry about soy. Despite the prevalent belief that soy causes breast cancer, the evidence shows that soy consumption is actually more likely to decrease risk, than to increase it (2).
  5. Vaccines no longer contain mercury (thimerosal), and the CDC even says so. The truth: Thimerosal is still used in flu vaccines, but no routine childhood vaccines. It’s outside my scope as a dietitian to provide advice about vaccines but I’m fairly confident that having polio or small pox would be much worse than any risk of being vaccinated.
  6. Chemotherapy is the best chance to beat cancer once you’ve been diagnosed. According to Natural News, your chance of survival is 2.3% on chemo and there are loads of successful natural remedies such as garlic and baking soda. The truth: your chance of survival depends on many factors such as the type of cancer and early diagnosis. Chemo and radiation may be awful but they are the most effective treatments to date. Natural “remedies” are not effective.
  7. Many cancer cases are inherited in our genes from our parents or their parents. Supposedly we’re told this to prevent us from seeking out natural remedies. The truth: Why would the cause influence the treatment? Regardless of the source, natural “remedies” are not effective.
  8. There is no cure for cancer. More of the same. The truth: STOP FALLING FOR THIS BULLSHIT. THERE IS NO BIG CONSPIRACY HIDING THE CURE FOR CANCER.
  9. The FDA and CDC function in the best interest of American consumers by inspecting food and medicine for dangerous substances. Again, there is a big conspiracy and Big Pharma is running the show. The truth: Sure, the FDA and CDC may not always be effective but there is no larger conspiracy against Americans.
  10. Fluoride in toothpaste and tap water helps humans keep their teeth strong and free of decay. We’re supposed to watch some video that will tell us “the truth”. The truth: fluoride is effective in reducing tooth decay.


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Should feminists stay out of the kitchen?

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I read this article the other day and it made me go back and take a look at the post I wrote a little while back about how we need to stop glorifying the inability to cook.

The article is about how “real women” are still expected to cook and examines the role of women in sitcoms and cooking shows. It made me wonder if my original take was sexist. Did I only talk about women? I was certainly thinking about female characters like Lorelai Gilmore and Olivia Pope. I did also think about the importance of showing men cooking but maybe I didn’t make that very clear. I definitely didn’t think about the possibility that showing women who were incapable of cooking (or at least unwilling to cook) was actually a feminist act. And I really have mixed feelings about it right now.

I do not believe that a woman belongs in the kitchen. I do not think that it’s a woman’s measure of worth to serve the men and children in their lives. I don’t think that we all need to love cooking or spend as much time doing it as I do. However, I wonder if making a refusal to cook is truly a feminist act or more an instance of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It may be levelling the playing field to have both men and women out of the kitchen but I think that’s more bringing everyone down a level rather than lifting everyone up.

As I said in my previous post, cooking is an important life skill. Food literacy is as important as any other form of literacy. What we prepare for ourselves is generally going to be more nutritious and less calorically dense than food we purchase ready-made and from restaurants. It’s better for us and better for our wallets. It doesn’t have to mean hours of slaving over a hot stove. A good home cooked meal can be as quick and simple as a vegetable frittata or stir-fry; ready in under 30 minutes.

We should be encouraging more people to get in the kitchen, not glorifying culinary ineptitude. On television we should be showing both men and women cooking for themselves, for their families, for their friends, and show children helping in the kitchen. In real life, we should be advocating to have mandatory home ec reinstated in schools. We (both women and men) should be taking the effort to prepare nourishing meals for ourselves because we are all worthy of good nutrition.


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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.