fitness · nutrition

No-fat vs. full-fat dairy: the scientific saga goes on. And on…

We’re all used to watching nutrition pendulum swing back and forth, back and forth. You know what I mean:

Pendulum swinging between "good to eat" and "bad to eat".
Pendulum swinging between “good to eat” and “bad to eat”.

One nutritionist blogger made a big list of advice she’s read, which is subject to change without notice:

  • Don’t eat eggs, they are too high in cholesterol.
  • Really, don’t eat any fat because it is all bad for your heart.
  • Don’t drink caffeine containing beverages.
  • Don’t drink soda or juice, they are full of sugar.
  • Don’t drink diet drinks because they will give you cancer.
  • Drink only water, but be careful because the bottle is harmful and tap water is full of contaminants and the natural spring water is really bottled from the tap at the bottling company.
  • Don’t use salt in cooking and avoid all foods made with salt.
  • Oh yeah, you can use sea salt or Himalayan salt.
  • Don’t eat butter, only eat margarine.
  • Oh yeah, don’t ever eat margarine because it contains trans fat.
  • Oh yeah, don’t eat any fat.
  • Oh yeah, eat as much coconut fat as you want, it’s a good saturated fat.

Last month, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) took on the issue of whole-fat vs. non-fat dairy consumption: which is better for us?

tl:dr version: they don’t know. But they want us to eat low-fat dairy anyway.

It’s not for lack of trying that they don’t know whether high-fat dairy or no-fat dairy promotes or detracts from health, and in what ways. They’ve tried. Oh, they’ve tried a lot. But the results are conflicting.

…some recent studies have suggested that high-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt are at least as healthful as their low-fat or nonfat counterparts, and their authors are questioning the wisdom of advising people to avoid whole milk and products made with it.
“I don’t think there’s enough evidence to recommend low-fat dairy,” said cardiologist Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. However, Mozaffarian added, “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to recommend whole-fat dairy, either.”

JAMA Dec 5, 2018

Uh, okay. But why isn’t there enough evidence to answer this question?

Part of the problem is dairy’s fault. Well, not really. But dairy products are not all created equal. Some cheeses are fermented, and some yogurts have probiotics, says Frank Hu, nutrition chair at Harvard School of Public Health.

Also, we eat dairy in different ways, Hu says:

For example, Hu said, while US consumers chow down on cheeseburgers and pizza, Europeans are more likely to eat cheese for cheese’s sake, not as a topping for foods that without it are already high in fat or sodium or both.

JAMA again

When researchers try to study the effects of dairy fat intake, they have to deal with the problems of which dairy products may be responsible for which effects, and which populations are affected by these results, as different regions eat different dairy products at differing rates.

Okay, fine. Maybe we need to throw some fancy technology at the problem– how about looking at biomarkers and seeing if there are correlations with risk for heart disease and other potentially related health problems?

They did that, too. No luck.

There are ongoing observational studies, where researchers observe and measure lots of features of participants who are consuming varying amounts of dairy fat in their diets over time. But even when they get results from these studies, they don’t tend to trust them:

[Mario Kratz, nutrition professor, University of Washington] “…people who eat the most full-fat dairy products in observational studies are usually among the ones who gain the least amount of weight.” That seems counterintuitive, but …“it’s very likely that there’s a type of compensation going on.” Low-fat or nonfat dairy isn’t as filling as whole-fat dairy, so people might end up craving unhealthy snacks if they opt for the former, he said. However, he added, “I would never recommend people consume large amounts of butter and cream.”

Still JAMA; I’ll let you know when it changes.

Hey Mario– why wouldn’t you recommend that people eat lots of butter and cream? You just said there’s not evidence that it’s bad for us.

Well, maybe Mario is just following the US Dietary Guidelines on Dairy, which say this:

  • Recommendations are 2 cups (or the equivalent in yogurt or cheese) for children ages 2 to 3 years, 2½ cups for children ages 4 to 8 years, and 3 cups for teens ages 9 to 18 years and for adults.
  • Fat-free and low-fat dairy are advised.

