Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The case for breaking up healthy eating and physical activity

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Have you ever noticed that healthy eating and physical activity are often lumped together? I’ve worked on Healthy Eating Physical Activity (HEPA) teams and seen Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) strategies and Healthy Eating Active Fun (HEAF) programs. If you haven’t already noticed it, you probably will now that I’ve introduced that thought to your brain. The thing that I’ve been wondering lately is “why”? At what point did someone say, “hey, let’s lump these two health behaviours together”? And what was the reason for that?

On the face of it, if you’re thinking about healthy eating and physical activity purely from a weight management standpoint it seems to make sense. Most people trying to lose weight will incorporate some sort of combination of the two. Although there are people who will argue that one of the two is more important than the other, but generally in our minds they’re linked. But does it really make sense? I don’t actually think that it does.

On the one hand, you’ve got a health behaviour that involves choosing, preparing, and ingesting food. On the other hand, you’ve got a health behaviour that involves moving your body. These are not two sides of the same coin. They are two completely separate coins. Yes, they both have positive effects on our health and they can both contribute to reduced risk of certain chronic diseases and conditions. However, they are completely independent activities. You can absolutely eat a terrible diet and exercise regularly. You can also eat a super healthy diet and be highly sedentary. If you really wanted to lump health behaviours together why not pair healthy eating and alcohol consumption? Those make far more sense together than physical activity and healthy eating do.

I think that putting physical activity and healthy eating together all the time diminishes the importance of both these activities. It implies that neither is important enough to focus on, on its own. Allowing organizations and those in healthcare and related industries to focus their efforts on one over the other or to spread time thinly across the two. I think it may also help to perpetuate the notion that these behaviours are only important for weight management. When you hear about the two together, what first comes to mind? Is it enjoying a healthy life or is it a certain degree of torment undertaken to stave off obesity?

It’s time for physical activity and healthy eating to break-up. This relationship isn’t healthy and it’s affecting everyone around it. We need to recognize that these behaviours don’t necessarily go hand in hand and that they each have things to offer. If we actually start to value healthy eating and physical activity independently for their own strengths we might be able to improve our own individual relationships with both of these behaviours.

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Which fitness tracker gives you the best calories burned for your workout? An experiment

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Remember my rant a little while ago about how you shouldn’t think of exercise and food as an equation to balance? Or my post about not using the exercise component of calorie counting apps? Well, I just wanted to add a little more to that conversation today.

I use a Garmin watch to track my runs and occasionally I’ll look at the “calories burned” out of curiosity. After a pretty fast longish interval run I noticed that the calories burned seemed rather low so I started scrolling back through and was puzzled to find a shorter easier run that supposedly resulted in a very similar caloric expenditure. That left me wondering how Garmin determined the calories burned during a run. I looked it up and it turns out that it’s related to heart rate. Sometime the heart rate monitor is wonky and (especially when it’s really cold out) will register a heart rate that would be more likely seen when I’m sitting on my butt than when I’m out booking it through speed work. That means that my Garmin (erroneously) registers minimal exertion and thinks that I’m not burning very many calories.

Today I decided to do a little experiment. I wore my Garmin, as per usual, which is synched to my Strava account. I also fired up the Nike+ Run Club app for the first time in ages and I set out on an easy(ish) 10k run. After the run, I also entered the time spent running at the closest average pace into myfitnesspal. All of these apps have my height and weight. Any guesses what the results looked like?

Garmin: 463 calories

myfitnesspal: 517 calories

Nike: 526 calories

Strava: 1371 calories!!!!

Now, I have no idea how many calories I actually used during this run, I’d wager Garmin was probably closest to the mark considering that the heart rate monitor seemed to be working properly. But Strava, what the actual hell?? Considering that Strava gets all of it’s data from my run directly from Garmin I find it amazing that it estimated I burned nearly three times as many calories as Garmin thought I did. I’m sure that if I had other apps and trackers I would have gotten slightly different results from all of them.

All this to say, if you’re exercising and tracking calories burned, you probably shouldn’t give that number too much weight. Try to think of exercise as giving you health and fitness rather than taking away calories and weight.

 


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Why I hate the caloric math game

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I have a beef with a lot of the all-in-one fitness/weight management apps. Many people benefit from tracking their calories when they’re trying to lose weight. I’m all for that. What I hate is the inclusion of calories burnt through exercise. I think that a lot of these apps over-estimate the number of calories expended during various activities. This can mean that if you’re looking at the bottom-line to determine how many calories you can eat without gaining weight you’re probably going to eat more than you need. I often tell people to either not track their exercise using these apps or to ignore the additional calories the app then tells them that they can have. Just use the nutrition side of the app. It’s wise to remember that even that’s not going to be 100% accurate, especially if you’re not weighing everything you eat. It’s just another weight management tool in a box of many.

