Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Just because it’s “always delicious” doesn’t mean it’s not a diet book

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Last week I attended the Ambition Nutrition Symposium in Toronto, to which I was fortunate enough to win free tickets. The theme of the conference was “bringing it home” and was intended to help translate nutrition theory into the kitchen and onto client’s plates. While I’m not sure the day really succeeded in that regard, I still found it to be an interesting conference with a variety of speakers and delicious food (thank you George Brown culinary students!). That being said, from my perspective, there was an elephant in the room. That elephant was the tension between professions and dietary dogma.

We started the day with a great presentation by Dr. Kelly Brownell, director of the World Food Policy Centre, among numerous other titles. He spoke about the difficulty we often face when addressing food-related issues through policy as something that benefits one area (e.g. nutrition) may cause unintended harm in another (e.g. agriculture). The goal of his new centre is to bring stakeholders from all the areas together to try to develop policies that will benefit all areas. As an aside, one thing I noticed about the list of stakeholders he shared was the lack of the public. As “end users” I think that it’s essential that the public (or specific groups from the public such as those experiencing food insecurity) are involved in these discussions.

Later in the morning we had an excellent presentation by Nishta Saxena, a dietitian. Maybe I’m a little bit biased as an RD but I felt that she did a fantastic job of presenting the struggles we face in addressing healthy eating with clients when they are constantly bombarded by misinformation in social media. How do we combat “sexy” social media influencers as professionals who must provide evidence-based factual information and are less inclined to posed half naked with overflowing mason jars of green smoothies? Several years later and dietitians still aren’t sexy ;)

We also had Saxena and chef Christine Cushing call out juicing and juice diets (while a new cold pressed juice company presented at one of the breakout sessions and provided samples during food breaks). Cushing mocked the caveman diet and then we had a snack break with “paleo” brownies. Saxena belittled meal kits and our swag bags contained a coupon for Hello Fresh. Hello elephant.

Follow-up Saxena’s fantastic presentation with a discussion with Dr. David Ludwig and his wife chef Dawn Ludwig to promote their new book “Always Delicious” which we all got a copy of in our swag bags. Full disclosure, I have been critical of Ludwig in the past. I tried to come into it with an open mind though, I really did but the elephant would not settle down. Despite their protestations that it was not a diet book, if it talks about weight loss, fat adaptation, is filled with testimonials (from readers who have lost weight), and has a prescriptive DIET with three phases, it’s a goddamn diet book. I’m not going to get into the science of his insulin hypothesis here because my point is not to critique his beliefs but if you want to read more about it I recommend this short article by Stephan Guyenet. I’m also not here to question the “success” people have had on Ludwig’s diet. If people are happier and healthier following this plan, I think that’s great. My issue is with the framing of this diet as the best way to eat for everyone and that the best way of eating is one that promotes weight loss. They talked about “NSVs” (non-scale victories) but the only examples I saw in the book and heard during the talk were a reduction in blood pressure and going down a pant size (which while technically not a weight loss “victory” is still a “victory” over an “unruly” body).

For a day that was meant to promote health through food there was a whole lot of talk about The Obesity Problem which is really not the direction that we want to take if we want to encourage people to have healthy relationships with food and their kitchens. I encourage everyone to read this piece about one woman’s “life as a public health crisis”.  If obesity is a “problem” then food is the enemy. That mindset does not lead to healthy attitudes and behaviours. You don’t need to “retrain” your fat cells, they are not disobedient puppies. Rather, we as a society need to retrain our attitudes toward our bodies and our food so that we can once again be friends with both.

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Healthspan app review

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I read this article about a “new app that identifies your nutrition gap” a little while ago. According to the article, the app (Healthspan) will make individualized supplement recommendations that you can order in-app based on your diet. Naturally, I was concerned. Ideally, we should be aiming to obtain the majority of our nutrients from food. I envisioned an app designed to push supplement sales and was concerned about the safety and accuracy of recommendations made through an app. I figured I shouldn’t knock it until I tried it though so I downloaded the free app and tried it out for a week.

Healthspan is very similar to other food and activity tracking apps in that you enter your daily food consumption and your physical activity. I’ve written about some of the pitfalls of these apps before, in particular their accuracy when it comes to calories burned and the notion of “earning” more food with exercise.