Frank Hu is of the same view. Even though there doesn’t seem to be much firm evidence that high-fat dairy is bad for us (and there’s some evidence that it’s good for us), he says he doesn’t expect nutrition recommendations to change soon. Why? Because “more research is needed to examine health effects of different types of dairy products in diverse populations.”

So, we’re back to they don’t know. But they are still recommending low or no-fat dairy consumption.

You might think: well, better safe than sorry. But the thing is, they don’t know which is safer– no-fat or high-fat dairy. And I would be very sorry to have to eat low or no-fat dairy, as it doesn’t taste like anything to me. But Frank Hu says we shouldn’t stress about it; “Overall dietary pattern is very important, and dairy is only 1 of many food items on our plate.”

Excellent. In that case, I am going to not stress and enjoy these.

Whole milk and cream in glass pitchers, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole milk and cream in glass pitchers, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole milk greek yogurt with a spoon, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole milk greek yogurt with a spoon, sitting on a rustic and attractive wood table.
Whole fat cheeses, on a rustic attractive wood cutting board.
Whole fat cheeses, on a rustic and attractive wood cutting board.

What do you do when you read some new nutritional advice? Do you take it with a grain of salt (provided you don’t eat low-sodium)? Do you shift with the pendulum? Do you ignore them all? I’d love to hear from you.

diets · eating · fitness · food · holiday fitness · holidays · Martha's Musings · nutrition · season transitions

T’is the season to detox yourself from cleanses, diets and weird wellness claims

By MarthaFitat55

It’s not even December 1 and I have been seeing a non-stop stream of ads, posts and recommended links on all manner of cleanses. Some are short, some are long, some are liquid, and some are minimal. All are useless.

Timothey Caulfield at the University of Alberta debunks the latest holiday cleanses in this article. Caulfield writes:

The idea that we need to cleanse and detoxify our bodies seems to have become a culturally accepted fact. This feels especially true around the holidays which are associated with heavy foods and even heavier shame about what that turkey and gravy and wine might be doing to our insides. After a weekend of indulgence, wellness gurus cry, your body is begging for a detox. But is it?

 While there is something to be said for countering a week (or two) of indulgence with lighter fare, unless you were born liver-less or you lost your liver along the way, the human body has its own detox system right inside you: the aforementioned liver and kidneys.

 There’s a huge market out there and if you build it, make it, sell it, they will come. The promises are endless but the long and short of it is simple: today’s cleanses and detox programs are primarily designed to relieve you of your money.

The sellers of these cleanses rely on fear and vanity, and also on society’s preoccupation on thinness. The messages are often wrapped upin social beliefs about health and wellness.

 We empower people to take charge of their health, especially women who are often responsible for managing their well being along with those of their families. Who wants to be known as someone who does not care about their health? Not me.

While the social imperative to diet, to cleanse, to eat clean is present year-round, there seems to be special pressure in December to do any number of things to ensure we have the perfect body.

 All the ads I have seen lead me to believe that we must cleanse the body the same way we cleanse our homes for special occasions this time of year. In January, when the new year has begun and we barely have had time to vacuum the pine needles and expunge the last piece of glitter from our homes, we get a different chorus but still with the same tune.

I suggest, if we are to cleanse anything, it is these sorts of unhelpful and unhealthy approaches to wellness.

So if you are confused and challenged by all that you see, remember this: everything in moderation. Your body will do what it needs to do. Fuel it appropriately.  Move lots (preferably outside if it isn’t blowing a gale). Get lots of sleep. Drink lots of water. Have fun.

MarthaFitat55 lives and writes in St. John’s.

aging · nutrition · weight lifting

Muscle loss is in the news again

A rock, painted white, with the words “as strong as a wolf” painted on it. Seen outside the athletic centre at the University of Guelph.

But this time with a weight loss angle.

See my past posts: Protein, age, and muscle loss.  and Want to keep muscle after 40?: Eat all the protein and lift all the things

It’s a thing that I care about. 

And I hate the idea that some people, especially women, might welcome it, because it means weight loss.

From an article in the Globe and Mail, by Alex Hutchinson, We need better guidelines to deal with age-related muscle loss.

