Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Local Food Week: a dairy farmer

Today’s guest post comes from Jen Christie, a dairy farmer in Ontario. We connected on twitter a little while ago. She’s been a great supporter of my blog so I was happy to hear that she was interested in writing a guest post for Local Food Week when I put out the call a few weeks ago. She also sent me a bunch of amazing photos (with captions!) to choose from to include with her post. I couldn’t choose just one so my apologies for the inundation of images today. Hey, it’s Friday :) For more from Jen, you can find her blogging at Savvy Farmgirl or follow her on Twitter @SavvyFarmgirl.


My nieces helping feed hay in the new dairy barn.

Note: Even with all my travel, work and volunteering, my favourite place to be is still the farm. 

This post is a tribute to my family who works day-in, day-out and encourages me share their story through social media even though I’m not there alongside them everyday. It’s because of them I’m so passionate about agriculture.

Why do we farm? It’s a question my family has talked about a lot lately as consumers, environmental groups and government put increasing pressure on how we farm. For us, the answer is simple, although the work itself is typically not so much.


My brother getting ready to combine corn in the fall. If it snows early, sometimes we have to combine in the snow to get the crop off.

We love growing crops and producing milk for Canadians to enjoy. It’s in our blood. Our farm has been in my family since my dad’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1800’s. My mom grew up on a farm, which my Opa purchased after leaving his farm in Holland after the war. It’s been said that farmers grow roots in their land, and for my family, I believe this is true.

We are passionate about farming, and it’s nearly impossible to say what we we love most. When we talk about why we farm, my mom and dad and brothers will all name different reasons, then all agree with each other. Watching seeds sprout from the ground and then each day growing taller. Helping a new calf into the world. Listening to cows happily “munch” on hay at dusk. The satisfaction at the end of a hard day, feeling you did something.


My brother helps his 5-year-old daughter wash her calf so she can take it to the local fair. Growing up, we all participated in local fairs, showing a different calf each year in 4-H.

The list is endless and among these reasons, there are also differences between my parents and brothers.

My dad loves the challenge of trying to breed the “perfect cow”. He started with a few dairy and beef cows from his parents and over the past forty years he grew our herd to 150 cows, with each generation getting better and better.


My parents work together to roll out a bale of hay for the heifers. The hay is grown on our farm and baled into round bales or large, rectangular-shaped bales. 

By contrast, my youngest brother loves using data to make better decisions about cow care. We built a new barn two years ago and our cows are milked with a robot. The 60 cows we milk visit the robot whenever they wish, and the robot collects information he then uses to care for each one individually. Cow “Fit Bits” even tell him when a cow may be sick by monitoring her eating and walking habits!


My brother sorts milk samples the robot has taken to test each cow’s milk quality.

My other brother loves being in the field. He loves big tractors and equipment and yes, probably some days, it seems he’s just a big kid playing with his toys. Behind the scenes though, he is always planning and trying to find ways to be more sustainable. He experiments with cover crops and is constantly striving to improve soil health, while also maintaining the amount of soybeans or wheat he produces.


My nephew watches as we unload soybeans from the combine into the wagon. From there they are either stored for feed on our farm or trucked to a company who will export them.

Finally, my mom is fiercely proud of the calves she raises. She ensures they get a good start, paying close attention to each one of them as they grow up. She considers it our duty to produce a quality product which will make great butter, ice cream and cheese. She has done so, alongside my dad everyday for over thirty-five years, with rarely a holiday or a break. (I can count on one hand how many vacations we took as kids.)

Common for everyone is the opportunity to raise their family on the farm. Growing up on the farm served me well, teaching me the value of hard work, respect and compassion among other things. My brothers’ kids are following in our footsteps. At only 2, my youngest niece asks to go to the barn every night and her older brother knows the name of every piece of equipment. My oldest niece can explain to any visitor how the robot works and what we feed our calves and she is only 6!

It’s not all rosy though. Weather is always the biggest variable and of course, we have no control over it. Luckily, in Ontario we get pretty consistent heat and rain and we don’t experience the extreme droughts or hail Western Canadian farmers get. Equipment breaks and everything goes on hold to fix it. Cows get sick and sometimes even the vet can’t figure out why. It’s heartbreaking to lose an animal and it will often weigh on our minds when we do.

Then, there is the cost of operation. For us, land and quota are our biggest expenses. To continue supporting 3 families, we need to be able to grow. To make the cost more manageable, we try to add a little more land or a few more cows each year.

Despite the long days and heartbreak that comes with farming, my family wouldn’t do anything else. We love what we do and we love being part of a small community where everyone knows each other and pitches in to help.

For us, every week is “local food week” because the strength of our small town depends on its citizens buying from local businesses and participating in local events. We are grateful that Canadians buy our dairy products everyday and the least we can do is pay this forward by buying local and buying Canadian.


