To Eat Meat or Not To Eat Meat

That is the question? Vegetarianism is an interesting topic. One might think that as a Naturopathic Doctor, I’d be all for swearing off burgers, steak and all other meat, but in reality I’m not.  There are many potential benefits of eating a plant based diet but there are also many potential pitfalls.

The results of the studies on vegetarianism are mixed.  When we compare an ideal vegetarian diet to the standard North American diet, the veggie diet wins, hands down.  It contains more vegetables, fruit, fibre, whole grains, legumes, healthy fats and less saturated fat and thus undoubtedly reduces cancer and heart disease risks.  But what happens when we compare the veggie diet to a healthy omnivore diet? A large study of 76000 people showed no difference in the risk of overall mortality – the risk of dying –between vegetarian and non-vegetarian individuals.  However, the death rate in this group was half that of the general population.  This suggests that some of the benefit of eating vegetarian may be lost when we compare it to something that looks like a vegetarian diet plus some meat. 

When speaking about a diet choice, it’s important to also consider the risks and when vegetarianism is not done correctly, it can be a recipe for major deficiencies.  We’ve all seen individuals who decide to be vegetarian and simply leave the meat off their plate without substituting anything in its place.

The biggest challenges in plant-based diets are protein, iron and vitamin B12 –all found in smaller quantities or less usable forms in vegetable sources.  Protein is made up of a combination of 20 building blocks called amino acids.  Meat contains all 20 amino acids and thus is considered a “complete protein”.  Plants tend to contain some of the amino acids but not all.  As a result, plant-based proteins must be eaten in combination and in greater quantities to ensure that the minimum requirements for all the amino acids are met.  As a result, vegetarians must make a consistent effort to include a variety of protein sources and an adequate amount at each meal.  Iron can also be a challenge.  It is found in two different forms –a plant form and an animal form – and the plant form tends to absorb rather poorly, in the range of 1-15% compared to 15-40%.  Vitamin B12 can only be found in animal sources and this deficiency can lead to neurological problems, mood changes and fatigue.  In order to prevent these deficiencies, vegetarians must carefully plan their meals and supplement if necessary.

In addition to the health benefits, many people look to vegetarianism for environmental reasons.  A cow raised on a factory farm must consume 16 pounds of cattle feed to produce 1 pound of meat for human consumption making it an inefficient process.  While 100 gallons of water is needed to produce one pound of hemp seeds, the production of one pound of beef requires at least 2500 gallons.  For more information about the environmental benefits of plant-based diets check out Brendan Brazier‘s book, Whole Foods To Thrive.   

So what’s to make of all of this? While there are unique situations and health concerns where either vegetarianism or higher-meat diets can be very helpful, my recommendation for most people is to get the benefits of both of these options.  Eat all of the foods that a well-balanced vegetarian meal provides –heaps of vegetables, legumes, nuts and seed, whole grains and healthy fats – and supplement with meat to ensure that all nutritional needs are met while choosing healthy meats and moderate amounts.  This can mean observing Meatless Monday, choosing cuts of meat that are lower in saturated fat and grilling or baking them, and choosing meats that are grass-fed and locally raised.  If you think that vegetarianism is the right choice for you, be sure to talk to a Naturopathic Doctor to create a plan that meets all of your nutritional needs and health goals.


Brazier, B. 2011. Whole Foods to Thrive. Penguin Canada

Key TJ et al. AJCN 1990;70:516S-524S

Meatless Monday -

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Killer Calcium?

When people think about natural health products such as vitamins, minerals and her,b many feel confident in the safety of these products based on their natural origin.  While natural health products do boast an excellent safety record overall, it is important to recognize that with any medicine –natural or synthetic – there may be long term effects. 

Calcium is an important example.  Many people are concerned about calcium intake as a way of preserving bone density and warding off osteoporosis.  While there is a benefit of adequate calcium intake, the effect of supplementation is considered marginal and other factors such as weight bearing exercise and other dietary factors also play important roles in the prevention of osteoporosis. 

