Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Is store bought baby food better than home cooked?

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When I saw this article in the Daily Mail (yeah, I know) last week I knew that I had to read the original research to see what it said. As a dietitian I’m always trying to encourage people to cook their own meals. When I talk to mums about introducing their babies to solid foods I suggest that they see it as an opportunity to enjoy balanced meals as a family. Just what I need is headlines and articles proclaiming that pre-made store bought baby food is healthier than what ever they might be preparing at home.

I was frustrated to be unable to see the list of cookbooks the authors used in this study. The link just takes me to Amazon, and the list of the most popular baby food cookbooks they used was complied in 2013 so any results I might find could be considerably different today. Naturally, I worry about the use of baby food cookbooks as a comparison to ready-meals as they tend to be written by people with limited (or no) nutrition credentials (*cough* Pete Evans *cough*. Cookbooks are also quite unlikely to provide a true picture of what parents are feeding their children.

The obvious conclusion to draw from the study is that home cooked meals are superior (from both a cost and nutritional standpoint) to ready meals (at all ages) provided parents are preparing foods without added salt and sauces. The authors didn’t seem to reach this conclusion though. Perhaps the disingenuous comparison between cookbook recipes and ready meals, and the conclusion that ready meals may be better for babies, had something to do with the funding they received from Interface Food and Drink, an organization aimed at connecting the food and drink industry with researchers.

So, we know that home cooked meals can be healthy if parents don’t waste their money on special baby cookbooks. I think that it’s also important to note that the researchers were comparing quantities based on recipe yields and packages, not what babies are actually eating. Even if babies were eating recipes prepared from these cookbooks, they may not be eating every bite. Babies are much better than us adults at knowing when they’re full. If parents are respecting their babies cues and only feeding them as much as they show a desire to eat then it shouldn’t matter how much a recipe makes, or how much is in a package.

The true message from this study should be that you don’t need to waste your money on baby food cookbooks. Nor do you need to waste your money on packaged baby foods. Most babies will thrive on, and enjoy, a variety of simply prepared “normal” foods.

If you’re looking for more information on starting your baby on solids, I recommend visiting Best Start as well as watching this video from Toronto Public Health. If possible, sign-up for an infant feeding class through your local public health office.

 


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17 processed foods not all dietitians approve of

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I was lacking blogspiration and put out a call on twitter for ideas. I got a link back to this article (thanks Vanessa!): 17 Processed Foods Nutritionists Approve OfI started out reading and thought, “Yoghurt, frozen veggies, yup not so bad…”. Then I hit item number six and things plummeted from there.

Number six was granola. I love granola, don’t get me wrong. It’s delicious and it can be fairly nutritious. But… the store-bought varieties tend to be sugar-laden oats and I usually steer people away from those. In fact, most dietitians will tell you that commercially available granolas are usually merely masquerading as health food. On the other hand, when you make your own at home you can use less sweetener, you can use less oil (and choose the variety yourself), and you can pack it full of nutritious nuts and seeds.

I wasn’t a huge fan of number seven, veggie burgers, either. Again, you can make really great ones at home, but the processed store-bought versions tend to be very high in sodium. They’re often not very good sources of protein either as they’re often predominantly rice.

Then there was number eight: unsweetened almond milk?! What the heck. Now, I’m not against almond (or other milk substitutes per se) but I wouldn’t put them out there as a great processed food option. They’re very low in protein and not all of them are fortified with vitamins and minerals to put them on par with cow’s milk. They also have additives you won’t find in cow’s milk such as stabilizers and preservatives. Sure, they’re an option for those who can’t have cow’s milk due to veganism, and allergy, or lactose intolerance, and they can be a nice light alternative to milk on occasion, but I wouldn’t push them as a recommended choice.

It just keeps getting better: organic jelly came in at number nine. That would be essentially a strained jam. So, like, a fruit flavoured sticky sugar. Unlike “The Nutrition Twins” claim, this is not a fantastic way to get a dose of “antioxidants and phytonutrients”. And choosing organic likely has very little effect on the amount of pesticide residue in said jam. You want antioxidants and phytonutrients? Eat some damn fresh fruit.

Number ten was fortified cereals. Um… That would include Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, and all of those sugary cereals. The vast majority of cold cereals are not great choices from a nutrition standpoint. The healthiest cold cereal is plain shredded wheat & bran. Nothing but wheat. If you are trying to choose a cereal try to find one with sugar in the single digits and fibre over 4 grams. Also, make sure that the serving size is going to correspond with the size of your bowl!

