Eatwell plate

Why are we so confused about food?

I don’t remember my grandparents discussing the food they ate much beyond the question, ‘What’s for dinner?’ It was certainly never a source of stress.

Now we devote prime time television to debating what we should be eating. And there’s increasing heat in that debate, with little consensus.

How did eating become so complicated?

I’m fond of saying that we’re all nutritionists now. Whenever I’m foolhardy enough to mention nutrition in a social setting I discover a wide range of opinions and beliefs. I’ve listed some of the most common ones below:

  • We need 3 square meals a day.
  • Never skip breakfast
  • We need carbs for exercise
  • It’s important to eat some fruit
  • Whole grains bread is healthy, white bread isn’t
  • Too much fat raises your cholesterol.
  • Fruit and veg are the best source of antioxidants.
  • Nuts are fattening
  • So is avocado.
  • If you have high cholesterol avoid eggs, prawns and cheese
  • If you want to lose weight you need to exercise more.
  • Being teetotal is healthier
  • Frozen veg are less nutritious.

All the statements above are wrong.

I’m not going to explain them one by one. Instead I am going to remind you that the Masai tribesmen grow tall and strong and lean with very low levels of degenerative disease on a diet of blood and meat and milk. Which neatly refutes about 80% of the ‘facts’ above.

The Masai don’t need to eat fruits and vegetables to stay well because they use their cattle as food processing plants and then get the nutrients they need in a more bioavailable state. Although their diet is high fat they use it for energy. By using fat for energy instead of carbs they cleverly ensure a good ratio of essential fats too. Genius!

What’s more they treat their cattle like gold dust, part of the family, so there are few animal welfare issues.

I’m not saying we should do that. I’m simply saying that good nutrition can and does look very different from what you may believe.

Humans thrive on diets that look nothing at all like the ‘eatwell plate’ recommended by the NHS.

Now would be a good time to let that sink in.

As a nutritionist, part of my job is to look for information about food and show it to you. The more robust that information, the more comfortable I am with sharing it. Ideally I would like to be able to point to a range of randomised, double blind, placebo controlled, crossover studies that state categorically that this food is good, another bad. for heart health, cancer, diabetes etc. If I could find them, I’d post them on my blog and go look for another job.

But there aren’t any.

Conducting trials like this would take decades and swallow up most of the defence budget. That’s if you could work out how to control people’s food intake practically and ethically for that length of time. They are simply unfeasible, and always have been.

The trial results you read about in the papers and hear about on the news every day are small scale, short term studies designed to give us a clue. They may be conducted using scientific method but that doesn’t make them true. The limitations of the lab make it difficult to apply the answers to large populations, and if you’ve ever had a conversation with a Ph.D student you will know how impossible it is to rule out personal bias in small studies. And, let’s be honest, we all know that if the studies don’t turn out as planned the results are fixed anyway. (Read Ben Goldacre on that one if you think I’ve lost the plot.)

There is no reliable science anywhere on the planet that shows what we should be eating. If there were you could be sure that the giant food corporations would be using it to shove those foods down our throats, having first worked out how to modify them into dried biscuit form.

When you remember that the modern Father Christmas is an invention of Coca Cola and that breakfast cereals were introduced by Dr Kellogg (who was a vegetarian) perhaps you can develop the distance and objectivity you need to challenge your own deeply rooted dogma, some of which was doubtless learned at your mother’s knee and born out of a sincere and loving desire for you to be strong and healthy and long-lived.

It’s so easy to do fake science. So easy in fact that intelligent human beings don’t realise they’re doing it. It’s hard to keep hold of the big picture when you’re three years into a study of the role of magnesium in the cytoskeleton.

Spurious studies abound. Looking for causes of obesity? How about gut flora, enzyme deficiencies, magnesium imbalances. Yes, all of these may be linked, but why? Because our eatwell plate messes with your gut flora, enzymes and magnesium levels. We confuse correlation with causality much of the time. If you take extra magnesium and the weight doesn’t drop off then low magnesium is not the cause of your obesity. If you throw your TV out of the window and your kids are still fat it wasn’t the TV’s fault. If you reduce your calories and exercise more and don’t lose weight the science is wrong.