Additionally, new research has begun to surface regarding the risk of supplementing with calcium.  A 2010 study that reviewed trials involving calcium supplementation of greater than 500mg in 12 000 participants, found that patients receiving the calcium supplements had a higher frequency of heart attacks compared to control subjects –an increased risk of 31%. Other studies have shown that calcium obtained from the diet does not produce an increased risk.  It is know that calcium plays a role in “hardening of the arteries” –also called atherosclerosis— which causes heart attacks.  Calcium supplements seem to increase the amount of calcium in the blood more significantly than dietary calcium, which may be responsible for its effect on the walls of the blood vessels. 

So does this mean that all calcium supplements are harmful in all people? It’s unclear.  There are other potential factors –for example, calcium supplements that include vitamin D were not included in the review.  Vitamin D plays a role in helping the calcium get to the bones and thus may have a protective effect.  Additionally, there may be cases where calcium supplementation is important for the treatment of other medical concerns. 

When considering the use of any supplement or natural health product it is important to understand the potential risks and not assume that “natural” is the same as “safe”.  It is best to speak with a Naturopathic Doctor or Medical Doctor to ensure that you are maximizing benefit and minimizing the risk of harm from the products that you choose. 


Bolland MJ, Avenell A, Baron JA, Grey A, MacLennan GS, Gamble GD,  Reid IR. (2010). Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: meta-analysis. British Medical Journal, 34:3691.

Tang BMP, Eslick GD, Nowson C, Smith C, Bensoussan A. (2007). Use of calcium or calcium in combination with vitamin D supplementation to prevent fractures and bone loss in people aged 50 years and older: a meta-analysis. Lancet, 370:657–66.

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“Let Food Be Thy Medicine”

This famous quote by Hippocrities, the father of modern medicine, is often used by Naturopathic Doctors.  But what does it really mean?

At least three times per day we put a vast range of substances into our bodies, providing a tremendous opportunity to either support health or take away from it.  The food we eat is broken down into the building blocks that make up every cell in your body.  While some substances can be broken down to produce energy, others cannot and may accumulate in the body –think of cholesterol and pesticide residues.   Conversely, if we are deficient in essential nutrients, vital processes in the body can be significantly affected such a thyroid function without enough iodine. There are also compounds in food that produce a wide range of well-researched, healing benefits in the body such as I3C, a compound in some vegetables that can help normalize estrogen levels. 

The most profound example of healing with food that I’ve learned about was documented in a TED Talks lecture.  Dr. Terry Wahls MD recounts her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the nervous system for which there is no known cure, in 2000.  Despite receiving the best care offered by medicine, her disease progressed rapidly to the point that she was dependant on a motorized wheel-chair and by 2007 had to be reclined in a zero-gravity chair.  She began reading medical research about degeneration of the nervous system and found nutrients that showed potential for treatment.  She started supplementing with these nutrients and found that the speed of decline slowed; however, her health continued to decline. 

One day it occurred to Dr. Wahls to try getting the long list of nutrients she needed from food.  After significant research, she decided that the Hunter-Gatherer or Paleolithic Diet was the richest in the essential nutrients that many North Americans lack.  As part of her diet she ate 3 cups (one heaping dinner plate) or green leaves (such as kale, collards, parsley), 3 cups of sulphur-rich vegetables (such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, onions, garlic), and 3 cups bright colour (beets, carrots, peppers, berries), along with grass-fed meat, organ meat and seaweed.   

Three months after staring her new diet, Dr. Walhs was able to walk around the hospital where she practiced using one cane; after five months she was able to ride her bike again and a year later she was back to living an active lifestyle.

While this is a very dramatic story, the fact is, food has a tremendous impact on our health and wellbeing.   Dr. Walhs’ diet plan was designed around her disease but its principles are beneficial for a huge range of health concerns and for prevention.  To learn more about dietary changes that are best suited for your health concerns, consider talking with a Naturopathic Doctor.


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Can Chocolate Help You Win a Nobel Prize?

