Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Is milk out?

I’ve been hearing a number of complaints and concerns about the new Food Guide. The one I’ve been hearing the most is that “dairy is out”. I’d like to dispel that. No, dairy is not “out”. Yes, the “milk and alternatives” food group is gone; as is “meat and alternatives” but milk and dairy products still fit within the protein group in the new guide.

The Food Guide now recommends a proportion-based approach to eating, rather than a more prescriptive portion-based approach. Rather than telling you how many servings of each food group to have every day, and how big a serving is, the new guide simply advises you make half your plate vegetables (and fruit), one quarter protein foods, and the other quarter whole grains. It promotes consuming plant-based protein foods “more often”. This is pretty subjective and should – in theory – make it a lot easier for people to adopt. For some people this may mean consuming plant-based protein foods in larger amounts than animal-based proteins. For others, this may mean consuming plant-based sources of protein more often than they usually do. In a country that’s extremely meat-centric this could mean something as simple as adding more beans to a chili and cutting back on the meat slightly.

I’d also like to point out that given that a quarter of your plate should be devoted to protein foods you can easily mix and match to your heart’s content. This might mean that you have lentils and salmon (like I did last night), cheese and bean casserole, tofu and chicken, etc. It might mean that at one meal your protein comes from milk or meat but that at another it comes from legumes or nuts. Snacks can (and generally should) also include a source of protein. If you eat three meals and two snacks a day this means that there are ample opportunities for you to consume protein from a variety of foods, including milk products if you desire.

Personally, I think that having a food group specifically for milk (and alternatives) was unwarranted and I’m glad to see it go. There are many people who can’t consume milk products (due to lactose intolerance or an allergy) as well as those who choose not to and it is entirely possible to consume a nutritious diet without the inclusion of milk. For those who are concerned about where people will get their vitamin D and calcium from without milk products there are other food sources of these nutrients.

Vitamin D is pretty near impossible to consume enough of through food sources alone anyway, at least during the winter months in Canada and Health Canada recommends all adults over the age of 50 take a supplement of 400 IU/d. I’d also like to point out that milk is fortified with vitamin D as are most plant-based milk alternatives (always check the label to be sure). Other food sources of vitamin D include: egg yolks, salmon and other fatty fish, some meats, and other fortified foods which may include things such as orange juice and cereal.

Non-dairy food sources of calcium include: dark leafy greens (like spinach, collards, and kale), soy beverage, canned fish (eat those bones!), tofu (if prepared with calcium), beans, nuts, seeds, and even blackstrap molasses.

If you are concerned that you may not be meeting your nutrient needs through your diet I recommend keeping a food journal and making an appointment with a registered dietitian.


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Another hot take on Canada’s new food guide

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You all know that I can always find something to bitch about. I’m that girl who’s always the one to find a bug in her freshly picked raspberries or the bone in her piece of fish. My mum will attest to that. It was a running joke in my family that if there was anything weird to be found in the food, I would be the one to find it. So, it should come as no surprise that I have lots to say about the new food guide. But… it may come as a surprise that I don’t actually have anything negative to say about it! In fact, I think it’s pretty fucking great.

In no particular order, here are the changes that I’m most excited about:

  • The addition of food skills (and food literacy). This is literally 85% of my job and it feels really good to have Health Canada supporting it as an important part of healthy eating.
  • The removal of juice as a serving of fruit. It’s going to be so nice not to have to deal with that terrible piece of advice anymore.
  • The removal of serving sizes and recommended number of servings. They confused people and it’s impossible to make recommendations that will work for the entire population. I can’t wait to no longer hear “I can’t eat ALL that” again.
  • I’m glad they got rid of the meat and alternatives and milk and alternatives food groups and lumped them into a proteins group from which they encourage plant-based sources of protein.
  • I appreciate the inclusion of Indigenous foods and ways of eating and the acknowledgement that many people in remote communities and on reserves may struggle to meet the recommendations in the food guide.
  • Following from that, I also appreciate the recognition that external factors, in particular, many social determinants of health, can affect the ability of people to follow a healthy diet.
  • I’m glad that water is recommended as the beverage of choice, again bye bye juice and chocolate milk 👋🏻👋🏻👋🏻
  • I like that the emphasis is on promoting health and only once is weight mentioned. As I’ve ranted about in the past, the food guide is not supposed to be a weight loss diet plan.
  • The photos included in the guide are really appealing. They look way more appetizing to me than the old cartoonish images did. Plus, they’re all about full meals and not just random foods.
  • The overall focus is on a healthy pattern of eating, not just individual nutrients. Much more in-line with how we actually eat. Plus it’s advised that we enjoy (wow!) our food.

