The problem with food

Let’s face it, the only real problem is that too many people have insufficient food to lead a healthy active life: despite all the advances in crop yields and food production some 805 million people, one in nine of the world’s population, still go hungry.

Nevertheless, many people are more concerned about the problems of managing their diet in the face of plenty. In an article entitled ‘We’re so indoctrinated that saturated fat is bad that we don’t listen to the science’, Craig Scott argues that we should all adopt a more ‘enlightened attitude to saturated fat’ (The Conversation,

The article is interesting but sadly I think it runs the risk of fuelling the now-widespread media story that is making exactly the same mistakes with regard to carbohydrates as this article highlights as having hitherto been made with fat!

Everyone is now talking about ‘carbs’ as being the big dietary demon but in my view this is far too simplistic. As with fats – and with cholesterol – there are ‘goodies and baddies’ and the story is not a straightforward one. I would instinctively still hold to the overarching message with regard to diet that two things are key: balance and moderation. However, these seem not to be perceived by either health educators or the general public as sufficiently ‘sexy’ or directive and perhaps for a generation that has grown up since the 1960s, and has been exposed to an increasingly processed western diet, it does have shortcomings – after all, what is balance? Humankind the world over has for millennia survived on a diet that relied heavily on carbohydrate staples, whether in the form of wheat, rice, cassava or potatoes, and in the past these essentially inexpensive basics were supplemented with seasonal vegetables and fruits and in many cases also with pulses or meat and/or fish. The staples were, however, wholegrain, unprocessed and without artificial additives. Nowadays, all three main food groups – protein, fat and carbohydrate – are being consumed by many people in highly processed forms with the result that refined carbohydrates are also being eaten unwittingly as ingredients of foodstuffs that appear to be something else – the classic example being something like baked beans, which until recent changes were made were high in added sugar, and also added salt.

If there has to be a dietary demon at all then it should probably be processed foods and/or refined carbohydrates. Jamie Oliver achieved some success with this message when he campaigned against the processed chicken nugget in school meals, but I imagine that the food manufacturing lobby exerts sufficient pressure at a high level to ensure that this does not get adopted either in the UK or across the Atlantic as a key dietary health message. The article cited above suggests that foods with a high glycaemic index fail to induce a feeling of fullness and can therefore result in over-eating, but the carbohydrate foods on the high-GI list are all refined foods, whereas wholemeal bread and pasta actually appear on the low-GI list; this clearly illustrates the danger of demonising an entire food group.

If, as is reported, obesity levels have increased despite a reduction in average fat consumption, this is indicative not just of an over-consumption of foods high in carbohydrate (and/or protein – and/or alcohol too, for that matter) but of an over-consumption of food!

Labelling any food as bad in a world where many go to bed hungry seems to me wholly inappropriate. Instead, we should see all food as good but ‘excess’ as bad and imbalance as potentially dangerous. While indigenous people groups in various parts of the world may have subsisted without risk to health on very restrictive diets based on a single food that is high in either fat, protein or carbohydrate, restrictive diets in the context of parts of the world with problems associated with excess (obesity, heart disease, dental problems, etc) are much more likely to involve risk to health and to be seriously unbalanced in terms of essential nutrients.

Education that links the science of nutrition with the preparation of straightforward meals from basic ingredients ought to be teaching young people from an early age that common sense when it comes to eating means not having the same thing day after day, not eating fast food except as an occasional treat and minimising the consumption of highly processed foods. Many of the latter contain not only high levels of refined sugar but also ingredients such as artificial sweeteners, salt, colourings and flavourings – many of which, although rigorously tested for safety, have never yet been part of a whole generation’s intake for an entire lifespan.

The ‘carbs are the problem’ story will no doubt continue to run for some time – until the next dietary demon is unmasked, but in the meantime the biggest winners are likely to be the food manufacturers who jump on the bandwagon with ranges of ‘low-carb’ varieties to mirror the ‘low-fat’ versions we are used to seeing. Consumers should not be deceived and should be suitably sceptical about the benefits of spending more on foods that have a new label. Perhaps if governments really took on board how much health service funding would be saved if diet-related ill-health were to be radically reduced then they would be braver about losing face with the food manufacturers, educating the public in balanced eating and legislating such that food retailers could make better profits on primary basic foodstuffs (rather than on highly processed and packaged foods) while at the same time increasing the sums they pay to the farmers and growers who supply these foods.