As a self-proclaimed research junkie, I love reading new studies that appear all the time. One important thing that I try to keep in mind is to be critical of the claims stated and avoid jumping to conclusions.

One study that was recently published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine suggested that if you eat more chocolate, you are more likely to win a Nobel Prize. The study looked at different countries and found that those consuming more chocolate had higher numbers of Nobel Prize winners. While chocolate does have some beneficial health effects, I find it unlikely that was these benefits that caused the prize winner’s great accomplishments.

This brings me to an important point – the difference between causation and correlation. Causation means that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two factors. For example, it’s well known that coffee intake increases our perceived energy level. When someone has their morning fix, their energy increases, but if they miss their morning coffee, their energy is lower. The change in coffee intake is directly responsible for changes in energy.

A correlation, on the other hand, simply means that two factors are related in some way. For example, there is a correlation between ice cream sales and rates of drowning. Higher ice cream sales, more drowning cases; lower ice cream sales, less drowning cases. Did the ice cream cause people to drown? Certainly not. On hot days there is an increased likelihood that people will buy ice cream and an increased likelihood of going swimming where there is a risk of drowning.

And now back to the case of smart people eating chocolate. Is it fair to say that the chocolate made people smarter or could there be another factor that we need to consider? Maybe increased wealth allows for more indulgent food choices as well as the funds and tools to support prize-winning research advances.

Another example came up in my previous blog post “The Veggie Factor”. High levels of antioxidants in the blood are linked to lower rates of cancer, however, when people were given antioxidant supplements, the same effect could not be achieved. It was found that blood levels of antioxidants were a marker for intake of vegetables and fruit. Thus people who ate more veggies had lower rates of cancer, but the effect was not due to antioxidants alone.

Next time to read a headline or news story about a new health study showing a relationship between some factor and a health outcome give it some critical thought. Is it likely that the factor is directly causing the outcome or could it be a case of correlation?

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The Veggie Factor


“Eat your veggies!” You’d have a hard time finding someone who’s never been told this. We all know that vegetables and fruit are healthy but most of us don’t really know why and aren’t getting the required amount. Also, there is a notion that if you don’t like vegetables, you can use supplementation to accomplish the same goal. This idea comes from incorrect interpretation of research and although it’s a bit complex, it’s extremely important to understand.

In the early years of nutritional science, it was discovered that there was a connection between an increased number of servings of fruits and vegetables and lower rates of chronic illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Massive studies have shown incredible results such as a 44% reduction in cancer and 38% reduction in strokes when comparing 5+ fruit and veggie servings to 1 serving. This was supported by the finding that patients with the highest blood levels of beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A and an antioxidant) had a 60% lower cancer risks compared to those with the lowest blood levels. At the same time these benefits were first seen, scientists studying chronic diseases began to understand that oxidation plays a role in disease cause and progression. This led to the conclusion that the antioxidants in the fruits and vegetables were the “active ingredient” producing the protective health benefits.

Based on this reductionist perspective, all we need to do to stay healthy is supplement with antioxidants. Research attempted to prove this by creating large studies in which people were given antioxidant supplements such as beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E. However, no benefit was seen in these studies and surprisingly, negative outcomes were produced when large doses of these vitamins were given to certain patient populations.

So how can this be? Eating fruits and vegetables lowers the risk of disease, and having high blood levels of antioxidants is protective but supplementing with these nutrients shows no benefit and sometimes harm! It took a few more years before researchers identified a possible explanation. When we measure antioxidant levels in the blood of people who do not take supplements, the antioxidant is acting as a marker for vegetable and fruit intake. Higher blood levels reflect higher intake of fruits and vegetables. As a result, the benefits associated with high blood levels of antioxidants can not necessarily be credited to the antioxidants themselves but rather the fruits and vegetables that the antioxidants came from!