My one concern (aside from a couple of very minor things) is that apparently Health Canada does not plan on making the resources for the general public available in print. I think this is a huge mistake. Not everyone has ready Internet access. Also, the old food guide was used in schools and other educational settings (including the food literacy classes I teach) as a teaching tool. I work in public health and we get MANY requests from schools, organizations, and individuals for copies of the food guide. I’m not sure how we’re going to educate people and incorporate the food guide into our programs if we don’t have a print resource available. I hope that Health Canada will reconsider this decision so that everyone has equal opportunity to benefit from the new food guide.


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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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Protein: the latest killer lurking in your food

Image by noodles and beef on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Image by noodles and beef on flickr. Used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Oh good, just what we all need, more fear mongering. That’s one thing we certainly don’t get enough of as part of our current diet. So, what’s the latest to spark fear into the tummies of eaters everywhere? Protein. Yep, apparently, our “obsession” with protein is actually making us sick. This according to Garth Davis, a surgeon, and author of the forthcoming book Proteinaholics. Cute name, no? Right up there with Grain Brain and Wheat Belly.

Davis proposes that we’re all eating too much protein and that it’s having dire health consequences. According to the article an average 150 lb adult in the US consumes the equivalent of more than 6 eggs worth of protein in a day. I’m not sure how the math was done to obtain this conclusion (I guess that “more than” must be integral) as I have six large eggs clocking in at 6 grams of protein a piece which would be 36 grams of protein for the day which is actually less than the recommended 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day. In fact, it leaves our “average adult” about 18 grams of protein shy of the recommended adequate intake. Not to mention the fact that while the AI is expected to meet, or exceed, the needs of most individuals, it doesn’t account for those who have increased nutrient needs such as athletes, those who are injured (particularly people suffering from burns), pregnant women, the elderly, etc. To the article author’s credit, she does go on to mention that there are some researchers who believe that the AI for protein should be increased, providing some balance to the article if you manage to read the whole piece.

Another good point made in the article is that we get protein from many foods, particularly foods that people don’t think of as protein sources. Things like grains and vegetables. However, this is undermined by the example provided comparing the protein content of a packet of Mr Noodles with the protein in a Clif Bar. An unfortunate choice because your standard Clif Bar isn’t a protein bar, it’s an energy bar. This may sound like a minor quibble but when most protein supplements provide around 20 grams of protein per serving, comparing an energy bar with 11 grams of protein (still nothing to sniff at) to Mr Noodles (which have 10 grams in the chicken flavour used for comparison but as few as 4 grams in some other flavours) is rather foolish. To digress from protein for a moment… While the Clif Bar is also high in sugar (about 5 teaspoons!) it does contain other vitamins and minerals and fibre while your packet of Mr Noodles will give you more than half a day’s worth of sodium. I know that the focus of the article was protein but it’s important not to make the focus of nutritional comparisons single nutrients.

Onto the dangers of our proteinaholic diets. Ketosis. Which, based on the article, you would think occurs after consuming a single protein supplement (sans carbs) and leads to nausea, fatigue, and headaches. Apparently feeling miserable is why you lose weight, you’re simply less inclined to eat. While I’m not a supporter of ketosis for weight loss (I love carbs and I don’t think that very-low carb diets are sustainable) I think that there may be some confusion between ketosis and ketoacidosis here. Ketosis is the result of following a low-carb diet (not necessarily a high-protein diet) and may initially result in symptoms such as frequent urination, dry mouth, and headache. People who are in ketosis often report a sense of euphoria and a lack of hunger once these initial symptoms pass. Nausea and vomiting may occur in the case of ketoacidosis which is when ketones build-up in the blood, making it acidic. This can happen to people with diabetes, during starvation, and in conjunction with other medical condition, not on a low-carb diet.

