Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Cruciferous crusaders or (not so) superfoods? The truth about veggies & cancer

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Did you hear the news? Last week it was announced that there’s no evidence of a link between vegetable and fruit consumption and risk of developing cancer. This proclamation was based on the results of a large-scale analysis of data from cohort studies in Japan.

Before everyone rejoices and throws the contents of their crispers in the compost, opting instead to have ice cream for supper maybe we should take a closer look at the original research.

The first caution I’d make is that this is based on a study of people in Japan. Because the average Japanese diet and lifestyle differs significantly from our North American diet and lifestyle we can’t conclude that results seen in people in Japan will apply to people in Canada or the US, or pretty much any other country.

The second caution, and this is the big one, is that the frequency of consumption of vegetables and fruit used in the study was very different from what’s recommended here. The greatest consumption of veg and fruit recorded in the study was “almost daily”. Compare that to the recommended 8-10 servings per day in Canada’s Food Guide. Stating daily consumption of veg and fruit tells us very little about the true picture of veg and fruit consumption. This categorization allows a person who eats one apple a day (and no other veg or fruit) to be viewed as the same as a person who eats veg and/or fruit at every meal and snack and consumes a wide variety of produce. The method of categorization in this study really only allows us to conclude that at minimal consumption levels, eating vegetables and fruit doesn’t appear to provide protection against cancer when compared to eating vegetables and fruit infrequently (or almost never??). The fact that almost never is even an option makes me wonder about the accuracy of self-reporting and the possibility that people in that group could be more likely to succumb to ailments such as scurvy before cancer would have a chance to get to them.

The third point to mention (although hopefully I don’t need to) is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because this study didn’t find a relationship between the consumption of vegetables and fruit and the development (or prevention) of cancer doesn’t mean that there isn’t a connection between the two. It’s possible that using different parameters might show that a greater consumption of vegetables is linked to a decreased risk of certain types of cancer.

The final point that I think is important to make is that we don’t eat food in order to prevent cancer. Even if this study is showing us that eating vegetables and fruit doesn’t confer protection against cancer upon us (and I’m not even remotely convinced that it does) there are plenty of other good reasons to eat vegetables and fruit. Vegetables and fruit provide us with many vitamins and minerals that are vital to the function of our bodies. They provide us with fibre which is essential for gut health. They provide us with water and energy, which are both necessary for our survival. They also add flavour, colour, and variety to our diets making meals and snacks enjoyable. All this to say that while cookies are delicious they still aren’t a balanced nutritious meal. Vegetables and fruit still have important roles to play in keeping us healthy.


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Comparing apples to oranges

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Image by Timothy Neesam on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Licence

A couple of weeks ago I saw someone with “an interest in nutrition” (this according to their bio) attempting to argue with a dietitian on twitter about nutrition. She had posted something about whole grains (I can’t remember exactly what) and he had asserted that vegetables are a better source of fibre than grains and are therefore nutritionally superior. I bit my tongue and restrained my texting fingers as I didn’t want to get into a circular 140 character argument on twitter when I should have been going to bed. Instead I saved my ranting for you. You’re welcome.

I see the argument that vegetables are superior to grains as disingenuous. You remember the saying about comparing apples to oranges, right? Well, there’s a reason for that saying. It makes no sense to compare two things that are very different. Just like comparing apples to oranges is nonsensical, so is comparing vegetables to grains. Sure, some vegetables might have more fibre than some grains. But other vegetables have very little, and other grains have lots. We also don’t eat foods for single nutrients. There are different nutritional benefits to both grains and vegetables.

People often ask me if X vegetable is better than Y. The answer is pretty much always that they’re both good for different reasons. It’s like asking a parent which child they love more. I love all vegetables equally, but differently. Just because one vegetable has more vitamin C in it doesn’t make it better than another vegetable that may have more potassium.

We also don’t eat foods solely for their nutritional composition. Sometimes we actually eat them because they taste good! Eating doesn’t have to only be about what nutrients we can obtain from the food.

Eating isn’t a competition (unless you’re in an eating competition). It’s not an either or proposition. Foods work together to provide us with all of the nutrients we need. That can include both grains and vegetables.


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Grocery store lessons: Catelli “SuperGreens” pasta

I was getting some groceries last week when I saw a new product in the pasta aisle. Catelli SuperGreens”.

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Immediately I said, “I feel a blog post coming on!”.

Remember that vegetable bread? Total scam, right? And, according to my sources, pretty revolting to boot. Well, this pasta is no different (at least in the scam regard, I presume it tastes much like regular pasta).

How did Catelli get the vegetables in the pasta? Well, they added some vegetable powders (spinach, zucchini, broccoli, parsley, and kale). Super! Green! Hold-up though, before you decide your plate of pasta counts as your vegetables for the day think about how that compares to actual vegetables. Well, because of the processing that the veggies have undergone to become powders, and because the quantities added are likely negligible, there’s no comparing the two. You’re not getting any of the vitamins and minerals that you would by eating any of those actual vegetables.

I was curious how this “SuperGreens” pasta would compare to regular pasta. Catelli didn’t seem to have a plain old pasta option in the same format so I opted to look at their “Smart” pasta which is just regular pasta with added fibre.

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As you can see, nutritionally the “SuperGreens” is nearly identical to the “Smart” pasta. In fact, the “Smart” pasta may be slightly better from a nutritional standpoint as it’s got more B vitamins, more fibre, and less sodium (although these differences are fairly minuscule).

If you like this new “SuperGreens” pasta, there’s nothing wrong with eating it. Just know that it doesn’t contribute to your vegetable servings. There’s nothing “super” about this, except maybe the marketing tactic. There’s nothing green about it either, except maybe the cash Catelli will be pulling in from the ridiculous representation of this product. You know what goes great with pasta though? A vegetable-rich sauce.

 


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You can make friends with salad

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In the wake of the hate on almonds, kale, and countless other vegetables comes the defamation of salads. And dietitians everywhere wept into their leafy greens.

Now, while the author is proclaiming that “salad vegetables are pitifully low in nutrition” his real points wilt down to derision for two things: lettuce and fast food salads.

The problem with lettuce is that it contains very few nutrients and uses a lot of water to grow. The problem with fast food salads is that they’re often packed with calorific ingredients like candied nuts, deep-fried croutons, and creamy dressings while containing few vitamins and minerals as they’re predominantly lettuce-based. No argument here. Let’s look a little closer at the first claim though.

Yes, lettuce is not exactly an outstanding vegetable in the land of superfoods. That doesn’t mean that we should quit it entirely. It does contain some nutrients and precisely because it contains relatively few calories it can be a great choice for anyone who’s trying to manage their weight. Four cups of romaine lettuce contains only 40 calories! For one of the very reasons that the author eschews lettuce many people choose to eat it. The water in that lettuce also contributes to your hydration; it’s not like it’s just going to waste.

Even if lettuce isn’t the greatest. That’s no reason to dismiss salads entirely. Lettuce is not an essential salad ingredient. If you want some nutrient-packed salad greens go for spinach, kale, or shredded brussels sprouts. Salads can include loads of nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits, everything from apples to zucchini. You can include grains, nuts, seeds, cheese, meat. The salad combinations are endless, delicious, and nutritious. Salads are so much more than just lettuce.