When you first download Healthspan you enter your weight, height, age, etc and it gives you your daily caloric intake to attain your goal. According to the app, for me to maintain my current weight I should consume 1143 calories a day. This is quite low and certainly lower than the number of calories I actually consume every day. Of course, I “earn” more calories through my regular exercise. Just for fun I changed my goal to see what my daily caloric allotment would be if I wanted to lose two kilos. I now have a measly 914 calories per day to work with. To put that in perspective that’s roughly the calories in a Big Mac and medium fries. A 900 calorie per day diet is generally considered to be a very low calorie diet and not recommended to be undertaken without medical supervision. The app however, provided me with no warning. It just readily lowered my daily calorie goal. Interestingly, when I further decreased my goal weight to 44 kg (which would render me significantly underweight for my height) my calorie goal remained at 914/day.

Healthspan does offer you the opportunity to obtain free supplement samples when you register. Unfortunately, they’re only available to those in the UK so I was unable to determine what the samples were. Following that, you can order supplements through the app but the description of this process given in the original article is a little off-base. The app doesn’t make recommendations based on your recorded dietary intake. Rather, you complete a questionnaire and based on your responses it recommends a multivitamin supplement. The recommendation seemed pretty generic for any woman of my age (see below). Despite this, it still concerns me that supplements are available through the app given the questionable quality and safety of many supplements available on the market.

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Aside from this, another rather significant issue I had with the app was logging my food intake. While it was quite user-friendly to enter foods and beverages I’d consumed, the selection was extremely limited and there was no way to determine ingredients in mixed dishes, nor to enter your own recipes or nutrition information. For example, I made a vegetable curry for supper one evening. There was a vegetable curry option I could add but there was no way of knowing if the ingredients were similar to the curry I ate and for anyone who’s ever had curry, you know that the recipes can vary considerably. The same held for other dishes such as smoothies, lasagna, granola, stir-fry, and so on. There was also a number of foods that I couldn’t find at all in the database and had to make my best guess at what would be most similar. Based on this, I question the ability of the app to record calorie and nutrient intake even remotely accurately.

Each day, the app gives you a score out of 100 that appears to be based on your physical activity and calorie consumption. However, participation in challenges also counts toward this score. Without participating in these optional challenges, I was never able to achieve better than a 60 on any one day. On most days, I was even lower than this. Personally, even though I wasn’t using the app to genuinely achieve any goal, I found this really discouraging. If I was actually trying to reach personal nutrition and physical activity goals I can imagine this score would be off-putting.

I know that people really like apps to track things like food and exercise but I’d give Healthspan a pass if you’re looking for an app for these things.

 

 

 


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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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Magical fat burning snacks

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As long as there continue to be articles about fat-burning foods I’m going to have to continue to write blog posts to counteract them. The latest to enter my radar was 20 Snacks That Burn Fat on health.com. A website that seems to be almost entirely devoted to magical food beliefs.

Without even looking at what these snacks are I can tell you that there is no such thing as a “fat burning” food. Food (with a few rare exceptions that some would argue are not actually food) contains calories. Calories provide us with energy to move and function and survive. Despite what diet gurus would have us believe, they are essential to life. Without sufficient calories we will starve to death. Of course, eating more than we need to perform daily activities will result in the storage of that excess energy as fat. This will occur with the overconsumption of any food. Yes, even those foods touted as “fat burning”.

What makes people believe that some foods have the magical ability to result in net energy loss? Generally it’s based on the misinterpretation of the thermic effect of food (TEF) and the indigestibility of some components of certain foods. TEF is higher for some foods, such as those high in protein and hot spices, than in others. Basically, all it means is that a greater amount of energy is needed to digest those foods than others with lower thermic effects. For example, if you eat a butter cookie, you’re going to absorb a greater percentage of the calories in that cookie than you would if you ate a bunch of nuts because your digestive system needs to expend more energy to digest nuts than it does to digest simple carbs and fat.

Regardless of the level of spice in a food, protein, or the quantity of indigestible components, such as cellulose and some types of fibre, no food is going to result in negative net calories and no food is going to specifically target and deplete fat stores in your body. Instead of forcing yourself to scarf a bunch of celery because you want to lose weight and then eating a box of cookies because you’re hungry and miserable, try focusing on nourishing your body and enjoying your food. Think less about weight and more about how you feel. There are no magic weight loss foods but it’s pretty amazing how much better you feel when you eat mostly whole foods and break free from the diet mindset.