Animal proteins apparently also make you fat, cause cancer and diabetes. Also, the amino acids (which are building blocks of proteins) leach calcium from muscles and bones. To address the first statement: animal protein might cause you to gain weight, if you consume too much of it. So might cookies. Consuming excessive calories from any source can lead to weight gain. Animal protein might be a factor in cancer development, certainly processed meats and burnt meat have been identified as risk factors. As for diabetes, there has been an association noted between higher consumption of meat and type 2 diabetes; however, there has been no causal link made to date. To address the second statement: this myth has been around for a number of years. Recent research indicates that protein consumption does not reduce bone density, in fact, it may actually help to boost calcium retention.

“Although it’s necessary for us to grow, it also helps grow cancer cells. It’s instructive that breast milk, which humans consume during the fastest growing period of our lives, derives just five per cent of its calories from protein.”

Funny, I thought it was sugar that was feeding cancer. If you believed all of the fear mongering out there you wouldn’t be able to eat anything. Do I really need to tell you that infants are different than adults? If breastmilk was the optimal way for humans beyond the age of 2 years to obtain nutrition then we’d all be drinking breastmilk on the daily. As we age, our nutrient needs change; in connection with increased caloric needs we also see increased protein needs.

We’ve seen so many diets purporting that this or that macronutrient is evil. I’m not saying eat more meat, most Canadians could certainly benefit from consuming less. However, it seems to me that people like Davis are conflating protein with meat. You can’t paint all protein-containing foods with the same brush and his message only serves to scare people away from protein in general. In my mind, this is not promoting a healthy way of eating. Nor am I saying that protein supplements are necessary, sorry Vega, they’re really not.

Davis says, “If I can’t convince you that protein is bad for you, I can’t convince you that water is wet.” Awesome. I’m looking forward to no longer having to towel off after I shower.


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Thoughts on “The Myth of High-Protein Diets”

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Image used under a Creative Commons Licence. Photo by Sean_Hickin on flickr.

Part of me is a little hesitant to address the op-ed piece by Dr Dean Ornish in the New York Times last week. This because, the low-fat zealots have already attacked me for criticizing Dr Esselstyn in the past. But, you know me, when something gets under my skin I can’t leave it well enough along.

The piece was titled: The Myth of High-Protein Diets. One would think that the accompanying article would be about pitfalls to following a high-protein diet. However, Dr Ornish focusses solely on animal protein, with an emphasis on meat and fat. The gist of his argument is that if you eschew animal products you will live longer, as will the planet. Okay, so it’s not the myth of high-protein diets. It’s the myth of high-animal products diets.

One of the studies Ornish cites is one that I blogged about a year ago. At the time it ignited headlines proclaiming that protein was akin to smoking and that animal protein would contribute to our premature demise. Suffice to say, the study was flawed and these conclusions were tenuously drawn. In fact, in older adults, diets that were higher in protein were actually positively correlated with reduced mortality. And there was no negative effect from plant sources of protein at any age. So, even with the poor quality of this research, some of the results were in direct opposition to Ornish’s interpretation of them.

I read articles like this and think to myself “it’s no wonder that people are confused about what to eat and don’t trust any health care professionals”. You have one doctor insisting that a low-carb diet is the key to a long healthy life, another insisting that it’s low-fat, another insisting that it’s high-carb, another insisting that it’s blahblahblah. Of course, they all have the book to sell you. Maybe they’re all right. Maybe you can be healthy one any of their highly-restrictive diets. As I’ve said before, the best diet is the one that you can enjoy and follow for life. For me, that involves eating fat, protein, and carbs from both plant and animal sources. Yeah, I know it’s not sexy, but balance and variety are the hallmarks of a nutritious diet.