In addition to antioxidants, fruits and vegetables provide fibre, a vast range of vitamins and minerals and plant-based compounds called “bioflavonoids” –many of which have not yet been discovered or fully understood. When we look at the blueberry, we find that vitamin C contributes only 2% of the antioxidant capacity of the fruit. Some of the molecules contributing to the remaining percentage have been identified but others have not, and thus certainly are not present in even the best multivitamin.

So if you thought that instead of the effort of preparing and eating vegetables you could pop a supplement and get the same benefit, unfortunately this is not the case. Supplementation can be extremely helpful in the treatment and prevention of illness however it should be done under the supervision of a health care provider who is knowledgeable in the risks and benefits and it certainly should not be a use as a rationale for passing on the kale salad! Looks like Mom was right all along when she told you to eat your veggies.


Jansen, M.C., Bueno-de-Mesquita, H.B., Feskens, E.J., Streppel, M.T., Kok, F.J. & Kromhout, D. (2004). Quantity and variety of fruit and vegetable consumption and cancer risk. Nutr Cancer, 48(2), 142-8.

Overvad, K., Stripp, C., Tjønneland, A., Husted, S.E. & Sørensen., H.T. (2003). Intake of fruit and vegetables and the risk of ischemic stroke in a cohort of Danish men and women. Am J Clin Nutr, 78(1), 57-64.

Stähelin, H.B., Gey, K.F., Eichholzer, M. & Lüdin, E .(1991). Beta-carotene and cancer prevention: the Basel Study. Am J Clin Nutr, 53(1 Suppl), 265S-269S.

Hennekens, C.H., Buring, J.E., Manson, J.E., Stampfer, M., Rosner, B., Cook, N.R., Belanger, C., LaMotte, F., Gaziano, J.M., Ridker, P.M., Willett, W., & Peto, R. (1996). Lack of Effect of Long-Term Supplementation with Beta Carotene on the Incidence of Malignant Neoplasms and Cardiovascular Disease. N Engl J Med, 334, 1145-1149.

The Alpha-Tocopherol Beta Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group. (1994). The Effect of Vitamin E and Beta Carotene on the Incidence of Lung Cancer and Other Cancers in Male Smokers. N Engl J Med, 330, 1029-1035.

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23 ½ Hours

We all know that exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle but the number of North Americans who achieve the minimum exercise recommendation is low. A recent study showed that less than 25% of Americans walk for more than 10 minutes continuously in a typical week.

While many people consider exercise to be an important weight loss tool, research is demonstrating that exercise can be an effective tool in preventing and treating an enormous range of health conditions and illnesses as well as contributing to overall wellbeing and longevity.

A wonderful YouTube video was created to a medical doctor –Dr Mike Evans– who set out to discover the single most important preventative health measure. It’s called “23 ½ Hours” and if you haven’t seen it, check it out:

The video cites many incredible statistics about the power of exercise interventions, mostly walking, to prevent illness. For example, exercise has been shown to reduce the progression from pre-diabetes to diabetes by 58%, and reduce the progression to Alzheimer’s and dementia in seniors by 50%. Another large study showed that the risk factor most related to death was low physical fitness, topping other factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and diabetes.

Exercise can also be a powerful treatment. In one study, patients with heart disease either had surgery to insert a stent in the clogged artery or were prescribed daily exercise and after 1 year, 88% of the exercise group was free from cardiovascular events compared to 70% in the stent group. Another study showed that depressed patients prescribed exercise or antidepressant medication benefited equally. 

Current recommendations suggest that adults should be getting 20-30 minutes of activity per day or 150 minutes per week.

There are many strategies that can be useful for overcoming obstacles to regular exercise. If you find that you have a hard time sticking to your exercise plans, schedule workouts with a friend, join a team sport, sign up for an exercise class or get a dog –these will all hold you accountable to following through on your plan. These strategies will also make your workout more enjoyable if you find that boredom is an obstacle. If you find that you are too tired to exercise, try doing something active that is lower intensity – you might be surprised to learn that exercise actually increases energy levels. If you can’t afford a gym membership, try skipping rope in your living room or walking in your neighbourhood. Many people say that they do not have time to exercise but it’s important to take a look at time spent watching television and computer activities. Also, daily exercise can be divided into smaller units –such as 2 fifteen minute walks between work and a further subway station or parking lot.

