ALISON O'CONNOR: Contradictory nutritional advice gives consumers food for thought

The problem here for the punters ... is just who to believe and exactly what to put in our mouths, writes Alison O’Connor

IT WOULD appear that the best approach to being the perfect home maker in this modern age is to complete a doctorate in food nutrition.

How else to responsibly nourish yourself and your family given the masses of conflicting advice that exists, varying almost from day to day, and added to this week by a UK report which appeared to turn much of what we have previously been told over decades on it’s head.

Fat is now actually your friend apparently. The old advice to stick to a low fat diet in order to lower your cholestrol is “flawed science” and has resulted in “disastrous health consequences” according to the report from the National Obesity Forum (NOF) and the Public Health Collaboration. Rather than the desired result this advice, the report argued, had actually seen an increase in the amount of carbohydrates and junk food consumed.

Our fridges and cupboards should be stocked with “whole foods” such as fish, meat, and dairy, as well as healthy, high fat foods like avocados. In further contradiction of the advice that has been shoved down out throats for years we were told that saturated fat does not in fact cause heart disease, while full fat dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, and cheese, can actually protect the heart. Recommendations, they rather appealingly suggest, should focus on the health benefits of eating food in its natural form. This was no sooner in the public space than it was massively contradicted. There was the sound of crashing plates as nutritionists, scientists, doctors, and other experts had a highly serious disagreement. Public Health England thundered that the advice in the report was “irresponsible and misleads the public” and most of the public health establishment agreed with that. The public as ever was left in a state of confusion, even for something as basic as whether we should now be opting for full butter on our morning toast, or a low fat spread?

There is a pattern here. Who will forget the shambolic manner in which the World Health Organisation last October announced the cancer risks from eating processed meats and red meat? The combination of poor communication and a media looking to hype dangers meant we saw headlines equating the risk of eating two rashers a day with smoking.

Contradictory nutritional advice gives consumers food for thought

On top of all of that was the news this week that we are not apparently eating enough salt. In our house the salt cellar is kept on the top shelf, but it turns out this may now actually be poor parenting. A study published in the Lancet, which was co authored by Prof Martin O’Donnell of NUI Galway, is a further example of traditional advice being turned on its head. it suggests that most people are actually consuming the right amount of salt and actually warns against the dangers of low salt diets saying they may increase the risk of heart disease and death.

On the same day I saw the Professor of Food and Health at UCD, Mike Gibney argue that a tax on fizzy drinks is a waste of time in terms of curbing obesity. If you look at the data around national food intake, he says, you see that in terms of foods with added sugar it is the contribution of table sugar and jams that is usually the main culprit in driving high intakes.

The quantity contributed by carbonated sugary beverages shows little variation as a proportion, no matter how great or small a person’s sweet tooth, he argued. “So where is the risk-assessment report that looks at all sources of added sugars and, taking everything into account, opts to focus solely on sugar-sweetened beverages for taxation? None exists.”

We are planning on introducing such a tax here, says Prof Gibney, simply because it is a global fashion built on dubious science and popular prejudice. Mexico did introduce such a sugar tax but according to The Wall Street Journal just 18 months later faced a return to pre-tax soda intakes.

Contradictory nutritional advice gives consumers food for thought

Prof Gibney expressed his concern about public health nutrition credibility being set back decades by a sugar tax. He makes a strong and cogent argument. But the problem here for the punters, who feel powerless in the face of all of this conflicting information, is just who to believe and exactly what to put in our mouths.

Prof Gibney also touched on an aspect of all this which really shocked me when I first read of it elsewhere earlier this month.

It is the fact that the body defends its prevailing weight vigorously, which is why conscious weight loss through dieting is so hard to maintain. It turns out that the problem is not our will power, or lack of it, but in fact it is down to neuroscience.

A study released in the US earlier this month, concentrating on the contestants on the reality TV show Biggest Loser, over a six year period, added futher to the evidence that in the long run dieting is rarely effective. It is frightening to see the manner in which the body battles against weight loss. The brain uses metabolic suppression to keep the body within a certain weight range, called the set point. That range is determined by genes and life experience. If you drop below that weight not only do you burn fewer calories but you also produce more hunger inducing hormones and want to eat more.

In their contentious report the chairman of The National Obesity Forum Professor David Haslam pointed out that current efforts to reduce and prevent obesity have failed and the proof of that is obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists. But it is also fair to point out that maybe the current guidelines are failing because not enough people are following them.

The controversial UK report also touches on how vested interests have been responsible for the spreading of poor dietary advice. The food lobby internationally is massively powerful, as is the diet industry which would go out of existence if we were all at our ideal weight.

Even the introduction of something like a traffic light system which would make it easier for us shoppers to tell at a glance which foods on the supermarket shelves are healthiest are blocked.

The bottom line is that it is impossible to know who to trust.


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