Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Let’s deactivate the activated charcoal detox trend

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Photo by Ken Fager on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

A friend recently alerted me to the latest detox trend: charcoal infused beverages. What?? I haven’t seen any around here (thankfully), it tends to take a little while for trends to make their way to Nova Scotia. All of my fingers are crossed that this will fizzle out before it can catch on here.

The argument for these activated charcoal containing beverages, made by beauty bloggers, good old vagina steaming Gwyneth, and the purveyors of these burnt beverages, is that the charcoal will bind any toxins in your body and remove them. Supposedly they’re great for avoiding hangovers and blessing you with glowing skin. Sandwiched in between these arguments in the article linked above is the sensible advice put forth by a registered dietitian:

She notes that adding charcoal to vegetable juice doesn’t make sense because the charcoal — not the drinker’s body — will absorb the juice’s nutrients.

“I don’t really see a purpose,” she says. “I think it’s going on the fad of ‘detox, detox, detox.’ ”

It’s important to be aware that the human body is designed to filter toxins using the liver and kidneys. Most of these detox beverages are a waste of money at best, some are dangerous at worst. Regular consumption of charcoal beverages could actually leave you nutrient deficient, not so great for your skin and other organs. It also won’t remove bacteria, as mentioned by one proponent.

Activated charcoal has been used for years in hospitals (and prior to that by indigenous populations) to help treat drug overdoses and poisonings. The activated charcoal binds to these substances, removing them from the body. Extremely useful in the case of an overdose. Not so useful on a regular basis. If you’re consuming any medication the charcoal will happily bind to that and remove it from your body. The charcoal will also only remove toxins and drugs that have not already been absorbed from the digestive system. Drinking one of these the morning after over-indulging will not cure your hangover. In fact, activated charcoal is not useful in treating alcohol poisoning, nor a number of other poisonings. There are also some medications that activated charcoal can interact with and cause electrolyte imbalances.

While this trend is quite new, it’s hard to say what many of the long-term effects of charcoal ingestion might be. As we know that burnt food, and foods cooked at high temperatures may increase the risk of some cancers, it’s quite possible that charcoal ingestion could pose a similar risk.

Novel idea: How about instead of trying to rid our bodies of toxins, we put nutritious nourishing foods into them in the first place.


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Stop comparing apples to oranges!

When and why did we decide that it was reasonable to pit nutritious foods against each other in a battle for the Most Nutritious? Sorry not sorry… Literally comparing apples to oranges is a waste of time.

In the past week I’ve seen this infographic from the Cleveland Clinic comparing olive oil and coconut oil:

BYA3MiXCAAAiu9gAnd this article comparing apples, oranges, and bananas. Sigh.

First, to address the battle between coconut and olive oil. I thought that we were all in agreement that saturated fats aren’t bad for us after all. I know that it can be hard to put aside beliefs that we’ve held for decades, but as health care professionals, shouldn’t we be providing the public with the most accurate information that we have? That being said, too much of any one thing is bad for you. Using too much olive oil will upset the balance of omega-3 to omega-6 in your diet which has been attributed to inflammation in the body. Including a variety of sources of fat in your diet is the best way to ensure that you’re getting a healthy balance. Olive oil and coconut oil can both be part of a healthy diet.

Second, to address the fruit battle. Why do we want to have a stand-off between healthy foods? Fruits all have vitamins and minerals and other important nutrients such as carbohydrate, fibre, water, even fat. Yes, unless you’re having fruit salad or a smoothie, you’re likely only having one at a time. This doesn’t mean you have to stress about which one will provide you with maximum nutrition. They are all good choices. Kudos to you for choosing fruit.

Want to know the most important component of a healthy diet? Variety!


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Another example of why nutrition advice should come from nutrition professionals

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A friend, and fellow dietitian, sent me the above screenshots. They were posted by a personal trainer. Of course it’s great to get people eating more vegetables and by no means do I want to discourage that. However, this is yet another example of why nutrition advice is best left to nutrition professionals.

Let’s start with the onions. High in fibre? It’s true, sort-of. Once cup of chopped onion contains a respectable 3 grams of fibre. Not exactly “high” but a “good source”. But… Who among us eats an entire cup of onion in a sitting? Certainly not I. At most, I would say I would have a couple of tablespoons. That brings the total fibre down to a whopping 0 grams. Oops. As for the other claims… Anyone telling you something is “great for fat loss” is probably full of it. No one food promotes fat loss. Following a healthy, adequate calorie diet, and healthy active lifestyle will promote fat loss (should you need to lose fat). Glutathione to reduce stress? Not according to WebMD. And just to be annoying, how on earth could eating onions reduce stress??? Will they ensure you don’t lose loved ones, keep your job, prevent moving? I think he must mean that they reduce the effect of stress on your body. Regardless, I’m pretty sure he’s mistaken. EWG did find pesticide residue on onions, however, they were ranked 50th (out of 51) so I’ll let him have that one; they are low in pesticides. Finally, onions do contain the prebiotic inulin. But, the onions aren’t what provide the benefits listed, the probiotics that use the prebiotics to grow are what provide the benefits. Both pre- and pro-biotics are needed to maintain a healthy digestive system.

