Translator: PATRICK ROWLAND
Reviewer: Hélène Vernet
My name is Bernard Lavallée;
I’m a nutritionist;
and I hate talking
about nutrients and calories.
These days, we talk more about nutrients
than about food as such.
For example, someone might say,
“A balanced meal must contain
at least 15 g of protein”
or for example, “Omega 3
is important for the brain, eat fish!”
or “This low-fat yogurt
is going to keep you trim”
or, the worst, “Oh no thanks!
I don’t eat gluten.”
We live under the dictatorship
a concept created by Gyorgy Scrinis,
a Food Politics professor
at the University of Melbourne-Australia.
Nutritionism is our inclination to think
of our food in terms of its components,
the vitamins, minerals,
antioxidants, carbohydrates, lipids,
and calories that are contained in it.
Nutritionism is born
out of the science of nutrition
nutrition is a science
that examines the connection
between food and health.
But in reality, nutrition was born
when we discovered
that our food contains components
that can have an effect on our health
depending on how much of them we eat.
So the more we embedded
the science of nutrition into our food,
the more we began to accept
the idea that to remain in good health,
we should consume the right amount
of nutrients and calories.
The day we agreed to this,
then we agreed that to eat well,
we should eat things we can’t see,
smell, taste or quantify;
since as consumers, we don’t have
the means to know or feel
what is in the apple that we are eating.
So we have become
dependant on nutrition specialists.
We need specialists who say,
“This is good for you, eat it.
This is not, don’t eat it.”
because, as a simple consumer,
I don’t know any more
because I have no tools to know it.
It’s a real problem
because talking about nutrients
and stressing their importance
don’t work in real life.
It wouldn’t be so bad
if it worked, but it doesn’t,
so my aim in this presentation
is to show you
that we should stop focusing
on nutrients and calories alone.
First it must be understood
that no one lives in a laboratory.
and that the most credible health studies
are known as “double-blind
randomized controlled trials.”
So for instance, when we want
to develop a medicine,
we give the new medicine
to a group of patients
and a placebo to another group.
We give the placebo
because, for some reason,
people feel better
for following a treatment,
even if the treatment is fake.
So it’s important
that in testing a medicine,
more people be cured by the drug
than by the placebo.
But with food, it’s extremely difficult
or even impossible to use a placebo.
How can you hide from people the fact
that it’s a banana they are eating?
or that they are eating
five fruits and vegetables a day?
So as a result, we’ve started
to conduct studies
more on the components of food themselves
in the form of antioxidant extracts,
powdered fruits, fish oils, etc.,
and less on food as a whole.
But we don’t live in a laboratory.
We eat whole foods.
So results that talk about an antioxidant
extracted in a lab don’t make sense
because we eat lots of foodstuffs
all at the same time.
Now let’s do an exercise.
A bit of interaction, I’m sorry!
First, please raise your hand
if you know someone – it might be you –
who suffers or has suffered
from an illness
such as diabetes,
a heart disease, or cancer.
Please raise your hands.
Most people raise their hands –
now you can lower it.
We’re going to redo
the same exercise.
Please raise your hand if you know
someone who suffers from an illness
such as scurvy, beriberi or rickets.
Nutritional science was developed
in a very different context
than the food and health systems today.
Back then, nutritional deficiencies
were more common than today.
But to remedy a nutritional
deficiency is really easy.
Scurvy, for example,
has a cause and a solution.
The person is sick, you give vitamin C,
and poof! She or he is healed.
It’s so easy: a cause and a solution.
And since nutrition
was developed in this context,
we started to believe
that to heal health problems,
we just needed to find
either the nutrient that saves
or the nutrient that caused harm.
However today, nutritional deficiencies
are no longer the main issue.
What disease kills the most people
in Canada nowadays
is heart problems, cancer, and diabetes.
But these problems are caused
by a whole range of different factors
that go even beyond
the field of nutrition.
Yet, we are still thinking in the same way
and are still searching for the nutrient
responsible for all our problems.
So we say “It is fat! … No, it’s sugar!
