Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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You won’t need a meal plan in the nanny state

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You know what I find ironic? And not Alanis ironic, which is really just crap luck, but genuinely ironic. How vehemently opposed to government “interference” in their lives many people are and how many people ask me to give them meal plans. I’ve had people say to me “just tell me what to eat” (if you’d like to know why I don’t do that, check out this old post). Which is voluntarily completely relinquishing control of what they put in their mouths and people are willing to pay for this service. Yet, people rail on and on about the “nanny state” and how the government should stay out of our kitchens when all public health wants to do is help make it easier for you to make healthier choices.

No one in government wants to tell you exactly what to eat at every meal. Through legislation public health dietitians would like to make nutritionally void foods (like pop and candy) less accessible. We would like to ensure that fast food joints can’t open across the street from schools so that your children aren’t eating shakes and fries every day. We would like to make sure that local food systems are strengthened so that farmers are making living wages and produce is affordable and accessible.

Unlike what people want from a meal plan, we want to make it easy for people to make healthy choices. We don’t want to forbid you from buying pop or chips, we just want to make it easier for you to buy carrots or to fill-up your water bottle.

Why is it that people are so ready to relinquish all control over their diets to a dietitian or nutritionist but when it comes to creating an environment in which making healthy choices would be easier suddenly everyone’s all up in arms?

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Warning!: Your groceries may be making you fat

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My friend and fellow dietitian Gemma tweeted a link to this story: Bespoke health warnings on supermarket till receipts to fight obesity last week. After checking to see if she had a blog post planned on the topic, and receiving her go-ahead to write about it, here I am!

The idea is that supermarkets could print tailored nutrition advice on customer receipts based on the items they purchase. These would be warnings based on the purchases a customer makes. Too much fatty food? Your receipt might tell you to skip the chips next time and go for the carrots instead. Too much sugar? Your receipt might tell you to lay off the candy bars and buy some lettuce. As current efforts to curb the obesity epidemic have been failing, apparently Public Health thinks that this might “nudge” customers to make healthier choices. Because shaming works so well. *Tears out hair* Sigh.

Thankfully, this idea is still in the early stages. I hope that this means it will never see the light of day. Why? There are a number of issues with this endeavor. As I pointed out, fat shaming (or any type of dietary shaming) is not an effective method to induce behaviour change. Does anyone really want their grocery store judging their purchases? Telling them they shouldn’t have bought that ice cream for a party? I certainly don’t. I know that with all of the misleading marketing and packaging navigating the grocery store aisles can be difficult and time-consuming. However, I don’t think many people need to be reminded that what they’re buying is crap when they load up their carts with fries and pop. If a grocery store had receipts that made me feel badly about my purchases I would probably just shop at another store. That leads me to a few other issues.

One, if a public health campaign like this were to be undertaken, it would have to be implemented in all supermarkets in order to be effective. I don’t think anyone is going to choose to shop at a chain because the receipts there tell them they made bad choices. Two, would anyone even look at these nutrition statements on their receipts? I know that I rarely examine my receipts. If a campaign doesn’t reach most people, even if were well-designed, it’s unlikely to be effective. Three, public health would need to get buy-in from the supermarkets, and I don’t see that happening. Why would any retailer want customers to leave feeling worse about themselves than when they entered their store? Removing candy from the tills makes sense. It’s great publicity and it’s something that customers want. Shaming customers for their purchases is not good publicity, and as far as I’m aware, it’s not something customers are clamouring for.

My final concern is with how the algorithm to determine nutritional merit of foods would be created. Would someone be told to buy less fatty food if they bought a jar of coconut oil or a stick of butter? Would they be told to buy less sugar if they bought a bottle of maple syrup? How would “unhealthy” be determined? What about someone who buys mostly fresh produce and minimally processed foods but throws a bag of chips in there or some cheese? Would a block of cheese be given the same treatment as a bag of chips? After all, there would be more fat in a block of cheese than a bag of chips.

I see this campaign as both problematic and offensive. If public health really wants to see systemic change they should work to change the system, not the consumer.


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Smart Swaps: Not so smart

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Public health is hard. I get it. I was there. It’s hard to come up with ways to improve population health. Nutrition is a particularly difficult area to address. After all, it’s not like smoking where you know that it’s unhealthy and your goal is to convince people to quit (or never start). Nutrition and our relationships with food are complicated. Unfortunately, in most cases, public health campaigns fall flat. I’m afraid that’s going to be the case with the latest Smart Swaps campaign in Britain.

As a few people point out in this news article, money could have been better spent revamping the food system to encourage healthy choices. I’d also like to suggest core curriculum for students so that food skills can be learned young and shared with the entire family.