As for the claim that grains don’t contain as much fibre as “you think” and therefore, you should consume the vegetables listed to obtain your fibre. Let’s compare: asparagus, cooked 1/2 cup = 2 grams of fibre, 1 cup of raw green pepper = 3 g fibre, 1 cup of raw broccoli = 2 g fibre, 1 cup of raw green cabbage = 2 g fibre, 1 cup of raw cauliflower = 3 g fibre, 1 cup of cucumber (with peel) raw = 0 grams of fibre, 1 cup of romaine lettuce = 0 g of fibre, 1 cup of raw mushrooms = 1 g fibre, 1 cup of raw spinach = 1 g fibre, 1 cup of raw zucchini = 0 grams of fibre. Now for the grains: 1 cup of steel-cut oats = 5 grams of fibre, one slice of multigrain bread = 2 g fibre, 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa = 2.5 g fibre, 1/2 cup of brown rice cooked = 2 g fibre, 3/4 cup of bran flakes = 5 g fibre…. I’d also like to mention that 1/2 cup of black beans contains 7.5 grams of fibre! As you can see, yes some of these vegetables contain fibre. However, grains also contain fibre, generally more than the vegetables. The moral here: include a variety of foods, including grains and vegetables, in your diet to meet all of your nutrient needs. Oh, and don’t take nutrition advice from those without a nutrition education.


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New front-of-package labelling gets the green light in the UK

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The UK is rolling out a new voluntary front-of-packaging food labelling over the next 18 months. While I like some aspects of it I’m not so keen on others. Honestly, I’m not sure that any nutrition labelling is going to fully satisfy me. I want to know all of the nutrients but I don’t want to be overwhelmed with information. I also want to know information beyond nutrients such as: GMO, organic, vegan, local…

Let’s start with what I like about the new labels. I like that they use colour coding. Much like the stop-light system they’ve used in the past: red means a high amount of an undesirable nutrient (more on this to follow), orange means borderline high, and green means “healthy”. I like that they’ve focused on only a few nutrients so as to keep things simple: calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt (oddly not sodium, although I presume that this is what they actually mean). Are these the nutrients I would choose. I don’t know. Probably not. I would like to see some positive nutrient featured. How about telling us the fibre up-front? Or unsaturated fats? Also, call me crazy but haven’t we already come to the conclusion that saturated fats aren’t necessarily unhealthy? Personally, I tend to pay very little attention to the fat content these days. If there’s trans-fat I’m out, but pretty much anything else is fair game provided the food is a good source of other nutrients and the total calorie content is reasonable. I also think that we would be much better off focusing on ingredients rather than nutrient panels. It’s easy for food manufacturers to remove “bad” things and add “good” things to manipulate their highly-processed food into appearing healthy on the basis of the nutrition facts panel. Oops… I was supposed to be focusing on what I like about the packaging. Back to it… I like that the numbers are large and that both grams and percent daily value are noted.

Now, what I don’t like. I don’t like how it’s arranged. The way that the number of servings is noted after the 30 g serving quantity make it appear as if you get 16 servings from 30 g, rather than each serving being 30 g. I also find the note about the 100 g and typical servings at the bottom confusing. Maybe it’s just me. But, maybe not. I think that front-of-packaging labelling needs to be extremely clear. I also don’t like the quantities that the ratings are based on. For one thing, the percentages are meant to be universal but the recommendations for women are based on 2, 000 calories a day, 2, 500 for men. Are the percentages based on men or women or an average of both? This is one reason I hate percent daily values. I also think that those calorie counts are quite high for most people. Obviously everyone’s different but based on predominantly sedentary lifestyles I think that they should probably lower these amounts (if they insist on using the %DV). I also question the recommended amounts used for things like sodium. Food packaging labels (and these are no exception) always use 2, 400 mg even though the recommended maximum is 2, 300 mg for a healthy adult. I also wonder how they came to the conclusion that 5.1 g of sugar (at 6%) is high. Yes, ideally, we would all be consuming cereals without any sugar but 5 grams is only slightly over a teaspoon and the rule-of-thumb I’ve always told people in regards to cereals is to stick to single digits. Considering that accepted nutrient guidelines for sugar have yet to be developed I’m not sure that it’s advisable to include this information of the front-of-package labelling. Another issue is that the labelling is voluntary, making it difficult to easily compare foods.

Kudos to the UK for getting this started. Hopefully, after the voluntary roll-out has occurred, the labelling will be improved and will be made mandatory for all packaged foods and then the rest of the world will follow suit.