The milk truck comes every other day to pick up our milk for processing into butter, cheese, ice cream, and pasteurized milk. 

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A closer look at the full-fat dairy prevents T2 diabetes study


Image by Roey Ahram on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence

Findings of a study suggesting that full-fat dairy products might be protective against the development of T2 diabetes hit the news recently. Of course, you know me, I was curious if the research was sound.

One of the primary authors holds a patent for the use of trans-palmitoleic acid (one of the common fatty acids in dairy products) for the prevention and treatment of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and related conditions. Right off the bat, there’s a red flag as it stands to benefit the author if he can support the assertion that high-fat dairy (or at least one fatty acid in dairy) can treat T2 diabetes.

I thought that it was interesting that they chose to use circulating fatty acid biomarkers as determination for consumption of full fat dairy products. This sounds like a better idea than the typical self-reported food frequency questionnaire. However, I wondered how accurate such a measure is. It seems that I wasn’t the only one with such a concern. When I searched to find out the accuracy of the use of such biomarkers I came across a letter to the editor expressing concern that some of the FA biomarkers used could also be attributed to fish consumption. Some of the FAs used in this study can also come from other meats, so may not all be attributable to dairy consumption. It seems that there are some additional limitations to use of biomarkers in research as lifestyle and disease state factors may affect metabolism and the resulting presence (or absence) of such biomarkers. Essentially, while the use of biomarkers may seem objective, they may not tell the full story. I also question how long biomarkers such of these remain present in the blood following consumption of dairy foods. Would they be indicative of long-term diet patterns or simply of having recently consumed high-fat dairy? Not being knowledgable in the area of biomarker research I can’t answer this question so it may or may not be worth raising.

Importantly, to account for potential confounding variables, the researchers used self-reported physical activity and food frequency questionnaires. Thus, there is always the potential that there might be another cause for the development (or prevention) of T2 diabetes in study participants.

There are also concerns regarding the actual study participants. The researchers used participants in the Nurses Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. These participants, health professionals, may not be reflective of the general population so generalization of the results to all Americans, or those in other countries is not necessarily possible.

I’m also not convinced that, while statistically significant (where is my personal statistician?*), the results hold any real-life meaning. The number of cases of T2 diabetes diagnosed in all study participants wasn’t huge so a 36-44% risk in reduction, while sounding massive, might not translate to a huge decrease in risk in actuality.

*After writing this, I had a friend with an advanced math degree offer to take a look at the original research for me (thanks Scott!). Here’s what he had to say:

My only concern with the data is the sample size of 3,333 which is not that large considering the amount of variables that they are accounting for. More variables the more likelihood of outliers that may not be actual outliers, but the sample size is so small it appears that way. However, they seemed to have introduced enough controls in their testing to reduce the risk.

What does all this mean? Basically, don’t go crazy on high-fat dairy products just yet. However, as you should only be eating a couple of servings of dairy a day anyway, you should go with foods that you enjoy. Why not have a variety of foods; maybe low-fat milk on your cereal, but full-fat yoghurt for a snack? Variety is the spice of life.



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Is skim milk healthier than whole milk?


Last week Fooducate published a blog post answering (?) the question: Which is healthier for me: Skim or whole milk? Their response boiled down to “it depends”, can you afford the extra calories in whole milk or not? Which is certainly a part of the answer, but definitely not the whole (pardon the pun, you know I can’t resist) answer. So, what is the answer? Sadly, I don’t have the answer either, but I can give you a little bit more information than Fooducate did so that you can decide for yourself.

Fooducate mentions that lower fat milk options often have more sugar. This is not the case. Skim milk and whole milk both contain roughly 12 grams of sugar per cup (1, 2). When you get into chocolate milk and all of those bizarrely flavoured milks like Crispy Crunch or banana, yes, those will have more sugar than plain old white milk. This is the case regardless of fat content; it just so happens that most commercially available flavoured milks are low fat or skim. It can safely be said that white milk is better for you than chocolate. I’m not saying that you can’t ever have chocolate milk, it shouldn’t be considered a healthy dietary staple though. Treat chocolate milk like a liquid chocolate bar.

Fooducate focussed on macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. What they fail to look at is micronutrients. When comparing fortified skim and whole milk they are very similar on the vitamin and mineral front. The difference lies in the bioavailability of these nutrients. Fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) need fat for your body to absorb them. If you’re having a glass of milk with a meal that contains another source of fat, awesome, you’ll get those vitamins. However, if you’re eating a bowl of SpecialK for breakfast topped with skim milk then you’re not going to be getting as many nutrients out of that milk (or that fortified cereal) as you would if you used whole or 2% milk. Just because the nutrients are on the label doesn’t mean your body’s able to utilize them.

