Tuesday 17 February 2015, Stefan Rhys-Williams

Food advice: just add a pinch of salt

Maybe we shouldn't judge our diets by health alone.

The vacillations of diet advice are notoriously hard to navigate. The modish Atkins diet found favour among celebrity dieters in the early 2000s but later suffered a backlash, with critics claiming that the high levels of protein and fat recommended by the programme could damage the heart. Fasting, too, has been popularised, the most notable example being the 5:2 diet. And then there’s the ‘paleo diet’, which recommends ultra-atavistic eating habits, and has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, with new recipe books abounding.

We each have our prejudices. Vegetarians and vegans claim their diets provide all kinds of health benefits; meanwhile, their gastronomic opponents worry that an absence of meat, fish, even dairy, contravenes our evolutionary predilections and could starve us of protein. For most of us, our diets are the result of hazy personal choice supplemented with partially heeded medical advice. Many fads are of dubious scientific provenance - more marketing gimmick than nutritional imperative. And yet, despite the ever-changing advice, we still seek counsel from government and a variety of other sources about eating the ‘right thing’.
Last week, another claim was thrown into the pot: that saturated fats from dairy and red meat are actually nourishing and are not the principal causes of obesity, while reduced-fat products are no healthier and contain a comparable paucity of various healthy fats. The authors of the report suggest that grass-fed beef poses no discernible risk to the heart and that eggs are not responsible for mounting cholesterol levels.
Indeed it appears that people who abide by very low-fat diets tend to be more prone to obesity. This is because in their ascetic avoidance of saturated fat they consume many more carbohydrates and sugars. It is these foodstuffs that are now being proscribed: white bread and pasta, as well as sugar in all its forms (including in fruit juices).

Perhaps, given the changeability of nutritional advice, we should not latch on wholesale to any set of prescriptions; broadly speaking, we know what’s good for us, or at least what we’re happy to eat. As one food critic has noted, we are in danger of ‘pathologising’ meal times, denuding them of pleasure. It would be far better to take a chance and potentially eat the ‘wrong’ thing than cede control of our diets to the ever-changing fashions of nutrition and the monomania of various food campaigners.

Related Battle of Ideas video:

The panic about obesity

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