Dietary advice: Does anyone actually know what's going on?

May 29, 2016


Another week, another 'don't eat that, it's bad for you' spiel.

Knowing what to eat for good health, it seems, has never been more complicated - wellness gurus, ever-changing dietary advice, non-gluten diet, no dairy diet, only-eat-foods-beginning-with-'y' diet, clean eating, 'fat is bad for you', 'sugar is bad for you', etc. The list is endless.

You can't turn on the television, the radio, open a newspaper or go on the internet without hearing or reading about the latest diet that is meant to make you slim, almost sylph-like, or hear yet another organisation or quack give you conflicting or non-scientific advice about what to eat. It is enough to give you a headache.

And I, for one, am completely sick of it. Yes, this article is heading towards rant territory. And it is going to be long.

I have no intention of ever giving anyone definitive dietary advice on this blog. I am stumbling in the dark as much as the next person and I am certainly not qualified. Although, that said, I am as qualified as, quite frankly, pretty much every 'wellness guru' who has written a book or has appeared in their own television show in the last couple of years, so maybe there is an opportunity for me after all.

The Greater Spotted Wellness Guru appears to be everywhere. It will only be a matter of time before a David Attenborough-style wildlife documentary is made about them.

(Cue David Attenborough slowly walking around insert-wellness-celeb-here's kitchen, saying to camera, "And here, we find, the Greater Spotted Wellness Guru, in their natural habitat, surrounded by chia seeds, almond milk and coconut oil, spiralising a courgette. The Greater Spotted Wellness Gurus' numbers appear to be growing at an alarming rate, but there is little joy in their existence. Sometimes you can hear their mating call, 'cauliflower pizza base'." Camera turns to hungry looking creature with blank stare who says, shrilly, 'Date syrup is a natural sugar so you can eat as much as you like. Only use grass-fed butter! Courgetti!')

It is not just the presence of 'wellness gurus' that has bugged me. It's how willing some members of the public are to swallow their advice, hook, line, sinker and copy of Angling Times without looking at the evidence. Most 'wellness gurus' have no nutritional qualifications whatsoever with some advocating diets that cut out entire food groups unnecessarily or that are downright dangerous (see One Angry Chef's blog post here for an example). So why are we so quick and ready to embrace what they say? Yes, I get that we are all trying to be healthier. And I do understand that anything that can help us get towards that goal, is worth looking at. But I like to think we are also mostly rational beings with an ability to think for ourselves and the ability to read and question.

To compound the issue, it appears there is much dissent between the various public bodies and charities with a role in providing official, evidence-led advice on diet. Just this week, an argument kicked off between the National Obesity Forum (NOF) and Public Health England (PHE) over dietary guidelines. According to the national press, a report by the National Obesity Forum says public health bodies' guidelines on low-fat diets are wrong and are not addressing the country's obesity crisis. It calls for people to follow a diet rich in full-fat dairy among other full-fat foods.

It also claims public health bodies are colluding with the food industry. It is worth noting at this point a quick look on the NOF's 'Our partners' page of its website shows it too works with companies in the food industry, including LighterLife UK, Slim Fast and Canderel.

PHE has hit back, saying the NOF's report is 'irresponsible and misleads the public' and the NOF's advice conflicts with evidence and internationally agreed interpretations of it.For the full statement, visit here

So if official bodies and organisations which have a role in safe-guarding our nutritional health can't agree, what hope do the rest of us have? Is there a danger this could this lead to more and more people relying on information provided by 'wellness gurus' and quacks because what information official bodies provide appears to be lacking in certainty? Heaven help us if so.

UPDATE: The plot thickens. Just today, a story appeared on The Guardian website saying some of the NOF's board members are angry they were not given the chance to approve the report before it was published. It appears the charity's members are looking to disown the NOF's report. So not only is there not enough consensus between groups, there's little within some of the groups themselves.

So what can we all learn from this? Only that the effect of diet on the human body is complicated and nobody really knows what is going on. As David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London predicted in his article called 'We know little about the effect of diet on health. That's why so much is written about it' we are continuing to be bombarded with advice both from people who are doing their best with what evidence they've got and those who have a fad diet to sell. He says: "As far as I can guess, the only sound advice about healthy eating for most people is don't eat too much and don't eat all the same thing. You can't make much money out of that advice. No doubt that is why you don't hear it very often."

Put simply is the answer 'Everything in moderation'?

FoodIssues, rant, obesity, diet

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