The challenge presented at the end of the video asks: can you limit your sitting and sleeping to just 23 and ½ hours a day? If you want to do something to significantly improve your health, consider taking up this challenge. For more support on getting active or to customize your exercise program to your health concerns, speak with your Naturopathic Doctor or another health care provider today.


An Introduction to Mindfulness

Have you ever driven from your home to your work and thought “I have no idea how I got here, I don’t remember any part of that drive!” It’s a common experience. When people are engrossed in thoughts, they can go about their day on an autopilot-like setting. This experience is the opposite of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to one’s moment-to-moment experience. It’s about getting out of our heads and living in the present moment rather than dwelling on things that happened in the past or worrying about things that could happen in the future. It allows us to be fully engaged with life.

Developing a practice of mindfulness has been extremely helpful for me in my own life. I am, by nature, a thinker and years of training in science only reinforced this. However, when I started to learn about mindfulness, I realized that there are huge benefits of giving my brain a break from thinking now and then.

Research in the area of mindfulness has exploded over the last decade with studies showing benefit for a whole range of physical and emotional concerns. For example, one study of patients with moderate to severe psoriasis added an audio recording of mindfulness exercises to conventional treatment and found that this significantly improved the speed of healing.

Mindfulness can also play a helpful role in managing stress and emotional concerns. When our thoughts are pulled to events in the past or the future, we can relive emotions from past experiences or pre-live anticipated ones. Not only does this remove us from our present experience, but it causes us to suffer from experiences that are in the past or may never actually happen. Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression and stress levels in a variety of patient populations, from patients affected by serious mental illness or cancer to students.

There are many ways to begin to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life. One simple way is to pay close attention to one mundane activity that you do each day such as brushing your teeth, washing your dishes or getting dressed. See if you can bring your full attention to the task, noticing everything you can about the different sensations that you experience –taste, touch, smell, sound and appearance. You may notice that with all of this active observation, you are less likely to be worrying about what you need to do next.

Mindfulness is simply about bringing one’s attention to what is happening in the moment so that it can be fully experienced. It’s about disengaging from the thoughts that drag us away from the present. If you think that developing mindfulness could be helpful for your health and well-being, see the resources below for more information or talk to a Naturopathic Doctor or counselor with training in mindfulness.

Resources on Mindfulness:

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Mindfulway through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn


Carlson, L.E., Speca, M., Patel, K.D., & Goodey, E. (2003). Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Relation to Quality of Life, Mood, Symptoms of Stress, and Immune Parameters in Breast and Prostate Cancer Outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 571-581.

Helen, M.S., & Teasdale, J.D. (2004). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: Replication and Exploration of Differential Relapse Prevention Effects. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(1), 31-40.

Hofmann, S.G., Sawyer, A.T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Wheeler, E., Light, T., Skillings, A., Scharf, M.J., Cropley, T.G., Hosmer, D., & Bernhard, D. (1998). Influence of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention on rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis undergoing phototherapy (UVB) and photochemotherapy (PUVA). Psychosomatic Medicine, 60(5), 625-632.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47.

Shapiro, S.L., Schwartz, G.E., & Bonner, G. (1998). Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Students. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21(6), 1998.


Whole Grains = A Whole lot of Confusion?

It seems that there is a lot of talk and hype about grains these days, whether it’s about whole grain, multi-grain or gluten-free products. Do these buzz words leave you a little bit confused? If so, you’re not alone!

Let’s start with the basics. Products made of whole grains use all parts of the grain, compared to more refined products that just use the carbohydrate-rich center. As a result, they contain more fiber and numerous vitamins and minerals. In addition to a range of health benefits, this extra fiber helps people to feel full longer which likely explains the finding that people who eat more whole grains gain less weight.