“You might be relieved to hear that the creeping weight gain of middle age – a pound or two (0.5 to 1 kilogram) a year starting in your 20s, on average – eventually grinds to a halt. By the time you’re in your 50s, you’ll typically start slowly shedding weight. Don’t celebrate yet, though. There’s a good chance that the weight you’re losing is muscle – precisely what you need to hang onto to stay metabolically healthy and independent into old age. “

Why does this happen? Partly because we exercise less but that’s not the whole story. The article talks about ‘anabolic resistance.’ Our bodies no longer, as we age, respond the same way to strength training and protein. Like insulin resistance in diabetics our bodies no longer respond as effectively to protein and to exercise. We need more of both, not less, as we age.

There’s also a concern about the kinds of protein and when we eat them.

Writes Hutchinson: “It’s not just how much you eat. There’s some evidence that spreading your protein across three meals triggers more muscle growth than just downing a massive steak at dinner. And protein quality matters too, with certain amino acids such as leucine playing an outsized role in muscle growth. That means animal proteins such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy tend to pack a bigger punch than plant proteins, although Oliveira emphasizes that variety is also important.”

It’s a challenge to eat the 1.0 to 1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight per day that’s recommended. 

What about exercise? What should we do to stave off muscle loss?

“The overall picture from existing research is that full-body resistance training with loads that get progressively harder over time, two to three times a week, is optimal for older adults. One study published last year found that two harder workouts plus one easier one produced the best results, perhaps because older strength-trainers simply couldn’t recover quickly enough to do three hard workouts each week.”

See you at the gym! Maybe we can go for a protein shake after? 

fit at mid-life · fitness · food · health · nutrition · training

Visit Tracy at the NJ VegFest 2018 this weekend

Image description: Poster with SATURDAY 10/6 at the top, the heading "Speakers" on the left, with photos of Dr. Joel Kahn and Tracy Isaacs underneath, and "Chef Demos" on the right, with photos of Gianna Ciaramello, Mini Dhingra, and Alyssa Miller underneath.
Image description: Poster with SATURDAY 10/6 at the top, the heading “Speakers” on the left, with photos of Dr. Joel Kahn and Tracy Isaacs underneath, and “Chef Demos” on the right, with photos of Gianna Ciaramello, Mini Dhingra, and Alyssa Miller underneath.

Hey everyone! Exciting times. I’m going to be one of the speakers at the New Jersey VegFest at Meadowlands Expo Centre this weekend. My talk, “Feminist Fitness Is for Everyone, including Vegans,” is at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 6th. I’ll talk about what feminist fitness is, how Sam and I took that approach for our Fittest by 50 Challenge, the blog, the book, and being a vegan athlete at mid-life.  They’ll be selling copies of Fit at Mid-Life: A Feminist Fitness Journey (Greystone Books, 2018) and I’ll be sticking around after my talk to chat, sign books (whether you buy it there or bring it with you), and of course eat!  [I might also talk a little bit about my next book project, which is about ethical veganism and the expectation of moral perfection that vegans and non-vegans alike seem to adopt]

Marisa Sweeney and Kendra Arnold are the two main organizers and ever since they asked me to do this I’ve been following the NJ VegFest scene with envy. It’s not limited to this event — there was an Atlantic City VegFest in the summer (with a 10K run) where Scott Jurek spoke. Marisa and Kendra do an outstanding job and I can’t wait to experience one of their events first hand and to meet them.

It looks as if it’s going to be an amazing time, quite apart from my talk. There are going to be chef demos, other speakers, and loads of vendors serving up delicious vegan food. If you want to get a preview, I suggest following @njvegfest on Instagram.

One of the things Sam and I love most about the blog is the community that has sprung up around us. If you do decide to come, please please please say “hi.” I would love that.

I also have a favour to ask of people who live in the Manhattan area. Anita and I will be looking for a good running route on Sunday morning to do about 15K. If you have any recommendations for where we might do that distance without encountering too many traffic lights we’d love to hear from you.