I’m not saying that everyone should go whole hog and drink milk. Heck, you don’t even need milk to have a healthy diet. The type of milk you should consume really depends on your personal preference, what else you’re consuming milk with, your overall diet, and your personal goals.


Got lactose intolerance? More dairy is the answer! (The role of industry in education)


Last week I participated in a webinar about “dairy’s role in lactose intolerance”. It was presented by Today’s Dietitian and sponsored by Danone. This is a shining example of why industry should not have a place at the table in nutrition education and policy.

The first part of the presentation was fine. It was a review of lactose intolerance prevalence, methods of diagnosing lactose intolerance, symptoms, and so on. Of course, the importance of dairy products in a nutritious diet was impressed upon us. This, despite the fact that they aren’t truly necessary. Yes, dairy can be an easy source of protein, calcium, B12, and vitamin D (this because it’s added, not naturally occurring in dairy) but it’s still possible to obtain these nutrients from other foods.

The second part was where I started to get really annoyed. I should have expected it. It was a webinar developed by dietitians working for Danone but the blatant bias still irritated me. It was discussed how much lactose could be tolerated by those who are lactose intolerant (apparently about 12 grams in a sitting). Recommendations by the NMA (National Medical Association) apparently state that even those suffering from lactose intolerance should still aim to consume three servings of dairy products each day. Their recommendations include: gradually increasing exposure to lactose-containing foods, including low-lactose dairy products such as yoghurt and lactose-free milk, and using lactase enzyme supplements. No suggestion of alternative sources of the nutrients that are available in dairy products. Nope.

I think my favourite slide was the one listing a number of milk alternatives; such as, almond, coconut, soy, and rice “milks”. Descriptions that make them all sounds ever so appealing were used. Soy milk “Off-white/yellowish color”, rice milk “watery texture”. No mention of the nutritional aspects of the milk alternatives. Funny, as in at least one aspect, they are inferior, they all contain significantly less protein than cow’s milk. I think that presenting the nutrition information would have been much more informative than presenting subjective descriptions. I’m of the mind that it’s much better to let people make up their own minds as to whether or not they like a food and I’m pretty disappointed that a presentation by a fellow dietitian would disparage foods based on their own subjective opinion.

Finally, there’s part three of the presentation “lactose-intolerant friendly dishes”. Every single one of these dishes contain dairy. Good grief. My personal fave, “cheesy guacamole” containing both cottage cheese and cheddar cheese. Um… Since when does guacamole contain cheese??? Why on earth would suggested recipes for lactose-intolerant individuals take a naturally lactose-free dish and add lactose? And this is why many people don’t take dietitians seriously. Sigh.


No big fat surprise that butter is being touted as the next Superfood


Why, oh why must we take everything to the extreme? Is it because simple healthy eating is boring? We have to have “clean eating”, “superfoods”, “low-fat”, “low-carb”, “cleanses”, “high-protein”, yada yada. The latest mantra to irk me “slather on the butter”. I know, I know, I said it first “real dietitians eat butter”. But this doesn’t mean that we have to eat it to excess. What am I on about now? An article in the Daily Mail that I came across on the weekend: Can eating fatty meat, whole milk and lashings of butter help you LOSE weight?

Okay, most of us in the nutrition world have accepted that low-fat was a grievous error. Taking anything to the extreme is a nutritional error. Just because something is not “bad” for you, or even good for you, doesn’t mean that you should consume more of it. The logic seems to go: apples are delicious and nutritious; therefore, an entire bag of them must be even better. In this case, we’re not even referring to foods that we know to be healthy when consumed regularly. We’re referring to foods that were unfairly demonized but have not been shown to lead to good health when consumed daily.

Perhaps, the article in the Daily Mail does not accurately portray Nina Teicholz’s book The Big Fat Surprise. I haven’t read the book, so I can only comment on the news article. Encouraging people to eat more cream, high-fat red meat, butter, and other foods high in saturated fat is not the solution to the obesity epidemic that the Daily Mail would have you believe. Yes, you can lose weight eating anything; remember the Twinkie Doctor? This doesn’t mean that you’re healthier (especially in the long-term).

Apparently Teicholz claims that removing the fat from milk means adding more carbohydrates. No. When you remove fat, you are not adding anything. Yes, an equivalent quantity of skim milk will be higher in carbohydrate (not sugar though) than whole milk. That’s simply a result of what’s left behind when you remove the fat. It’s also higher in protein, minerals, and vitamins. We wrongly vilified saturated fat, let’s blame carbs.

Health and the battle against obesity should not be a nutrient blame-game. How about we stop demonizing and glorifying foods and nutrients and accept that there is a place for bread and a place for butter in a healthy diet.