Well, that’s *a* food pyramid… triangle… thing | Photo: bigbrand, CC BY 2.0
There’s a kerfuffle in the UK about a recent “report” on diet recommendations. Here’s what that’s all about.
The UK’s National Obesity Forum has released a (definitely not peer-reviewed) report this week that, if not directly, then certainly indirectly, accuses Public Health England (who put out the “Eatwell Guide,” like the US’s old “food pyramid”) of some manner of unsavoury collusion with certain sectors of the food economy, to the express detriment of the public good. I’d say this was a complete overreach, but given how powerful food lobbies have been in the past (and possibly in the present) in shaping the equivalent US dietary recommendations, maybe it isn’t.
But some of the things they’re saying are definitely reaching.
Chief among their list of concerns is that people are avoiding healthy food because of a fear of fats. According to the Guardian, they write that “the most natural and nutritious foods available – meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, olive, avocados – all contain saturated fat. The continued demonization of omnipresent natural fat drives people away from highly nourishing, wholesome and health-promoting foods.” That’s totally fair. Fat — even saturated fat — is a part of a healthy diet.
But they’re also saying somewhat less reasonable sounding things. For instance, apparently they’re saying that saturated fats do not cause heart disease. Now, there’s a lot of science out there I could cite in favour of the supposition that the consumption of large quantities of saturated fats does indeed lead to higher blood cholesterol levels, of the Low-Density type (LDL), and that lowering LDL cholesterol levels reduces the risk across the board of major “vascular events.” But instead I’ll just tell you that if you type “saturated fat heart disease” into Google, the top result is the website of our good friend Joe Mercola arguing that “Saturated Fats Have No Link To Heart Disease.” If you find yourself in agreement with Mercola on health matters, you stand a very good chance of being wrong.
They’re also, apparently, saying that we should just ignore calories — according to the report they’re “highly irrelevant” — and eat “whole” and “natural” foods. Just, no.
Look, the reason why we don’t want a diet super high in fats is similar to the reason we don’t want a diet that’s super high in rarified carbohydrates like refined sugar: caloric density. Things that are high in caloric density give you less satiety for your per-unit energy intake. And the math is pretty simple: as I’ve explained before, while a calorie is not always a calorie (sometimes, say when you’ve got fiber involved, it can be less) it’s never more than a calorie. So knowing calories does help, and no amount of “just eat whole foods” is going to make things high in calories — like fatty foods — lower in calories.
Ignoring what’s in your food in favour of eating different foods or “just eating less” isn’t really much of a solution to obesity, unless you know how many calories you burn and how many you’re taking in.
Now, I am actually of the opinion that full-fat foods have their place. I eat full-fat yogurt — plain — because I find that non-fat yogurt tastes godawful unless you add a metric ton of sugar to it, which has the same or more calories, but which leads to little more than another sugar craving half an hour later (your mileage may vary). Frankly, the shift to non-fat does seem to have led into an era of added sugar, because fat tastes good and when you take it out you need to put something else in to make your food taste less like cardboard. But that’s just personal supposition at this point.
What isn’t supposition is that the good folks at Public Health England are right when they say that “calling for people to eat more fat, cut out carbs and ignore calories is irresponsible.” Now, maybe we should redress our balance of how much we consume of each — the old food pyramid’s 6-11 servings of grains per day always seemed a bit excessive to me. You can’t avoid everything when you eat. You need fat. You need carbs. You need protein. You probably don’t need refined sugar, but hell, in small amounts it’s probably fine. But we do know that diets high in saturated fats aren’t great for your heart, and that caloric intake really really does have something to do with obesity. There are other factors as well, but the calorie thing? Definitely not “irrelevant.”
As for this particular report, I’d take it with a grain of salt. Not only is it not peer-reviewed, it appears to cherry-pick evidence where it sees fit, its direct authorship is in question, and its funding sources are undisclosed. For all we know right now, it’s as much affected by “big dairy” as the US’s 1977 guidelines were affected by “big corn.” And when you find yourself saying that, it’s time to take more than a couple of steps back and reassess.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.