Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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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Do 6 amazing body changes really occur when you give-up carbs?

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This article is nearly two years old now but given that I just saw it shared on social media recently, and the number of evangelical LCHF preachers around, I think it’s worth talking about.

Can we start by discussing that headline? 6 Amazing Body Changes When You Give Up Carbs. Stated as if magical things will occur in your cells, transforming you into a superhuman. Stated as if it’s a given that giving up carbs is the miracle cure for the imperfect vessel of flesh in which you reside. Stated as if these six amazing changes are guaranteed to occur no matter who you are.

So, what are these six amazing changes?

  1. When You Give Up Carbs…You Start Burning Fat

This is not necessarily true. It depends on what you replace the carbs in your diet with. If you replace the carbs in your diet with protein, you’ll burn protein. If you replace the carbs in your diet with fat, you’ll burn fat. If you create a caloric deficit by giving up carbs then you’ll burn fat and probably muscle because you’ll need to get energy to function from somewhere.

2. When You Give Up Carbs…You Feel Less Hungry

If you are creating a caloric deficit by giving up carbs then, sorry, you are going to feel hungry. Reducing your food intake does not immediately result in a reduction in hunger. However, if you are able to maintain a low carb diet and enter into ketosis there is some research that shows you may experience some suppression of appetite.

3. When You Give Up Carbs…Your Belly Gets Flatter

Here the author is stating that your belly will become flatter if you replace simple carbs with high-fibre foods. This is not really a benefit of a low-carb diet, but a benefit of increased fibre intake (and their suggestion to swap white bread for whole grain is certainly not low-carb). However, for many people, increasing fibre can lead to gas and bloating, having the opposite effect of that claimed by the author. That being said, most people should consume more fibre, being sure to increase consumption gradually along with plenty of fluids to avoid blockages. With time, your body will adjust to increased fibre intake.

4. When You Give Up Carbs…You Slash Your Risk of Diabetes

To date, there is no research to support this. While a low-carb diet may help some people with type 2 diabetes control their blood sugar, it doesn’t necessarily work for everyone and there is no data to show that a low-carb diet will prevent diabetes. A balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and regular exercise and physical activity are the best ways to prevent type 2 diabetes. There is no need to go to the extreme and cut out carbs to prevent disease. Also, depending what those carbs are replaced with, you may end-up increasing your risk of developing other chronic diseases.

5. When You Give Up Carbs…Your Muscles Get Stronger

This would only be the case if you were consuming insufficient protein (extremely uncommon in the Western world) before embarking on a low-carb diet. If you are consuming adequate protein, adding more protein will be of no benefit to your muscles. Also, without working your muscles they’re not going to get bigger. You can’t just sit around drinking protein shakes all day and expect to get swole.

6. When You Give Up Carbs…You Feel More Energized

Not all carbs are bad, of course. Your body needs carbohydrates to function properly, and they’re especially important for adequate brain and muscle function. By switching from simple carbs to more long-running fuel—fruits and vegetables, whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa and other whole-grain options—you’ll ensure you have a steady flow of energy and avoid the ups and downs that simple carbs cause.

Way to stick this in the last bullet and undermine the entire premise of the article. This is not a benefit of a low-carb diet. If you are switching from refined simple carbs to complex carbs and whole grains you are simply following that lame old unsexy advice that we dietitians have been repeating for decades.

Let’s not even get into the fact that whole wheat bread has pretty much the same glycemic load as white bread per serving.

I think the author also missed a few other “amazing body changes” that happen when you “give-up” carbs such as, fatigue (which generally goes away after a few days or weeks), flatulence, bad breath, and irritability.

What it comes down to, is that the author is conflating low-carb diets with low-simple carb diets and mixing the claims about the two diets together in this list.

While some people can live happily and healthily on low-carb diets, most people can live (likely more) happily and just as healthily on diets that are not low in carbs.