Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The harm in fad diets

Many of us roll our eyes when we hear about people on fad diets. I think that most of us think, “oh well, it’s not doing them any harm. Let it run its course”. But what if these diets are doing people harm?  I’m not about fear mongering, you know this. Many of these trendy diets can be safe and healthy when followed properly. However, what about when they’re not? There is reasonable risk of deficiencies that could cause some degree of harm at worst, and at best prevent the adherents from attaining optimal health.

What’s the harm in a low-carb or gluten-free or paleo diet?

I’m lumping these two in together even though they’re not strictly the same, although it seems that they frequently go hand-in-hand. Here the risk lies in B vitamin deficiency. Yes, many B vitamins are available from animal foods. However, folic acid (which I blogged about a few weeks ago) was added to refined flour and cereals as a public health measure to prevent neural tube defects during pregnancy in 1998 (1). Eliminating grains from the diet may lead to increased risk of spina bifida, and other neural tube defects, in infants of mothers following these diets. It’s recommended that all women of childbearing age take a multivitamin containing 400 mcg of folic acid daily. Women who are following the above diets should be sure to follow this recommendation. The crucial window for neural tube formation is within the first 21-28 days of pregnancy. This means that if you wait to start taking a prenatal multivitamin once you find out you’re pregnant you may have already missed this window.

What’s the harm in a vegan diet?

While touted as one of the healthiest diets, a vegan diet can easily be deficient in essential nutrients. As with the low-carb diets above, a vegan diet may be low in some B vitamins. In this case, vitamin B12 is more likely to be the B vitamin of concern than is folic acid.

Vitamin B12 is important for many reasons. We need B12 for blood cell formation, nerve function, and brain function.

Vitamin D is also a concern in vegan diets as it’s primarily found in milk, fish, and eggs. During the winter months it’s difficult for most of us, vegans and non-vegans alike, to get enough vitamin D from food alone.

What’s the harm in a low-sodium diet?

This isn’t even so much a risk of low-sodium diet but of a diet that eschews table salt in particular. Now that sea salt is the salt selection of foodies and many of us are avoiding salt shakers there is potential for insufficient iodine consumption. Table salt is fortified with iodine, sea salt is not.

Iodine deficiency during pregnancy can result in poor mental development. Iodine is important in thyroid function and deficiency may result in the development of a goiter.

Now, to be fair, when consideration of balance, variety, and nutrients is taken into consideration all of these diets may be healthy. I think that it’s also worth mentioning that the average Western diet is probably less nutritious than all of the above diets. Most people consume too few vegetables and fruits, too much sodium, sugar, and fat. Most of us, even those of us consuming relatively healthy diets, don’t get enough potassium, vitamin D, magnesium, and fibre. While the focus should definitely be on whole food, it’s worth considering what nutrients your diet may be low in and making an effort to consume more foods rich in those nutrients or even considering taking a supplement if you’re finding it hard to meet your nutrient needs through food alone.


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What’s the *BEST* diet?

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There are so many diets out there; from low-carb (and its many iterations), vegetarian, vegan, low-fat, paleo, gluten-free and on and on. The one thing that many of their followers seem to have in common is the absolute certainty that their diet is the best diet. It amuses me when I see back-to-back tweets from people praising their chosen religion diet.

I’m sick of seeing people (especially my fellow dietitians) passing judgement on the diets of others, presuming that their chosen diet is superior. Power to you if you are healthy and enjoy following your diet of choice. That doesn’t mean that the diets followed by others are inferior. It doesn’t mean that only you (and others following the same diet) are eating “real food”. What the heck does that even mean?? I’m fairly certain that I didn’t imagine my last meal, that I didn’t consume “fake” food. Just because it works for you doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for everyone. This isn’t Mormonism, you’re not going to secure your place in foodie heaven by converting more people to your way of eating.

Each diet has its drawbacks and nutrients of concern. Each of these diets has its benefits. I could go through many of them and list out the pros and cons but that would be tedious for me to do and tedious for you to read. So which one is the best? The one that you are happiest and healthiest following. The one that you can easily follow for the rest of your life without feeling like you’re on a “diet”. Yeah, sorry, I sucked you in with that title. It’s the truth though. Me, I don’t follow a diet with labels. I enjoy a variety of foods. I eat meat, but I have been known to go weeks without it. I eat grains, but I try to vary them and may not have them at every meal. I’m an agnostic eater.


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The shady side of blogging

I find the case against a blogger in the US interesting and I’m not entirely sure what side I fall on. On his website Diabetes-Warrior Steve Cooksey writes about his experience with a paleolithic diet and diabetes. The American Dietetic Association filed a lawsuit against him stating that he was breaking the law by providing nutrition advice without a licence. They won their case and he has since filed an appeal. It’s a murky territory. At this point he makes it abundantly clear that he is not a medical professional. Just a man who’s had great success with the paleo diet and wishes to share it with everyone. The question is: Is he causing harm to others by singing the praises of this diet? If people are aware that he is not a licenced professional and has no training in medicine or nutrition and they still choose to follow his advice it seems to me that they are doing so at their own risk. I get that the ADA is trying to protect the public from kooks. However, I kind of think Steve’s right to free speech might trump that. Plus there are loads of kooks who are Doctors (hello Dr. Oz!) and Dietitians, the only difference is that they can lose their licence if they cause harm to a patient. Of course I wouldn’t want to see anyone become ill as a result of following terrible health and nutrition advice but there’s so much out there anyway what difference is silencing one blogger going to make? And where else could this lead? It worries me that anyone dissenting from government sanctioned advice might be silenced. That could lead to a huge loss of creativity and new developments in the health industry. Perhaps there is a compromise that could be made here. If Mr. Cooksey stopped giving specific health and nutrition advice to readers we could let Mr. Cooksey continue to eat his meat and veg and write about it.