Now for the real beef: I don’t like that these apps try to turn weight loss into a math problem. It’s not. We used to believe that cutting 3500 kcal would result in a pound of weight lost. We now know that it’s much more complicated than that. There are many factors contributing to the weight we are. Yes, how many calories we consume (and expend) are a huge factor in determining how much we weigh, and whether we lose, gain, or maintain our weight. I don’t want to diminish that fact. I’m not going to tell you that if you just ate cleaner you would lose weight. The cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter when it comes to weight loss. However, adding 350 calories by going for a walk is an oversimplification. It may also lead to an unhealthy way of thinking about food, exercise, and weight management.

Most of us easily consume more calories than we’ve burnt after a workout. Exercise makes you hungry and it’s a whole lot easier to eat 500 calories than it is to expend them during a workout. When we start thinking about exercise as a way to “earn” more calories we’re moving away from healthy eating and healthy fitness. While I’ve said that the cleanliness of your calories doesn’t matter for weight loss, and I’ve also said that there should be no forbidden foods, eating primarily nutrient-rich whole foods is important for your health. A session at the gym shouldn’t be a licence to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient foods for the rest of the day. Focus on gaining health through the food you eat and the physical activity you do, rather than the numbers in an app or on a scale.


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Will teenaged milk consumption increase hip fracture risk in old-age?

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I recently saw someone touting the results of a study as indicating that milk consumption may increase the risk of bone fractures. Now, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’ll know that I’m not always on board with the promotion of milk. I question the inclusion of milk and alternatives as a food group on Canada’s Food Guide. However, I don’t believe that there’s anything inherently wrong with consuming milk (in moderation) if it’s a beverage that you enjoy. It’s certainly better than juice! Anyway… Despite my posts deriding “research” promoting the consumption of milk (usually of the chocolate variety) I lean towards siding with the milk-drinkers on this one.

The study looked at data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study in the US. Milk consumption of participants during adolescence was reported based on dietary recall ten years into the study. Considering that, depending on the study, participants were between 30-55 and 40-75 years of age at the start of the study, they would have been estimating their adolescent milk consumption anywhere from about 17 to 60+ years after the fact. Maybe it’s just me, but at 35 years of age I can’t recall how much milk I drank as a teenager. As dietary recall tends to be inaccurate the day following consumption I would hazard to guess that it’s even less accurate decades down the road.

“Participants were excluded at entry if they had reported a prior hip fracture, a diagnosis of osteoporosis or cancer”. I wonder if this exclusion affected the results. It would be interesting to look at the excluded participants to determine if they were milk-drinkers or not during adolescence. The researchers also divided the results into three groupings: those who consumed milk less than twice a week, those who consumed it once a day, and those who consumed it four or more times a day. Four or more times a day seems like rather a lot of milk to me. I would be interested to see the level of risk for hip fracture played out for those consuming the recommended number of servings based on the Food Guide (i.e. 3-4/day) also taking into consideration other foods from the milk and alternative group.

The researchers found an increased risk of 6% of hip fracture for each glass of milk consumed by men during teenaged-years (this was presumably over the average of 2.1/day reported). Interestingly, for women, there was no relationship between milk consumption and hip fracture risk. The researchers did rely on participants to report hip fractures so there may have been some degree of inaccuracy in the findings.

I think that this statement by the authors in the discussion is worthy of note: “it is not entirely clear that an early gain in bone mass will persist into adult years as the young skeleton is replaced through many years of remodeling, which may erase any initial advantage.” In other words, consumption of nutrients, and participation in exercise, which increases bone density when you’re young may not matter if you don’t carry on with these behaviours as you age. The argument here is less whether or not milk consumption during adolescence affects bone density and hip fracture risk during old age and more that it’s important to continue to be active and to consume foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D as our bones are not static.


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What’s the benefit of exercise?

I was listening to the radio the other day and they were interviewing a Dr who conducted some research on a physical activity intervention on elementary school children. The segment was introduced as being about obesity. I can’t recall exactly what the intervention was but, naturally, it had no effect on obesity levels in the children.

I know that obesity is the big thing right now (pun totally intended) but I think that we need to stop approaching every study about exercise and nutrition as a weight loss intervention. We already know that diet generally accounts for about 80% of the weight loss equation. Therefore, logically, physical activity interventions are unlikely to have a significant effect on weight.

This focus on obesity causes us to lose focus on other benefits to be had from physical activity. Just because children didn’t lose weight from the intervention doesn’t mean that such interventions aren’t worthwhile. Benefits of physical activity and exercise include: increased healthspan, decreased risk of many chronic diseases (e.g. depression, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some forms of cancer, osteoporosis, dementia), stronger immune system, increased energy, better quality of sleep, etc. I always say that exercise is my drug of choice.