Here’s the Sunday line-up for the VegFest:

Image description: Poster with SUNDAY 10/7 at the top. Under that three columns. "Food Justice Panel," with photos of Vincent DePaul and Michelle Carrera; "Supporting Vegan Kids and Caregivers Panel," with photos of Beth Cruz, Melody Lin, Michelle Carrera; "Chef Demos" with photos of Tere Fox, Amanda Borges, and Chef Rootsie.
Image description: Poster with SUNDAY 10/7 at the top. Under that three columns. “Food Justice Panel,” with photos of Vincent DePaul and Michelle Carrera; “Supporting Vegan Kids and Caregivers Panel,” with photos of Beth Cruz, Melody Lin, Michelle Carrera; “Chef Demos” with photos of Tere Fox, Amanda Borges, and Chef Rootsie.


food · nutrition · sports nutrition

What is healthy eating anyway?

I don’t usually share tweets and Twitter threads but sometimes they are so good you need to make an exception.

This thread from the Fat Nutritionist came to my attention via David. Thks David!

“I suspect that like 95% of the food choices people make (when they have the luxury of choice) are purely symbolic. I suspect this because “How does this food affect your body’s functioning?” is a completely new idea to nearly everyone I ask it of.”

Anyway, go read the whole thing. It’s great.

eating · nutrition · sports nutrition

Sam is thinking (again) about protein and aging muscles

Bitmoji Sam in a purple tank top and shorts frolicking under the sunshine in a field full of flowers with bonus butterflies and mountains in the distance.

I’ve been seeking out nutrition advice again, trying to manage what I can in a messy, unhappy situation with my left knee.

One of the interesting bits of research to come out in recent years is that as we age our need for protein goes up even as our need for calories goes down, if we intend to maintain muscle mass.

It’s as if, as with diabetics and insulin resistance, with age we’re protein resistant. We need to eat a lot more to get the same effect. When you add to that the need to eat fewer calories, that makes for a protein heavy diet.

Here’s an excerpt from a summary of the research published by MacMaster University:

“People who would like to become physically stronger should start with weight training and add protein to their diets, according to a comprehensive scientific review of research at McMaster University. The review finds that eating more protein, well past the amounts currently recommended, can significantly augment the effects of lifting weights, especially for people past the age of 40,”

A summary of the research from MacMaster University is here. The study itself is here.

I’ve blogged about this research before here, It’s striking both for the results and how they were obtained. The research doesn’t just look at young people, in particular it doesn’t just look at young men. It’s interesting that the research actually included middle aged men and women.

What the study shows is that there’s a sweet spot for protein consumption and it’s higher than many of us thought, 1.6 g of protein per day per kg of body weight. For me that’s a lot more protein than I currently eat. Eating more as a vegetarian is challenging. I’m working on it.

You can read the New York Times account of this study here.

Is this something you worry about? Think about? Track? How much protein do you aim to eat each day?

fitness · nutrition

The continuing carb-troversy: was Goldilocks right?

Prominent among the Questions Of Our Time is this one: just how many/much carbs should I have in my diet? Is it best to eat low-carb, like the Atkins Diet? Or stick to kinder/gentler/higher-fiber carbs like the South Beach Diet? Or close-to-no carbs like the Whole 30 Diet? What about higher carb diets? Don’t people use those during high-intensity athletic activity? Or is there some happy medium, some just-right amount of carbs that will optimize on my health, longevity, weight, complexion, etc.? Just where is Goldilocks when we need her?

Goldilocks enjoying some soup in a medium bowl, hopefully with quinoa instead of white rice or pasta if she knows what's good for her... :-)
Goldilocks enjoying some soup in a medium bowl, hopefully with quinoa instead of white rice or pasta if she knows what’s good for her… 🙂

A new study in the Lancet is now taking sides with Goldilocks, publishing a study saying that a moderate carb diet is in fact the “just right” amount for optimum longevity. Here’s a summary from the Live Science news website:

The study, which involved more than 15,000 Americans who were tracked for a quarter of a century, found that those who ate a low-carb diet (with less than 40 percent of daily calories coming from carbs) or a high-carb diet (with more than 70 percent of daily calories coming from carbs) were more likely to die during the study period, compared with those who ate a moderate-carb diet, with about 50 to 55 percent of their calories coming from carbs.

