Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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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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If I quit meat will I lose weight?

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This article was ALL OVER my twitter feed last week. I couldn’t help but wonder how much truth the headline “To shed pounds, going vegetarian or vegan may help” contained. You know, I have no doubt that it may help. I also have no doubt that it may not help, and that it may not be the only option.

The article states that the study (meta-analysis) concluded that following a vegetarian or vegan diet lead to greater weight loss than following an “average American diet”. At which point I was like “are you kidding me?!!“. Of course following a prescribed vegetarian or vegan diet is going to lead to more weight loss than a terrible diet consisting of heavily processed foods and few vegetables (aka the “average American diet”)! Especially when you’re only looking at the results over the course of the study. We all know that it’s easier to lose weight than it is to keep it off.

I was also left wondering how the authors decided which studies to include in their meta-analysis. There were only 12 studies used and I can’t imagine that there were only 12 studies that met their inclusion criteria. Is it possible that they were “cherry picking”? Someone want to do some pubmed searching and let me know? I don’t really have time for that so I suppose I’ll let them slide on that count and just leave the suggestion out there.

The authors themselves state that at most, the studies lasted for 18 months and it did appear that weight loss on these vegetarian and vegan diets was often not sustained over time. Therefore, while it’s possible that people will initially lose weight on vegetarian and vegan diets they may not keep the weight off over time. This may be due to reverting to normal dietary intake or to increasing consumption upon conclusion of study participation.

While this article tells us that at least 12 studies have shown vegetarian and vegan diets to be effective methods of short-term weight loss it doesn’t tell us if other diets are any more or less effective. There was no comparison made between low carb, high fat, high protein, calorie counting, mindful eating, or any of the kazillion diets that people undertake to lose weight. Perhaps there is an equally, if not more effective way to lose weight. As everyone is different, I would hazard a guess that, while going veg might help one person to lose weight it might not help another. Don’t feel that you have to give-up roast chicken to lose weight, and don’t be discouraged if you give-up meat and don’t see a change on the scale. There are many factors that contribute to weight loss, the consumption of animal products may or may not be one in your case.


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Are mushrooms the new meat?

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How could I resist the headline: 7 simple weight-loss foods? Of course, we all know that there are no magical weight loss foods. Weight loss and management is all about the overall pattern of eating. Eating half a grapefruit before every meal, eating eggs, or blueberries is not necessarily going to mean that you’ll lose weight.

The suggestion that bothered me the most was to swap out meat for mushrooms. I’ve got nothing against mushrooms (cooked, obviously). Nothing against meat either. Certainly, if you’re a frequent meat eater and you start replacing meat with mushrooms, you’re probably going to lose weight. However, mushrooms, despite their meaty texture are not nutritionally comparable to meat and the suggestion that they’re interchangeable concerns me. Go ahead and have a portabello burger or a mushroom lasagne, but bear in mind that those mushrooms aren’t providing you with the protein, iron, vitamin B12, etc that meat does. Ensure that you include other sources of these nutrients in your diet as well as the mushrooms.


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Dietitians sell-out for meat

A friend and fellow dietitian recently send me a PDF of an interesting document: Healthy Food Choices: Good Reasons to Recommend Foods of Animal Origin. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a link directly to the document to share with you. The link I’ve given will take you to the Beef Order Centre where you can download the PDF.

If you’ve been reading for a while you know that I’m not a vegan or vegetarian. However, I don’t eat meat every day, or even every week and you know that I’m no big fan of cow’s milk. This publication rubbed me the wrong way. While it was written by a number of highly credentialed dietitians it was also “prepared through the collaborative efforts of: Beef Information Centre, Canada Pork, Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance, Canadian Egg Marketing Agency, Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council, Chicken Farmers of Canada, Dairy Farmers of Canada”. I think that pretty much covers every animal product marketing board in Canada. How can anyone give much credibility to a document encouraging people to eat more animal products that was essentially developed by the people who make money off the sale of said products?

The arguments they give are that Canadians aren’t consuming enough of certain nutrients (several of the ones listed don’t even come from animal products; i.e. vitamin C, folate, and fibre). In addition Canadians consume too many foods that aren’t part of the food guide (“junk food”), and we aren’t consuming enough from any of the food groups. No mention of the fact that the food guide is inherently flawed and even if it wasn’t, it’s just a guide not gospel.

Even if we’re not eating enough servings from the meat and alternatives food group, or from the milk and alternatives food group (which I’m dubious about) there’s a key word in both food groups that they seem to have over looked: alternatives. Yes, this means that you can eat other (non-animal) foods to fulfill your needs from both food groups. They don’t even mention any of these foods, or the fact that many nutrients contained in animal products are readily available in plant foods and generally speaking, plant foods tend to be healthier than animal foods. I’m usually far more concerned about people consuming too few vegetables and fruits than I am about them consuming too few servings of meat.

Honestly, I think it’s shameful that dietitians would allow their names to be associated with such a publication. Then again, maybe that’s why I can’t find work in my field.