Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Battle of the baked beans: how supplements are winning the war on food

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By Linda Spashett Storye book (Own work) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Did you hear about Heinz being found in breach of advertising guidelines? This in response to a commercial in which apparently (I can’t see the actual ad as they had to retract it) a man is drinking a beverage that’s “supercharged with high protein, high fibre, and minimal fat” after a run. A woman eating beans tells him that she’s having the same. Presumably a protein powder/beverage manufacturer took exception to this comparison and filed a complaint indicating that the Heinz was making the nutritional claim that beans contain the same amount of protein as a protein shake. And I’m just left smh about what a time this is to be alive.

I get that a serving of baked beans doesn’t have the same amount of protein as (most) protein shakes. The average protein shake contains about 25 grams of protein while a serving of Heinz baked beans contains about 9 grams (depending on the brand and how much you actually eat).

I’m not especially keen to promote canned baked beans and I can’t say that I’ve ever eaten them myself. However, I’m a little saddened that we live in a world in which the promotion of a whole food such as baked beans can be discouraged by the notion that an ultra-processed protein shake is somehow nutritionally superior by way of it’s higher protein content.

As we should have figured out by now, nutrition is greater than the sum of it’s parts. This is why most dietitians and other nutrition experts promote the consumption of whole foods to obtain nutrients. Supplements have a time and a place but for the average healthy human the majority of our nutrition should be coming from whole foods. This is why it’s depressing to see a protein shake win-out over a whole food in a marketing battle. How can naturally nutritious whole foods ever win a competition with ultra-processed supplements and food products with added micronutrients. It’s like putting a bunch of highly trained athletes up against some doped-up Russian team. It’s not a fair contest. But more of something isn’t always better, especially when it comes at the expense of something else.

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Making people feel like shit about what they eat isn’t an effective tactic to get them to change

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At some point someone came up with the brilliant idea to use scare tactics, guilt, and shame to convince people to do (or stop doing) certain behaviours. I think it may have originated with smoking cessation where people thought that showing people videos of people smoking through holes in their throats and with horrible mouth cancers would convince people to quit. And then people thought, “hey, it worked for tobacco, let’s try it with food”.

Unfortunately, while these tactics may work in some situations, and with some individuals, as a general rule, making people feel like shit about their choices isn’t a terribly effective strategy to convince them to change.

I see so many (possibly well-meaning) people sharing shaming messages in an effort to get people to follow their dietary regimes that essentially every food is now laden with guilt and dolloped with fear.

There are popular memes trying to make people feel guilty for not being vegan or to make people feel guilty for being vegan.

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There are headlines like “There is no conspiracy: Gluten really is evil”, “7 reasons why you should stop eating meat immediately”, “Eating bananas at breakfast is bad for you”. Books like: 141 Reasons Sugar Ruins Your Health  and The Hidden Dangers of Soy. Not to mention all of the vloggers, bloggers, and Instagram nutritionistas pushing their agendas. Seriously, go to google and type in “why you should never eat ____” and insert pretty much any food in there. You’re pretty much guaranteed to get at least one hit telling you why practically every food is going to kill you.

This isn’t healthy. We should not be afraid of something that is essential to life. Something that should be pleasurable. We shouldn’t be loading every food up with fear.

For those using these fear-based messages to try to convince people to join your diet, you’re probably not having the effect you intended. Rather than convincing people to change you’re quite likely just making them feel like what they’re doing is shameful. Maybe they’ll secretly try to change because they’re embarrassed about their shameful food choices and then just feel even worse if they fail. Maybe they’ll just ingest a little bit more guilt every time they eat something they’ve been told is evil.

The nutrition world has become like some sort of twisted religious cult where once you’ve been “saved” you need to spread the gospel and indoctrinate as many heathen eaters as possible. Instead, how about we stop trying to push our person beliefs onto everyone else? How about accepting that there is no one and only diet? That what works for you and is enjoyable for you might not work for everyone else. Let everyone else enjoy their food in peace unless they ask for your opinion.