For example, based on the findings, the researchers estimated that from age 50, people who consumed a moderate-carb diet would have a life expectancy that was about four years longer than those who consumed a very low-carb diet (with an average life expectancy of 83 years for moderate-carb eaters versus 79 years for very low-carb eaters).

Another of their key findings was when they investigated different types of low-carb diets:  ones with a lot of animal-sourced foods, versus plant-sourced foods. Here’s what the Live Science article has to say about the study:

…the analysis also found that, with low-carb diets, what mattered was the source of proteins and fats. Diets that involved replacing carbs with proteins and fats from animal sources, including beef, lamb, pork, chicken and cheese, were linked with a greater risk of death. In contrast, diets that involved replacing carbs with proteins and fats from plant sources, such as vegetables, legumes and nuts, were tied to a lower risk of death.

So is the take-away message that we should all aim for moderate (50ish%) of carb intake in our diets to maximize lifespan?

Not exactly.  As I say all the time in blog posts, science is complicated. Just ask these women– they can explain it to us.

African women scientists in a lab, going over procedures.
African women scientists in a lab, going over procedures.

You might be wondering– what about higher-carb diets? They aren’t prominent these days in the popular diet industry, but they are an option and serve a number of nutritional purposes. Also, lots of cultures outside of North America and Europe eat high-carb diets Does the study show that those lead to earlier death, too?

Well,  it depends partly on where you live and what you eat. The primary study participants used in the Lancet article were from the US. For them, the results were a U-shaped curve, which means that the highest risk was at either end— low carb or high carb.  Here it is:

U-shaped risk curve of carb dietary intake, with highest risks at low and high end of card intake (<40%, >70%).
U-shaped risk curve of carb dietary intake, with highest risks at low and high end of card intake (<40%, >70%).

But take a look at the right side of the U– it doesn’t rise as high as the left side does.  That means that the riskiness of high-carb diets in this study is not as big as the riskiness of the low-carb diets. (By riskiness, I mean all-cause mortality risk, but you get the idea here). So, their results suggest that higher-carb diets aren’t as risky (I know, that word again, but humor me) as the low-carb diets.

Later in the Lancet article there is another set of U-shaped curves, with the second one being an amalgamation of many other studies that these researchers analyzed.  These other studies were done in many parts of the world, including places where people eat lots of higher-carb diets with foods like white rice or other simple (vs. complex) carbs. There we see a greater rise in mortality risk as carb intake increases. Complexity enters again, this time at the level of the carbs themselves.  People who eat higher-carb diets but with more complex carbs may (this is still a bit tentative) may mitigate their mortality risk of a higher-carb diet.

Finally, there’s been a good bit of critique and response, of which you readers might be interested in two points:

Point one: There are SO MANY features of our dietary intake that interact with each other, our environment, our genetics and microbiome, etc., that it’s very hard to separate out and identify the effects of one variable on health and mortality. One commentary (in the Lancet) said this:

…this approach should be complemented by large and long-term clinical trials investigating the effects of different dietary patterns (constructed from information about the effects of individual nutrients and foods), because the effect of individual nutrients is likely to be modest.

So we aren’t going to get solid clinical recommendations for people based on the effects of shifting carbs alone.

Point two: The researchers’ findings only tracked mortality risk shifts.  They didn’t track them to any biomarkers or clinically observable features that we could identify that would help in offering medical advice to people. Of course, they weren’t trying to do the latter, but without the latter, the information isn’t so helpful for real-life medicine.

The commentary concluded with this:

When coherent information emerges from different approaches and is replicated, this will form a sound basis for robust public health recommendations.

Or, in other words, “yeah yeah.  Get back to me when you have something that will be useful for clinicians moving forward in trying to identify health issues connected to dietary carb intake, or a more complex but robust view on these interactions with health.”

Here’s the final-final point.  Let’s suppose that Goldilocks is right– moderation in carbs is the just-right path. What do we mean by “moderate intake”? 40–70% is a very big range, and loads of other factors can make a big difference in effects on health, mortality, etc.

If we’re supposed to take nutritional advice really seriously, need more than “just-right” to go on.  Luckily, other studies are working on exactly that. Stay tuned for the latest…