Nobody has a patent on ‘healthy eating’. It is a chameleon term that fits whatever you want to believe.
Government advisers use it to refer to a low-fat diet. Fat is still Public Health Enemy Number One, despite numerous impressively evidenced challenges. For instance, a study of 4,150 Swedes, followed over 16 years, found that a diet rich in dairy fat may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. Other research suggests that it is protective against Type 2 diabetes. Seemingly untroubled by contradictory research however, government healthy eating gurus tell us instead to eat a diet high in carbohydrates, as encapsulated in the dictum ‘Base your meals on starchy foods’.
That advice would be clear, albeit wrong, if they didn’t simultaneously advocate a low-sugar diet. Thanks to commentators like Robert Lustig and Gary Taubes, sugar now shares the public health establishment’s dietary dungeon with innocent-yet-found-guilty fat. That starchy carbs have similar blood sugar-raising – and therefore fattening – effects to straight sugar is an irritating fact that government nutrition policy has yet to digest.
Salt, of course, has been given a supporting role as a dietary hoodlum on the basis that it can raise blood pressure. Here again, our public health establishment is behind the research curve. A 2021 review of the studies on salt concluded: “There is little evidence that lowering sodium [below the average level we currently consume] will reduce cardiovascular events or death.”
Nevertheless, for government nutrition spokespeople and the NGOs that nod along with them, salt completes the Unholy Trinity. In their book, kindergarten-simple guidance to avoid HFSS foods (those high in fat, salt and sugar) and heed infantile food ‘traffic lights’, is as nuanced a message as the purportedly dimwitted public can be expected to take on board.
Entrenched orthodoxy always produces heretics. And to the gym-going, muscle-rippling sports nutrition contingent, this official advice is out-of-date cobblers. Eat steak and eggs to your heart’s content, do regular high intensity exercise and ‘go keto’, that’s eating high fat, moderate protein, and restricting your carbohydrate intake. From a keto perspective, calories are an irrelevancy. Instead, you should focus on keeping your blood sugar level under control. Paleo eaters follow much the same strategy.
To those, meanwhile, who continually struggle with their weight, ‘healthy eating’ means being told to eat more of the foods you don’t enjoy or aren’t good at eating, notably vegetables. Five-A-Day, to people with bulging waistbands, is a mission doomed to end in feelings of gluttony and failure. Better to sign up to some supposedly transformational diet plan, one that permits you a naughty treat each day, providing you keep your overall calorie count down to a level that barely satisfies your hunger, by swallowing sachets of protein powders laced with additives.
In 2019, there was an ambitious, globally coordinated attempt to rewrite nutrition thinking in the form of the EAT-Lancet Commission’s ‘Planetary Health Diet’. Advanced as a universal prescription for human health, one with attached environmental benefits, its proponents advocated that consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes must double globally, while consumption of animal foods such as red meat should be halved.
But other researchers have since used newer, more globally representative food-composition data and recommendations for nutrient intakes to analyse its adequacy. They have concluded that people adopting the Eat-Lancet diet could end up deficient in several essential vitamins and minerals – vitamin B12, calcium, iron and zinc, generally found in higher quantities and in more bioavailable forms in animal source foods. The latter accounts for just 14% of total calories in the Planetary Health Diet.
Deficiencies in these micronutrients can lead to severe and lasting effects, including compromised immune systems; increased risk of infections; hindered growth, development and school performance in children; and decreased work productivity.
To achieve nutrient adequacy, without relying on expensive supplementation or blanket, population-wide food fortification, researchers critiquing the Eat-Lancet diet recommend instead that we need to eat more, not less, nutrient-dense food, such as fish, shellfish, seeds, eggs and beef, and reduced quantities of whole grains, pulses and nuts, which are high in phytate, the ‘anti-nutrient’ that interferes with nutrient absorption in the gut. So, the question of what constitutes a healthy human diet is just as contested as it ever was.
Where does this leave those of us who, without being fanatically obsessed with nutrition, want to eat nourishing food that satisfies our appetite, is enjoyable and tends to keep us at a normal body weight?
Speaking personally, I ignore all government eating strictures. They have failed demonstrably and proven to be the antithesis of life-sustaining, a classic case of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
As a dedicated omnivore, I won’t adopt any extreme diet that eliminates entire food groups. That rules out veganism, vegetarianism, the most rigid low-carb eating styles and the more macho ‘carnivore’-type diets. Limiting the foods you’re prepared to eat strikes me as boring. I live to experience the edible world in its most diverse forms. But I do know people who suffer from food allergies or a medical condition who have cut out the problem food group from their diets to good effect. I’m sure I’d do the same if I were in that situation.
Low-carb diets, for example, are proving highly successful as an alternative to medication in the treatment of those suffering from pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes. Some sufferers from certain types of rheumatoid arthritis report that high meat / no veg diets work wonders for them. At the very least, their experiences should make us question the notion that there can ever be any universal, global, one-size-fits-all ‘healthy eating’ prescription that applies irrespective of your sex, ethnicity, age, genetic make-up, or your location on this planet.
I can see the sense in a keto approach. Shredding the obsolete focus on calorie counting and focusing instead on satiating our appetites over a sustained period of time to provide a controlled, steady release of energy, is well overdue. I can go along with a low-carb approach but not a no-carb one. Never eat croissants ever again? No way.
And let’s be practical here. The near elimination of affordable starchy foods – bread, potatoes, rice, pasta – cranks up the food bill, even if you are untrammelled by ethics and prepared to buy only the lowest quality, least ethically produced foods.
As someone at a healthy weight, I’m not interested in weight-loss diets as such. My observation is that they leave people feeling hungry and cheated, both emotionally and physically. That’s a warped and psychologically unhealthy approach to the potentially pleasurable business of eating, unless of course, your weight means that extreme remedial measures are temporarily in order.
I do believe that the concept of nutrient density, that’s basing your diet on ingredients that are particularly rich in health-promoting macro- and micronutrients is an obvious key to staying healthy and feeling satisfied by what you eat. High carb diets don’t fit that bill. As a rule of thumb, animal-source foods are much richer in nutrients than plant-sourced ones.
Dietary fashions come and go. A definition of ‘healthy eating’ is forever up-for-grabs. The field of nutrition science is irredeemably adversarial, mired in vested interests, dissonant philosophies and world views, so we can’t be blamed for keeping a certain cynical distance from it.
I prefer to be guided by two principles, which to my mind, are infinitely more important. First, avoid ultra-processed foods; second, cook.
Follow these diet rules and it’s hard to go very far wrong.