Beyond the issues raised in the article (i.e. that resources could have been better used elsewhere) I have a bit of an issue with the smart swaps included in the campaign. They seem to be predominantly focussed on calories and weight loss. Yes, there’s swapping sugary cereal to unsweetened cereal, and swapping  sugar sweetened beverages to unsweetened beverages. Not bad swaps. But how about swapping whole milk to low-fat milk, and then swapping that for skimmed milk?  Or swapping butter to lower-fat butter or spreads and cheese to reduced-fat cheese? Yes, that will save you calories but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re making healthier choices. Fat is not the enemy. Too much of anything is the enemy. Too much highly processed convenience food is the enemy. Not cooking (using minimally processed ingredients) is the enemy. These simple swaps are too simplistic to address the growing problem of obesity and malnutrition.


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Don’t fear the fluoride

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My dad suggested that I read an article in The Coast last month and, slacker that I am, I just got around to reading it. It was written by the founder of “Safe Water Halifax”, an organization opposed to the addition of fluoride to our municipal water supply. Honestly, I find it appalling that an article could be written by a homeopath and student of holistic nutrition, claim to be supportive of science, and yet contain zero links to scientific research. This is not an opinion piece. This is not a personal blog. This is a newspaper article which makes claims regarding the safety of fluoridation yet cites no research to support the claims. The argument? Fluoride is poison and the government has no right to added things to our water.

If fluoride in our water is poisoning us then why is there absolutely no mention in the article of the ailments it’s inflicting upon us? I did blog last year about a report claiming that fluoride in drinking water lowered IQs in children, and was pretty much responsible for every imaginable illness (but wait!… I thought that was wheat…). A statement by the Institute for Science in Medicine provides some background on the history of municipal water fluoridation. It states that at levels between 0.6 and 1.1 ppm there is a wide margin of safety while providing the benefit of increased tooth and bone strength and decreased cavities in children by 20-40%. Only at concentrations greater than 4.0 ppm does it become a risk. And that risk is more cosmetic (i.e. stained teeth) than anything. In Halifax, the average level of fluoride in the water supply is 0.72 ppm. Well within safe limits.

I think that it’s great for people to question the decisions of government and to do research to look out for our own best interests. However, when the crux of your argument is that you distrust anything the government is adding to your food it’s not exactly a solid argument. Without the addition of iron and folic acid to white flour many more people would be suffering from iron-deficiency anemia and many more children would be born with neural tube defects. Iron, like fluoride, is a mineral. Iron, like fluoride (and nearly everything) can be toxic in excessive amounts. Yet, it would be physically impossible to overdose on iron by eating bread. The same can be said for drinking fluoridated tap water. You would die from hyponatremia before you would perish from fluoride toxicity. The fortification of flour with folic acid has been the most effective measure in reducing neural tube defects, such as spina bifida. The addition of iodine to table salt reduced the incidence of goiters and mental deficiency significantly in North America. However, iodine deficiency is becoming a public health concern again as we increasingly use un-iodized salts such as sea salt and rely on un-fortified processed foods. I could go on and on… What about vitamin D added to milk? Calcium and vitamin D enriched milk alternatives?

My point is that the addition of vitamins and minerals to foods and beverages is done to benefit the population. There is no more reason to fear the fluoride in our water than there is to fear all of the other examples above.


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If people don’t use calorie labels should we do away with them?

Image from blog.fooducate.com

Image from blog.fooducate.com

A recent study found that the majority of chain restaurant frequenters in the US don’t use nutrition information when it’s made available on the menu. The news articles seemed to be saying that we just shouldn’t bother to include that information on menus as people aren’t using it anyway.

According to the study, only about 36% of people who frequent chain and fast food restaurants use the nutrition information to influence their decisions. Not a huge number but… That’s a sight better than the 0% we had before nutrition information was posted. I think we also need to take into consideration that the sorts of people who are most inclined to use nutrition information when making food choices are also the least likely to be frequenting fast food outlets on a regular basis.

Instead of removing nutrition information because it’s not being used by the majority of customers we should be figuring out how to get people more interested in what they’re putting into their mouths. This is where the government should step up and introduce some multi-pronged public health campaigns. These should serve to educate the public about the benefits of healthy food and the negative effects of malnutrition. They should also raise awareness about nutrition labels, how to read them, and why they’re a useful tool in making healthy choices. They should engage people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and age groups.

Admittedly, there are some problems with nutrition labelling. We must be aware that the labels are not always accurate, particularly in restaurants where there is a likelihood that menu items may not be prepared exactly the same every time and where restaurants wish to show their products in the best possible light. Despite the downfalls, nutrition label are more accurate than our eyes at measuring calories and nutrient content of foods. Rather than doing away with them we should be doing more to help people to use them.