… No, it’s salt! …No, it’s gluten!…”
We are always pointing the finger
at the one we need to eliminate
from our diet to heal.
In reality, we can
no longer think this way
because we’ll never find the culprit
for all today’s illnesses
since they are caused
by many different things.
So we must change
how we think about it.
Let’s do another exercise.
I’m going to show you five foods:
bananas, oranges, milk, spinach and eggs.
I’m going to name the nutrients,
and you all are going to tell me
in which food we find that nutrient.
So, in which food do we find potassium?
In which food do we find calcium?
In which food do we find vitamin C?
In which food do we find iron?
How is it that in our heads,
bananas equals potassium,
milk equals calcium, spinach equals iron,
and oranges equals vitamin C?
What has made us create these associations
between one food and one nutrient?
Well, I mean no offense,
but most of the foods I’ve shown you
contain many other nutrients
besides the ones that are here.
Each food item contains
hundreds of different molecules.
Yet we, as humans, we have decided
that in bananas, potassium
is the most important nutrient.
But a banana isn’t potassium,
a banana is a banana.
In fact, a banana is 99% not potassium,
yet in our heads, banana equals potassium.
Why is it so dangerous
to keep thinking this way?
Well, because we assign the role
of a nutrient to the foodstuff itself.
And the agri-food industry uses
this strategy to sell us their products.
So let’s say we decide that in linseed
the beneficial thing is Omega 3,
then the agri-food industry could decide
to manufacture a chocolate biscuit,
add Omega 3 from linseed
in it and say to us
“My biscuit really is the best for you
because we use Omega 3 from linseed.”
And we already know that linseed
is good because of its Omega 3 content.
In reality, eating a chocolate
biscuit or eating linseeds
do not have the same
impact on our health.
So a food is much more
than the sum of its nutrients.
Next, we have to understand
that a food is alive.
When an apple tree is grown for exemple,
the type of apple, the soil
in which it grows, the water we use,
the fertilizers, the quality of sunlight,
the climate during summer, whatever,
all are going to affect the nutritional
value of the apples we’ll harvest.
Now let’s go further and take
the same apple tree and the same branch.
The apple grown at the branch’s end
and the one grown in the middle
do not have the same nutritional value.
So when you eat an apple, you don’t know
exactly what nutrients are in it.
It’s impossible to determine
“I got 23 milligrams of this,
32 milligrams of that,” no! Impossible!
Besides, even the agri-food
industry can’t do this.
So on the “nutritional facts” table
where are indicated figures,
well, the industry is allowed
a 20% margin of error
because it’s next to impossible
to calculate the exact figure
since food is alive.
So we can’t control precisely what we eat.
And actually, even if we could,
once we shallow it, we still can’t control
what is absorbed by our body.
I usually like to give
almonds as an example.
Let’s take exactly the same
quantity of almonds.
So whether we eat them raw and whole,
or as almond butter or almond oil,
we are not going to absorb
the same amount of calories. Why?
Because if you’ve ever eaten almonds,
you know that when you bite them,
some little bits get stuck
between your teeth.
Well, it happens the same
in our belly.
It doesn’t become a totally
crushed almond butter in our belly.
Our intestines aren’t as effective
as a machine producing almond butter.
And this is on purpose.
It means that these small bits
are going to pass straight through
because our body can’t digest them.
However, our body has evolved
over thousands of years
to absorb certain things
and not others, and that’s okay.
This is how we have evolved
while consuming real food.
So even if we could control
what we ingest,
we would not know
what is absorbed after ingestion.
The other important thing to understand
is that food processing
can totally change
the effect of a nutrient.
For example, we know pretty well by now
that when we ingest
the sugar found in oranges
as a beverage that we drink
or as a whole orange that we eat,
this sugar is not absorbed
in the same way by our body
and does not have the same
effect on our health.
Another example I like to give
is butter and margarine.
In the 60s, we discovered
that butter contained saturated fats
that could have a harmful impact
on our heart’s health.
So we started to tell people,
“Stop eating butter,
it’s extremely dangerous.
You’ll have a heart attack if you eat it.