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Are dietitians getting too sexy?

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A few years ago I wrote a blog post that really hit a nerve with other dietitians. It was about how dietitians just aren’t sexy. This was in the sense that we don’t hop on trends (unlike other unregulated professionals) and instead are moored in evidence-based practice. Unfortunately, I’m noticing a disturbing trend in dietetics and I’m concerned about the future of my profession.

There have always been some dietitians who believe in unproven practices such as detox, fad diets, and questionable supplements. It’s a shame to see others promoting such nonsense as I feel it reflects poorly on all of us but it’s always been the minority. It’s also been somewhat understandable because it can be a tough field in which to find a secure job. And we probably all have some beliefs that aren’t based in evidence. Experience is important in combination with scientific evidence. However, I feel like in this age of fake news where nothing means anything anymore, that this is infiltrating dietetics at a higher level.

Recently there’s been the introduction of “integrative functional nutrition” which sounds very scientific and pretty great, “A central theme of IFNA training is learning to identify “root causes” of disease in a methodical and systematic fashion rather than the mundane prescription of medical nutrition protocols based on a diagnosis”. Who doesn’t want to get to the root causes of illnesses? I think the main frustration with Western medicine is that there’s often a failure to dig deeper to find the root cause for ailments and simply a treating of symptoms. This is why so many people turn to unscientific alternative health practitioners for help. Unfortunately, “integrative functional nutrition/medicine” tends to be code for the smooshing together evidence-based practices and unproven unscientific practices. The creation of bodies of dietetics incorporating these practices lends false credibility to them.

Last week I attended a nutrition conference. It was generally a really great conference with presenters sharing a variety of perspectives and evidence. There were also presentations by people with lived experience. I think there’s a great deal of value in learning from people who have experience with various conditions, circumstances, illnesses, etc. However, the final presenter was by an individual who had “cured” a severe mental illness through nutrition and supplements with the aid of a Christian doctor in the US. I’m not in a position to question this person’s experience but the presentation made me extremely uncomfortable. I don’t doubt that nutrition plays an important role in supporting mental health. Although I do doubt that we can cure most cases of mental illness through nutrition.

As dietitians, we are always trying to promote ourselves as credible sources of nutrition information. Yet here we are, welcoming a presentation from an individual who was treated by a doctor whom would be dubbed as a quack by most. This guy readily fails Dietitians of Canada’s “Five tips to help you spot misinformation“.

1. Is the person or product promising a quick fix like fast weight-loss or a miracle cure? Check!

2. Are they trying to sell you products such as special foods or supplements? Check!

3. Do they provide information based on personal stories rather than on facts? Check!

4. Is their claim based on a single study or a few research studies? Not sure if the claims are based on any research so yeah, Check!

5. What are the person’s qualifications? Unfortunately, he’s a medical doctor which makes it sound like he’s a qualified professional. But we all know that doesn’t stop Dr Oz from operating outside of his scope of practice. Being a MD doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual is qualified to be providing nutrition services (most doctors receive very little nutrition education during medical school). As far as I can discern, he hasn’t received any specialized nutrition education so… CHECK!

Inviting people who are promoting such quackery to professional conferences undermines our credibility as nutrition professionals. It lends false credibility to their practices and allows these unproven beliefs to infiltrate dietetics. It makes it harder for us to present ourselves as credible nutrition professionals and undermines the ability of the public to trust us.

It’s discouraging to see people seeking out healthcare from unregulated professionals with questionable credentials and practices. But I don’t think the solution lies in taking the attitude that if you can’t beat them, join them. It’s important for us to continue to ground our advice in the best possible scientific evidence if we want to remain trusted healthcare professionals. Otherwise we may as well all burn our degrees and licences because they’ll become as meaningless as the credentials of all the self-styled nutrition gurus.


