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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Should the government allow industry to market to kids in schools?

 

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Last week I found out about a new food literacy initiative. According to the introduction to their online survey (which unfortunately only wants input from teachers, principals, and board of education consultants) this initiative will involve visits to schools to provide hands-on healthy eating education opportunities. This initiative is an undertaking of the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

I am all for getting food literacy education back into schools. I think that by educating children from a young age about growing, harvesting, preparing, and enjoying food we could prevent a lot of the unhealthy eating habits and chronic diseases that are so prevalent in our society. However, I don’t think that this should be done by any means necessary, and I see the provision of food literacy education by industry as highly problematic.

This is nothing against milk, or the Dairy Farmers of Canada. Milk is a nutritious food and can (although it doesn’t have to) be part of a healthy diet. I love lots of dairy products. I still don’t think that it’s appropriate for Dairy Farmers of Canada to be providing nutrition education in public schools.

From the Dairy Farmers of Canada website:

Run for farmers by farmers, Dairy Farmers of Canada is the voice of Canadian dairy farmers.

Dairy Farmers of Canada (DFC) is the national policy, lobbying and promotional organization representing Canada’s farmers living on approximately 12,000 dairy farms. DFC strives to create stable conditions for the Canadian dairy industry, today and in the future. It works to maintain policies that foster the viability of Canadian dairy farmers and promote dairy products and their health benefits.

Dairy farmers fund its operations, including promotional activities.

I think that makes it pretty clear what their mandate is. It’s not to provide unbiased nutrition education to children. It’s to promote their products to consumers. Make no mistake about it, that’s what they would be doing by providing food literacy education to children in schools. They would be marketing to the next generation of consumers.

Would it be appropriate for Coca Cola, McDonald’s, or Frito-Lay to provide food literacy education to a captive group of school children? Just imagine if KFC announced that it would be providing food literacy education to children in schools. Parents and the public would be freaking out. It’s no more acceptable for the dairy industry to be given access to children in schools just because some dairy products are nutritious. It’s highly inappropriate, not to mention ironic, for any food industry lobby group to be marketing to children in schools whether it be under the guise of food literacy education or not.

 


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

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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.