Stop! Instead, eat margarine.”
Margarine is made from vegetable oils
that contain polyunsaturated fats.
These fats seem to have
a beneficial effect on the heart.
But the problem with oils is that
they’re liquid at room temperature.
So we had to work out
a way to solidify them.
Then, a process called
“hydrogenation” was used.
Hydrogenation transforms those liquid oils
into solid fats at room temperature,
and we can spread them like butter.
So it became an ideal
replacement for butter,
that contained unsaturated fats
good for our heart.
So for a long time, people were told
“Eat margarine, it’s better for you,”
until we realized that… Oops!
a modification of the fatty acids
and transforms those polyunsaturated
fats to what we call “trans fats”
that are so bad for our health
that they’re now banned.
In Canada, we can’t use them anymore.
So it means that we couldn’t known
as long as we hadn’t studied its effects.
Right? So today they’re banned
because we’ve done some research
and we know that they have
an harmful impact on the heart.
However, today in Quebec,
one out of two calories we consume
comes from ultra-processed foods
such as margarine, fizzy drinks,
ready meals, cereal bars,
biscuits, cakes, etc.
All these foods undergo
tons of different processings,
and we still don’t know the impact
of these processes
on the nutrients these foods contain.
Now let’s take this even further.
I have already told you
that partially hydrogenated oils
that are the main source of trans fats,
are currently banned in Canada.
But last I heard, you can still
spread your margarine,
and it is still in the solid form.
Have you ever wonder why
you can still spread your margarine
although hydrogenation is prohibited?
Well, it’s because industry
has found out new processes,
notably what is known
This process changes
the structure of the fatty acids,
the components of the oil,
and make them solid at room temperature.
But the new molecules that are created
don’t exist anywhere in Nature.
I’m not telling you “It’s man made,
so it’s necessarily harmful.” No!
But we have basically no studies
on the effect of these new
unknown molecules on our health.
Yet, at the moment, people are told
“There’s no more trans fat in margarine.
Eat up! It’s good for you!
And we added in some
avocado oil, it’s even better!”
Are we going to say ten years later, “Oops!”?
So if focusing on the nutrients
is not the solution to eat well,
then what is the solution?
What are the five scientific tricks
that would enable us to stop
this reductionist thinking about food?
Well first, we need
to eat a variety of foods
because by eating lots of different foods,
you’ll get lots of different nutrients.
It doesn’t matter if we know them or not,
or their impact on our body.
It’s fine because the more
you vary your diet,
the more your body is able
to find all that it needs.
Secondly, we need to eat
less ultra-processed foods.
We don’t know precisely
why this type of food is harmful,
but we know that the more we consume it,
the more our food quality worsens,
and this leads to various health problems
such as obesity, cardiovascular
diseases, and diabetes.
Next, we need to rely on vegetables,
because today’s focus of many studies
is on the Mediterranean diet,
and the vegetarian diet.
So people who fill
their plates with fruits,
whole grains and nuts,
seem to be in greater health than others
and to suffer less from the ailments
that kill most Canadians annually.
Next, we need to listen
to the signals sent by our body.
Today, we are constantly connected
to the notifications sent by our phones
and we are no longer connected
to the notifications sent by our body.
Yet it has a whole arsenal of messages
to tell us when we should eat
and when we should stop eating.
And often, as we age,
we stop listening to them.
Yet it would be simpler,
and we’d have fewer problems
if people followed the simple
rule of eating when they’re hungry
and then stopping when they
are no longer hungry.
To conclude – but I could
have started by saying this –
we need to give place to enjoyment
because nowadays, we talk about food
in terms of science or of nutrients,
due to the nutritional
dictatorship in which we live.
But the reality is that food is much
more than a bunch of nutrients.
Food connects us
to our culture, our family.
Although it should be a streaming
source of pleasure in our lives,
it’s become a source of anxiety
due to excessive intellectualization.
But I guarantee you
if you follow these five steps,
not only your will be in better health
than the majority of people
living in industrialized countries,
but you’ll be able, just like me,
to stop talking
about nutrients and calories.