When choosing grain products at the store, it’s important to read the labels carefully. Statements like “Made with Whole Grains” or “Contains Whole Grains” can be misleading as the product may only contain a small portion of whole grain ingredients. Other tricky phrases that tell you a product is not made from whole grains include: “100% wheat”, “wheat flour” and “unbleached enriched wheat flour”. Instead choose ones that say “100% Whole Grain” or “100% whole wheat”.

Multi-grain is another popular term on labels. The idea of consuming a variety of grains is great since they contain different types of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. The problem with some multi-grain products is the proportions of the different grains and the fact that this label claim does not require any of the ingredients to be whole grains. It’s easy to find “multi-grain bread” which is made mostly from refined wheat flour with a couple of other grains included at the bottom of the ingredient list. A better option is to include a variety of grains throughout the day. For example: oats for breakfast, barley soup for lunch and brown rice with dinner.

“Gluten-free” has become an extremely popular buzz-word, backed by a variety of authors, bloggers and even celebrities. Gluten is a protein wound in wheat, barley, rye and spelt, but not in brown rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth. Choosing gluten-free grains can be very helpful for people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity or those who wish to add more variety to a diet high in wheat products. However, choosing processed food with a “Gluten-free” label is not necessarily a healthy option. Some ingredients used in making these products, such as white rice flour or potato starch, can be highly refined and low in fiber. Be sure to read the label and check for whole grains in these products too!

A common theme when assessing grain products is the importance of choosing whole grains. Whenever possible, try to eat a grain in its least processed form and when you reach for the processed stuff, be smart about reading the labels so you can distinguish truly healthy products from those trying to take advantage of trendy marketing terms.

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Your New Prescription: Vitamin N

You’re sure to get your vitamin A by eating carrots and you take your vitamin C capsule if you’ve got a cold coming on, but when was the last time you got a dose of vitamin N? While there isn’t actually a molecule by this name, it might be time to start thinking of Nature as an essential ingredient in a healthy lifestyle.  This is something that intuitively we’ve know for a long time, but science is showing that the benefits are real and measurable and it’s time we took note.  Whether it’s an ocean, a forest, a field, a lake, a stream, community garden, your backyard or local playground, a natural setting can often be found close to where you are. 

However, North Americans spend 95% of their day indoors or in a vehicle.  The average child spends 6 minutes doing outdoor activities and 6 hours using a computer or watching television daily. 

Research has started to look at the effect of spending time in nature and the results are remarkable.  Technology that shows activity of the brain has demonstrated that when adults view scenes of nature, areas of the brain that are associated with emotional stability and love are more active.  In contrast, when they look at images of an urban landscape, areas of the brain associated with stress and fear are activated.  It’s been shown that when hospital patients can see trees from their hospital room, they recover faster and require less pain medication.  The following is a list of other benefits associated with time spent in nature:

  • decreased blood sugars and blood pressure
  • reduced obesity
  • reduced stress, anxiety and incidence of clinical depression
  • improved impulse control
  • increased immune functions
  • increased energy
  • improved cognitive function
  • improved performance in the workplace and increased job satisfaction
  • improved memory and focus
  • improved academic performance in children

If a medication or supplement could do all of these things, who wouldn’t be taking it? Oh, and let’s not forget that it’s also free!

Vitamin N has a lot of positive side effects too. Spending time in nature can be a form of physical activity.  Whether it’s hiking on a trail, gardening in your yard or an evening stroll to the neighbourhood park, these activities get you up and moving which will further add to the health benefits.  Also, spending time outdoors regularly provides sun exposure needed for vitamin D production in your skin. 

You may be wondering about the dose of Vitamin N that you need to get benefits.  Two minutes in nature relieves stress, as measured by muscle tension, blood pressure and brain activity.  One hour in nature improves memory and attention span by 20%. Two consecutive days in nature increases white blood cells –the infection and cancer fighting cells of our immune system – by 50%.

Maybe it’s time that we shift our perception about spending time in nature – from something we indulge in on long weekends to something that the doctor ordered to maintain our health and wellbeing.  Let’s work to eliminate nature-deficiency!


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