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It ain’t easy feeding greens

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Last week this article: Don’t Make Children Eat Their Greens caught my eye, mainly because of the headline. Great dietitian click-bait Guardian ;)

The article is actually much better than the headline makes it appear but I still have to throw my two-cents into the ring. As the author concedes (near the end of the article and prior to launching into his own advice) he is not a dietitian. It reminded me of a photo I’d seen on Instagram recently. It was a page from a book with a quote along the lines of “Not everyone who eats imagines themselves to be a dietitian”. Which I’m sure will amuse my fellow RDs because, in my experience, nearly everyone who eats does fancy themselves to be dietitians. While lived experience can certainly be valuable, it’s not exactly the gold standard of scientific evidence. I appreciate that the author incorporated viewpoints from professionals, such as a dietitian and psychologist, but I actually found some of the comments he included from them to be a little odd.

According to the RD source for the article, “The human body is very clever and can adapt over generations. It can use what resources it has available”. Which is all well and fine but really has no bearing on feeding children in the here and now. Adapting over generations is not the same as adapting over one’s own lifespan. I can personally decide that I’m going to forego certain essential nutrients and expect that my body will just adapt. Without a source of vitamin C, for example, I would invariably eventually develop scurvy.

The other issue I take with the article comes from a seemingly throw-away comment. The author’s (adult) daughter says that she refused to eat peas (and other green vegetables) growing up because “they don’t taste good”. To which the author writes “They don’t”. And this is an issue that the author misses in much of his advice. That issue is role modelling behaviour. Children learn by watching and if they are watching parents who don’t eat or show displeasure with certain foods they’re quite likely to adopt similar attitudes themselves. I can’t help but wonder, if the author’s attitude was more positive toward peas if his daughter might have developed a more favourable attitude toward them as well.

Much of the other advice in the article is spot-on based on current recommendations. Food should not be used as a reward or punishment, mealtimes should not become battlegrounds, caregivers should respect children’s appetites. It’s unfortunate that the headline gives the impression that vegetables are an unnecessary part of a healthy diet. While I’m sure that many meatetarians would be overjoyed with this stance, it’s not really the point of the article, nor is it the correct message. While not nearly as catchy of click-baity, a more accurate headline would be something like “Give Your Children Nutritious Meals and Snacks and Allow Them to Decide How Much to Eat”.


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Don’t eat this, not that!

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Ever notice the proliferation of magazine articles telling you what to eat instead of something else? It’s almost always one crappy food versus another somewhat less crappy (but much less desirable) food so that you’re left feeling guilty if you choose the “not that” and resentful if you choose the “eat this”. And evidently people eat this shit up because I see articles with some variation of this format pretty much weekly (and I don’t even read magazines). There’s even a whole website devoted to the premise with actual books you can buy. Yes, people will pay money to have people tell them what to eat but heaven forbid the government try to simply make it easier for them to make healthier choices.

Despite their “no-diet weight loss solution!” twitter bio, it seems to me that the “eat this, not that!” is all about restriction and food selection based purely on calories. Their website is literally a compendium of terrible trendy nutrition and fitness click-bait. You’ve got everything from “20 ways to boost your metabolism” to “how to lose weight while doing every day tasks” to the following header:

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Oh okay, that sure sounds like a “no-diet weight loss solution”. I mean, at least make the effort to not put the freaking D-word in there if “no-diet” is your shtick.

I spent sometime the other evening scrolling through their twitter feed and I’m convinced that much of what they post is sponsored content. They’ve got things like Dunkin’ Donuts vs Krispy Kreme, fat burning supplements that actually work, how to eat McDonald’s fries without damaging your body, the best and worst Subway sandwiches, almond milk is bad (no protein) but drink this brand not that brand (even though they both only have 1 gram of protein per cup), yay Starbucks (for – I kid you not – having nut “milk” options) but also boo Starbucks (for having high calorie baked goods). Alongside these there’s also lots of your standard: drink more wine, eat more coconut oil, buy these overpriced so-called paleo superfood snacks.

How about we stop shoving shame-laden food down people’s throats and instead promote healthful choices, ways to get people in the kitchen, and the pleasure of eating.