11. Frozen pizza. They’re trolling me. Right? I’m going to get to the end of the list and discover that it’s some early April Fool’s Day joke. Most frozen pizzas are not something I would recommend. They’re usually very high in calories and sodium and very low in vitamins and minerals. If you want a quick pizza, you can make one on pita bread or an english muffin. Better yet, make your own dough. It doesn’t take long to mix and you can keep it in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for longer. Whip up a speedy skillet pizza loaded with fresh veg in under half an hour.

Pickles clock in at number 13 with the claim that they’re “processed through fermentation.” Which allegedly provides probiotics. I don’t know where these nutritionists are shopping but most commercially available pickles are not fermented. I love me a good dill pickle but it’s a treat because they’re very high in sodium. If you want fermented pickles, try making your own or hitting up a farmer’s market.

I don’t take exception with any of the foods I didn’t mention on the list. There are even others that I would add like pasta, frozen fruit, milk, regular cheese, flour… Processing in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can make foods edible and nutrients more bioavailable to our bodies. It’s when we’re relying on ready-to-eat highly processed packaged foods for the majority of meals that they’re an issue. Food manufacturers should not be the head cooks in our kitchens.


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Reverse food snobbery: Who has time to cook lasagna after work?

My friend Meaghan shared the above infographic with me last week to see what I thought. I thought that it was worthy of a blog post.

I think that it’s over simplifying a complex issue. How can you possibly put frozen peas in the same category as a packaged frozen lasagna? Frozen peas (and other frozen vegetables) are picked and frozen at their prime, meaning that they’re often more nutritious than their “fresh” counterparts on grocery store shelves. However, as you can see, even with their selection of lasagna, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a frozen lasagna that’s as healthy and nutritious as one that’s homemade. Who the heck is cooking lasagna as a weekday supper anyhow? Ain’t nobody got time for that! Let’s see some more realistic comparisons of quick and easy homemade suppers.

I’m not sure what the deal is with the packaged stir-fry pictured on the infographic. It appears to be a box but I would think that they’re referring to a frozen stir-fry mix. Sure, if you’re buying the frozen mixed vegetables without a sauce, they’re going to be easy to turn into a healthy stir-fry. However, if they’re already coated in a sauce you’re probably going to get more sodium, sugar, and fat (possibly trans fat) than you would if you made your own sauce.

Minimally processed packaged foods can be a great healthy time saver. However, you can’t equate buying pre-cut vegetables with a frozen tv dinner. As a dietitian, one of the main messages I hope to impart on people is the importance of cooking their own meals. If you’re trying to lose weight or just to be healthier this is probably the best thing you can do for yourself. And sorry, but taking a box out of the freezer and nuking it doesn’t count as cooking. I’d like to see the true cost of the frozen meals they’re pushing if you also factored in the shortened health-spans due to poor nutrition.

There’s also the not so subtle “reverse snobbery” (I’m stealing that one Meaghan) in the post accompanying the infographic. The implication that the average person doesn’t have time to cook and that their time is far too valuable to be spent *gasp* cooking. Yes, we’re all terribly busy, although we do somehow manage to find time to watch Big Brother or binge watch Orange is the New Black. I think that we, as a society, need to re-evaluate our priorities and put cooking right up near the top. The thing is, cooking doesn’t need to be a long torturous laborious process. There are plenty of healthy and delicious meals that you can whip up in less than half an hour after work. If you’re cooking for more than one, you can also enlist the help of other members of the household. You can prep ingredients the night before or batch cook on your days off. You can make extra portions so that you can have your own homemade nutritious frozen dinners ready to grab when you’re short on time. Cooking is not a luxury. It’s a necessity.


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Fed Up – Movie review

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I went to see the movie Fed Up last week. I think that the overall message was a good one: cook more, avoid highly processed packaged foods. Because of this, I feel a little bit torn about being critical of it. However, I feel that it’s going to be “preaching to the choir” anyhow so bringing up my issues is probably unlikely to do much to impact ticket sales. And even with my issues, it’s worth a watch.

First issue: why did they have to include so many people with quackerific tendencies (such as Mark Hyman and Robert Lustig)? Fortunately, there were some credible people with backgrounds in nutrition (such as Marion Nestle). Why were there no dietitians? I’m seeing the examples of what the obese children were eating and proclaiming as “healthy” (low-fat cereal, Special K chips, NUTELLA DIPPERS) and I’m thinking that maybe the problem here is lack of education and understanding of what “healthy” is. One of the mums was saying that they had the tools, and knew what to do, so they were going to do it on their own as her daughter was too young for Weight Watchers. Well, if those are the choices that you think are healthy, then you clearly don’t have the tools. Any dietitian could have set things straight. But no, Fed Up had to go and conflate the issue of obesity with the issue of excess sugar.

