Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Whole Life Challenge review

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You know what I’m sick of? Engineers and people with zero nutrition education making claims that you can “biohack” your life, undermining dietitians, and giving one-size-fits all nutrition advice. This rant seems appropriate coming on the heels of my post about the carnivore diet.

Earlier this summer my brother asked for my thoughts about this “Whole Life Challenge” that a bunch of people in his office were doing. He was a little sceptical about the nutrition advice they were providing and wanted to know my thoughts as a registered dietitian.

My first question was, “who is behind this challenge?” Well, we’ve got the founders: Andy who has a background in sales and engineering (quelle surprise) who then opened a crossfit gym and Michael who was a coach and manager at a crossfit gym, and has a degree in philosophy and culinary arts. Well, at least he’s got a little knowledge of food in there but as most know, culinary arts and dietetics are woefully disconnected professions with chefs learning little to nothing about nutrition. The remainder of the team is comprised of the CEO, social media, web development, content manager, corporate relations, a couple of customer service reps, chief technology officer, and public relations. There is absolutely no one working for this enterprise that has any background in nutrition or health. Sigh. 

At a glance, the “challenge” doesn’t look so bad. The idea is to work on seven daily habits over the course of six weeks. You get points for completing each of the daily habits and you’re supposed to play with a team (the more people playing the more money they make this will help “foster success”). The habits are as follows: nutrition, exercise, mobilize, sleep, hydrate, well-being, and reflect. Many of these are areas that most of us could stand to improve on. Of course, I’d like to reiterate that the people who created this challenge have zero education pertaining to any of these topics. Cost is $39 US per player.

Unfortunately, you have to pay to play so I can’t access all of the materials available to players, including the nutrition plans. Fortunately, I have the inside scoop ;) and was able to view the nutrition material. They’ve created three levels with the highest being the “performance level”. This level is for those who, “already have good eating habits that you just want to fine tune, have athletic or performance-related goals, or have a pressing health or inflammation condition that you’d like to address”. The level below that is the “lifestyle level” which is, “A good choice if you are looking for a long-term lifestyle nutrition program. This is a great start to a sustainable practice of living a healthy lifestyle”. The easiest level is “kick start” which is supposedly, “a great place to start if you’re new to the health and fitness game and need to make the most important tweaks to get yourself started in the right direction”.

At each level of the plan you’re given a list of foods that are “compliant” and “non-compliant”. The higher the level, the fewer the foods that are compliant. How did they determine which foods are “compliant” and which are “non-compliant”? Excellent question. I have no idea other than the statement they make at the top of the charts: “When you see (*) next to a food, it indicates the food is compliant but should be eaten in moderation, as there are potentially negative effects from overconsumption”. I assume that this means that they believe there are negative effects from consumption of “non-compliant” foods. What these negative effects are is anyone’s guess. Maybe weight gain? Inflammation? Enjoyment of life? The non-compliant foods for the “performance level” are: deli or processed meats, soy, corn, white potatoes, soybeans, taro, yucca, beans and other legumes, dried fruit with added sugar, peanuts, peanut butter, hydrogenated oil, industrial vegetable and seed oils, every grain and grain product, alcohol, soda (diet or regular), juice, all dairy (except butter), the only snack foods allowed are baked sweet potato fries or chips and baked vegetable chips. Yum yum. To be fair, they do say that this diet would be difficult to maintain long-term and “maybe not even necessary”. Yeah, no shit.

Just for fun, and your reading pleasure, my brother endeavoured to follow this diet for a few days. My brother is a prolific runner, he’s in his third year of a running streak and he’s fast. He eats a balanced and varied diet and enjoys the occasional beer; a candidate for the “performance level” if there ever was one. Unfortunately, he came down with a cold at the same time so his report was: “my lack of energy could have been the diet or being sick”. N of 1, inconclusive.

That being said, while this diet might work for some, it’s probably not the best diet for most endurance athletes. It can be very difficult to obtain sufficient nutrients and calories and attain peak performance on such a limited diet. Also, beans and legumes and whole grains are full of good nutrients as well as being affordable. Any non-medical diet that tells you to eliminate all of these foods is unlikely to be sustainable or healthy in the long-run, particularly for those who engage in long runs (sorry, not sorry).

Six weeks isn’t all that long and when people are working in a group challenge there’s more incentive to stick to a plan than there would be on their own. There’s also minimal risk of nutrient deficiencies being a serious concern over such a short time frame. However, because this challenge is framed as a short-term undertaking and the diet plans aren’t easily sustained, I worry that this will encourage weight cycling in participants (which may actually be more harmful than maintaining a higher weight long-term) and discourage long-term adoption of healthy behaviours. If you’re only adopting these “habits” for six weeks to win a challenge and it’s a major change from your usual lifestyle I can imagine that at the completion most people celebrate finishing by ditching all the “habits”. It would be interesting to see research on participants of a challenge like this.

This plan is also very prescriptive. Apparently I should be drinking 37 ounces of water a day. There is no mention of drinking to thirst here or adjusting intake based on physical activity, temperature, or other fluid intake. You are not learning to listen to your body on a plan like this. There is no allowance for individual differences or personal preferences. Compliant foods equate to “good” and non-compliant equate to “bad”. This reinforces the false moralistic attitude that many people have about food. It also fails to consider that we eat for many different reasons and that taking pleasure in food and enjoying food socially are important aspects of eating. Framing healthy eating as being complicated and unpleasant only serves to make people adopt an all-or-nothing mindset toward a (perceived) healthy diet. Winning at this challenge may only set you up for failure when it’s over.


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A smile doesn’t hide your weight bias

 

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I completed an online course on weight bias and stigma for healthcare professionals last week. There was quite a bit that was good but there were a couple of things that rubbed me the wrong way.