Science works.

Every time.

That’s what science is.

The apple falls from the tree.

It doesn’t float.

If it occasionally drifted off into space Newton would be wrong.

As a kid, I was a bit of a boffin. I was once accused by my sister of ‘being very clever but having no common sense’. It stung me a bit. It’s something I’ve always remembered, because we need both. We need science, and clever scientists, but we also need to stand back and take a common sense look at what’s going on. The Paleo movement isn’t backed by modern science but it makes sense when viewed in the light of millions of years of evolution. Given that it would take another million years or so to study it properly, you might agree with me that we can’t wait that long to fix our health crisis. We will have gone the way of the dinosaurs if we don’t do something sooner.

There is a crazy amount of research going on at the edges of the healthcare debate. Enough to fill hundreds of Horizon programmes. But there are not many genuine answers coming forth. By which I mean answers that are clearly, demonstrably reversing the tide of obesity, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s. (New treatments, occasionally but I’d much rather see a lower incidence.) Billions of dollars of funding wasted looking all along the skirting boards with our backs to the elephant in the middle of the room.

I firmly believe that sensible nutrition is the answer to all the diseases of modern life. But I can’t prove it.

Because I don’t have the money to fund the studies I’d like to do, I can’t add any weight to the debate. Only rich people and corporations can. Even governments are not rich enough to fund large scale research any more. Which is yet another way of showing that the giant corporations are controlling the agenda. And they’re not looking to broccoli for a solution. There would be no benefit for them in that.

The modern insistence that every expert should back everything they say with science is adding to the confusion, not helping it. If I wanted to convince you that the ideal diet consists of seaweed, flax seeds and fermented cabbage I could probably find studies to support my point of view. Experts don’t even confine themselves to nutritional studies to comment on diet. It’s not unusual these days to see environmental studies used to support a change of diet for mankind!

I spend a lot of my time fretting about how much opinion I mix with fact, looking for science that I can show you. There’s a lot of it around but not much of it worth sharing. To understand that I needed an education in biochemistry and food science but, more importantly, I needed to develop my own ability to think in a critical way, to see through the data to the implications and probabilities. I use studies to prompt my thinking, not to seal my beliefs. In the end I tend to write about what works for me and my clients. That’s what good doctors have done since time immemorial. It may be a flawed methodology but no worse than the ‘pseudo science’ we’re asked to believe in.

Evidence based medicine is supposed to protect us from misguided nutters doing dangerous things like passing electric currents through our bodies to cure constipation. It’s supposed to stop people selling superstitious remedies like snake oil. It wasn’t supposed to provide a career path and megaphone for boffins with no common sense, or provide the power to huge companies to gag governments, or stop skilled and experienced natural health practitioners from being respected. But that has been the outcome.

You are, in fact, being jerked around on a massive scale. By BBC Horizon, by people in white coats who are lab workers not medical doctors, by research companies who publish what their sponsors want to hear, by drugs companies who manufacture whatever makes the most money, by NICE who can’t afford to let everyone have the best drugs, by the government who tell you to eat a little bit of everything because they haven’t got the balls to upset the food manufacturers, by the supermarkets who seem to be helping you to eat healthily but who are in fact trying to sell food as cheaply and conveniently as possible.

It’s a huge, crazy, vicious circle, but the insistence on science over common sense is at the heart of it.

Still confused?

You’re supposed to be.


2 thoughts on “Why are we so confused about food?

  1. joeflood2012 says:

    Hi well this is the first time I’ve seriously responded to any kind of blog or article or whatever but I thought it was very refreshing that you approached the whole subject of “food and confusion” in such a way that I could relate to it as a real person and I didn’t have to be a nutritionist or scientist or anything other than a hungry fellow primate. I look forward to hearing more opinions and input that you may have in this area and I will be looking around your blog and trying to figure it all out. Thank you for your work.

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