 


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Rocco’s dispiriting diet

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Okay, I have to go and be all unsexy again and tell you that a healthy diet doesn’t have to consist of ridiculously overpriced supplements and complicated recipes made from rare ingredients scavenged by sherpas from the top of mountains in Peru, or whatever. I know that it’s boring and basic but you can eat only easily identifiable foods, available at your local grocery store, simply prepared and be healthy.

What prompted this? Have you seen the news about celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito’s “unbelievable amounts of food” diet? You know what it reminded me of when I was reading it? That moon juice lady’s diet.

I think it’s fantastic that Rocco is feeling healthy on his diet. That doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone. Just because he’s lost weight doesn’t mean he’s suddenly an expert on weight management or nutrition. Just like how everyone who eats seems to fancy themselves nutrition experts, it seems like everyone who’s lost weight fancies themselves to be weight loss gurus. It’s like that time my boyfriend’s knee was mysteriously swollen and I told him it was probably bursitis and he went to emerg and waited a quadrillion hours to have the doctor take a cursory glance at him and reach the same diagnosis. So, basically, I’m a doctor now and if you tell me your ailments I’ll diagnose you. Save you a bunch of time in emerg.*

Anyway… Rocco’s diet honestly doesn’t sound like all that much food to me. I do manage to put away quite a bit myself but if he’s starting his day with an almond milk protein shake (more about this later) he’s probably not starting off with many calories. His next “meal” was cantaloupe with stevia and his homegrown herb puree “sugar-free” of course which is very important when you’re pairing it with a fruit that’s calories pretty much 100% come from sugar. Next was pickled mackerel (fresh from the boat; don’t even bother if you don’t have your own personal fisherperson). Afternoon snack was: Bluefish Tacomole. ‘It’s a taco shell that we make from fiber and protein and it had guacamole and local bluefish made on our 700 degree plancha.'” Second afternoon snack was a bar and a shake (both products available for purchase on his website, more on this later as well). Supper was taste-testing some food he prepared for an event. No wonder he found himself “starving” when he got home at 3 am and promptly scarfed: “Berry Beignets, Stuffed Green Peppers with Turkey and Tomato, Chocolate Protein Bar”. Pretty much the closest thing to a proper meal he ate all day.

Because Rocco has become a weight loss expert simply by shedding 30 pounds he now sells a line of affordable outrageously overpriced nutritional supplements so that we can all benefit from this expertise he can make money. Links in the article (which leave me wondering, is this really an article or a thinly veiled advertisement?) take you to his product website. Naturally, there is no information on the size of each product, nor the nutrition information, but these are minor details when you’re buying the perfect body. Rocco’s “Just Shakes” boast home delivery (which is apparently unique when Internet shopping) and, “contain 28 grams or more protein, are dairy free, sugar free, gluten free, non-GMO, lactose & whey free, soy free and contain at least 8 grams fiber.” A steal at $299 USD ($389.67 CAD plus an arm and a leg and your first born in shipping and duties) for an unspecified quantity. His bars are: “made with only eight 100% all organic ingredients: organic puffed brown rice, cocoa powder, freeze dried strawberries, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, coconut nectar and stevia. No preservatives, stabilizers or additives of any kind. At only 102 calories and a gram of fat THIS BAR IS A REAL TREAT—it is Reduced calorie / Low fat / Saturated fat free / Cholesterol free / Low sodium / No added sugar.” Apparently coconut nectar doesn’t qualify as “sugar” because Rocco and his marketers are hoping we’re too stupid to realize that coconut nectar = sugar. At only $48.95 for a box of 12, $63.79 CAD, that’s $4.08 per bar ($5.32 CAD). That’s a pricey 102 calories.

I think it’s great that Rocco is so pleased with his current diet that he feels the need to share it with the world. I think it’s a shame that he’s profiting from the sale of outrageously overpriced products and that his diet is being packaged as a healthy weight loss choice for all. We’re all different, our nutritional needs, likes, and body shapes and sizes vary considerably. Just because a celebrity, chef or otherwise, has lost weight eating a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the way we should all be eating.

*Please note, I do not in any way fancy myself to be a doctor. Do not come to me for diagnosis. Go to your family doc or emerg as the situation warrants.