I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again no one nutrient is to blame in the obesity epidemic. Yes, indeed, too much of anything is bad for us but sugar alone is not what’s making everyone fat. The movie even talked about the true cause: the proliferation of inexpensive calorie-dense, nutrient lacking food everywhere we go. Our food system and environment. Why on earth they had to go and lose credibility by demonizing sugar is beyond me. Suggesting that sugar is the problem only provides the food industry with the ability to provide the “solution” by creating low-sugar and sugar-free foods. I can tell you right now that, that solution is going to work just as well as the low-fat, fat-free solution did. When you visit the home page for Fed Up the first thing you see is an option to sign-up for the challenge “sugar free for 10 days”. Not, cook supper and eat as a family for 10 days. Sigh.

Even though it was only a brief moment in the film, there was mention of how chefs like Jamie Oliver are going into schools and trying to help children to get excited about preparing and eating nutritious food. Yes, this is a good thing but I question how much more Jamie Oliver is a part of the solution than he is a part of the problem. Putting aside his lack of knowledge of nutrition, and his terrible lesson of teaching children to choose oranges over chocolate bars by forcing them to run around a track to burn-off the calories from their snack of choice, have you seen how many packaged foods he has in grocery stores? If the problem is unhealthy processed foods then a chef who is profiting from sales of said foods should not be too loudly lauded for his efforts to teach children and families about cooking on tv (which he is also profiting from). I’m not sure how much this differs from the much reviled McDonald’s selling crappy food but running a lovely charity like the Ronald McDonald House.

And why, oh why, did they feel the need to say “cook real food”. This is redundant. Who is cooking fake food? Just cook.

They also brought up the “calorie is not a calorie” argument. This makes me want to tear my hair out!!! A calorie is a unit of measure. Arguing that a calorie is not a calorie is like arguing that an inch is not an inch or a kilogram is not a kilogram. Yes, you should consume foods that contain vitamins and minerals alongside the calories but that does not negate the value of a calorie.

Okay… I’m almost done… The other issue I took exception to was the evidence presented that healthy eating is less expensive than unhealthy eating. They showed the cost for a fast food meal in comparison to the cost of a home made meal consisting of a whole chicken, rice, and veg. There are a couple of problems with this. One, the cost of the meal was based on what was used to make the meal, not what all of the ingredients would actually cost. You can’t just buy the exact amount of oil, rice, spices, etc to make one meal, you would spend considerably more to buy the full containers. Someone living in poverty might not have that money. And where the heck are they getting a whole chicken for only $5 and change!? Two, it presupposes that people have the skills, time, and facilities necessary to prepare a roast chicken dinner. Sadly, many people living with food insecurity (and obesity) lack these conveniences.

Did I learn anything while watching the film? No. Did I agree with everything in the film? No. Do I think it’s a worthwhile watch? Yes. Despite all of my issues with specific content, I’m still a supporter of the overall message to cook more food at home.

After writing this post a colleague on twitter (David Despain @daviddespain) shared a link to an excellent article critiquing the science in the movie.

…After publishing this post, a colleague informed me that the authors of the article (linked above) are actually a front group for the food industry. I still think that they made some valid points in their critique of Fed Up but this is a good lesson that we should question everything.


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Is sugar the “new tobacco”?

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The headline reads “Why are health experts calling sugar the new tobacco?” Because it’s catchy and makes for great headlines, duh!

I know that a lot of people are going to be pissed off with me for not taking up the cause and demonizing sugar. Sorry guys. I agree that most of us consume too much sugar (and too much of anything is a bad thing). I agree that excess sugar can cause cavities. I agree that the vast majority of us like sweet foods. However, I don’t believe that sugar is truly addictive… There is a difference between addiction and desire. Just because rats like oreos and sugar “lights up pleasure centres” in our brains doesn’t make it addictive.

I keep seeing claims that our bodies process calories from white sugar differently than calories from other foods. This makes no sense. The common definition of a calorie (technically a kilocalorie) is: the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one degree Celsius (1). There is no way for your body to differentiate between “types” of calories. There is only one type! Your body also can’t distinguish between sucrose in white sugar and sucrose in an apple. It is a chemical compound. It is what it is.

Calling on the food industry to reduce sugar content of foods is a dangerous proposition, in my opinion. Remember when we asked food manufacturers to reduce fat content? They added salt and sugar. Remember when we asked food manufacturers to reduce sodium? Not that much ever came of this. Point being, when they take something out they put something else in to replace it. We now know that fat is not inherently bad for us, nor is sodium, nor is sugar. No one of these things alone is causing obesity. Rather than asking food manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their foods we should be calling for less heavily processed foods.

Sugar is not the new tobacco. It’s the new scapegoat in the obesity wars.