If you’re not already aware Obesity Canada states that, “weight bias refers to negative attitudes and views about obesity and about people with obesity. Weight stigma refers to social stereotypes and misconceptions about obesity. These social stereotypes and misconceptions include beliefs that  people with obesity are lazy, awkward, sloppy, non-compliant, unintelligent, unsuccessful and lacking self-discipline or self-control.” 

Weight bias and stigma can cause significant harm to fat people. In fact, they likely cause more damage to people than carrying extra weight itself does.

The course I took was very good about making this clear and provided the facts as well as showing how harmful weight bias can be to patients. However, there was a video with some experts that I felt undermined the message. Here are the quotes that bothered me:

“If weight loss was easy we wouldn’t have the current obesity epidemic that we have.” – Director of Research and Anti-Stigma Initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center

“People think that for someone who’s overweight all they need to lose weight is some self-control and trying harder to eat less and exercise more. If that only worked we wouldn’t have the problem that we have today. The causes of obesity are very complex…” – Director of Research and School Programs at the Yale Rudd Center

The Yale Rudd Center is well-regarded for their work in reducing weight stigma and both of these individuals quoted above are prominent in the field. At first glance what they’ve said seems innocuous. However, the fact that this was a course intended to combat weight stigma, the experts are saying that obesity is an “epidemic” and a “problem” runs counter to the message they’re trying to convey. It just goes to show how deeply ingrained weight bias is when the very experts trying to counter it are inadvertently perpetuating it. When you say that obesity is a problem then you are saying that fat people are a problem. And I don’t see how that’s not stigmatizing.

The other problem I had with the course were the case scenario videos they shared. There would be one video where staff and medical professionals were rude and unprofessional to patients regarding their weight. Then they would show a video that was intended to show a positive interaction. Really the only differences in the “good” videos were that the healthcare professional was all smiles and asked the patient if they could talk about their weight before advising behaviour change under the guise of promoting healthy behaviours rather than telling them directly to lose weight. To me, the message was the same, it was “you need to lose weight” delivered with a smile rather than scorn. There was still no looking at overall health to determine if weight loss was actually warranted, there was still no consideration of other causes of the presenting ailments, and there was still no recognition that simply telling people to eat healthier and move more (especially without first determining what their current lifestyle is like) is not an effective way to get people to lose weight.

Overall, I felt that the message of the importance of not perpetuating weight bias was lost when all the healthcare professionals were still delivering the message to their patients that they should lose weight. And yes, some people can benefit from losing some weight, but this should be determined with appropriate assessment and then weight management options need to be appropriately discussed with the patient. Simply telling someone, on the basis of their BMI, to eat less and move more with a smile is not helpful.

If you do happen to know of a good online weight bias course please let me know as I’m still looking!


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If you’re cheating on your diet, then you should probably break-up with it

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Yes, the above post is undoubtedly very cute. Using emojis is a fun way to make your point. However, I would argue that if you are struggling with your weight that you should actually reverse the suggestion by Dr Nadolsky.

I’m not saying, eat unhealthy food all day every day. I’m saying, take some of those “treat” foods from the weekend and enjoy them whenever you feel like it. Something more along these lines:

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If you’re struggling with your weight and you’re eating super healthy through the week and then you “undo” all your hard work by eating a bunch of crap on the weekend your problem is not the weekend. Your problem is the week. If your workweek diet is very restrictive and doesn’t allow room for treats, or carbs, or entire food groups, then it’s not a sustainable way of eating. If you feel deprived during the week, then it’s not a sustainable way of eating. If you can’t continue to eat the way you eat during the week through the weekend, then it’s not a sustainable way of eating. If your diet through the week is devoid of pleasure, then it’s not a sustainable way of eating. If you’re cheating on your diet whether it be for one day a week, or all weekend, then you should probably break-up with it.

Regardless of your weight, your diet should be one that you enjoy. That provides you with nourishment and pleasure. You should be able to enjoy your food every damn day of the week.


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Call in the food police, we’ve got another unruly body

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I feel the need to expand on something I touched on in my post last week. It’s related to people judging dietitians on the basis of our weight. My previous post mainly discussed why it’s inappropriate to judge anyone’s professional abilities, including dietitians, on the basis of their perceived size. However, I think this all too common judgement also speaks to the lack of understanding of what we do.

There’s a common (mis)perception that dietitians are all weight loss counsellors. As a result, if we don’t have that elusive “perfect body” people think that we suck at our jobs. After all, what else do we do other than police the food people put into their mouths. If we can’t control the food going into our own mouths, how on earth can we possibly control the food going into the mouths of all the other owners of “unruly” bodies. While some dietitians certainly do work in weight management, even those dietitians are not actually food police. The majority of dietitians don’t work in weight management. Curious what a dietitian actually does, check out this old post.

It is not part of my job to control my body so that it fits your perceived notion of healthy and fit. Whether or not I am large has no bearing on my knowledge of nutrition. It does not impede my ability to calculate a tube feed, modify a recipe, expound on celiac disease, or help someone with diabetes manage their blood sugar. Just as being small and having no knowledge of nutrition does not automatically imbue me with the capacity to do these things. As with any profession, the size of a dietitian is not a reflection of their knowledge, experience, or capability.

Dietitians do So Much More than help people lose weight. Despite the impression that our name gives, we are not all about putting people on diets. For many of us, aside from medically necessary diets (for example in the case of allergy sufferers or those with celiac disease) “diet” is a four letter word. We’re not all on a mission to rein in unruly bodies and create a world populated solely by thin bodies. When we do work in positions of counsel we usually aim to help people to gain greater compassion for, and appreciation of their own bodies. To help people view food as a source of pleasure rather than an enemy out to destroy our hard-fought-for chiselled physiques.


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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.