Time to talk about real food, not nutrients

Geoff SimmonsHealth

The debate over whether cholesterol and saturated fat or sugar and refined carbohydrates are the greatest dietary evil has once again raised its ugly head. These arguments between nutritionists leave people confused in their quest for a longer, healthier life. And in many ways, the confusion is completely unnecessary. There is actually a lot nutritionists agree on, particularly when we stop talking about nutrients and start talking about food.

What you put in is not what you get out

The renewed focus on this issue kicked off with the United States announcement that it would stop warning people to minimise their cholesterol intake. Whoopty doo – we’ve known about that one for quite some time and covered the issue in our book Appetite for Destruction. The fact is that the food we put into our body is not the same as what our body does with that food. Eating cholesterol doesn’t raise your cholesterol, and eating sugar can end up creating fat. Nutrition science is complex – what you put in is not what you get out.

Conflicting messages on saturated fat

That cholesterol turnaround was quickly followed by an article in the British Medical Journal that questioned the veracity of dietary fat guidelines. The article claims that the recommendations to limit saturated fat intake are based on limited evidence. The science on this issue is complex, as we have explored in a previous article. The main point is that this study doesn’t prove saturated fat isn’t a risk. However, it does point out that we need to look again about how much of a risk it is, and under what circumstances. It is all pretty complex but in simple terms the recommendation for most people to reduce their saturated fat intake stands – as long as you replace it with unsaturated fats rather than sugar and refined carbohydrates (which most of us have).

Reducing saturated fat led to a bigger problem – highly processed trans fats

In an effort to reduce our saturated fat intake, we started eating unsaturated fat that had been manufactured to make it more like saturated fat. The only problem was that this created a nasty by-product from the manufacturing process known as hydrogenation. These little mutants, known as trans fats, are linked to a higher risk of heart attack, so should be avoided at all costs. So much for that then!

Now sugar and refined carbohydrates are in the line of fire

Some nutritionists (and Nigel Latta) are warning that the real problem is sugar, and its evil cousin refined carbohydrates like white bread and many breakfast cereals. As we have seen previously, it is very easy to overdose on sugar when you eat manufactured fake food. But does that make it a bigger threat than saturated fat? The answer depends on a lot of things. For example are you more worried about diabetes or heart attacks? The former is more strongly linked to sugar, the latter to saturated fat.

The main thing is to not eat too much

What we do know as far as health goes is not to eat too much. If a person eats more food than they need over a sustained period, that is when things start going wrong. That helps explain why our forefathers happily munched on saturated fats like butter and lard without ill effect – because they worked it off. Our problems began when we didn’t work as hard to justify eating the stuff.

The problem with sugar on the other hand seems to be more that it makes us eat more in general. Our bodies process sugar and refined carbohydrate quickly, leaving us craving more. So in the question over whether sugar or saturated fat is worse, a lot comes down to individual taste – what foods are you more likely to overeat? For some it will be fatty foods, for others sugary.

Nutrition is complex, when you talk about nutrients

The upshot of all this is that when we break food down into little bits, it gets horribly complex. There are lots of ifs and buts, and it takes a nutrition degree to get your head around nutrition science. As one example, we are now finding out that there are different kinds of saturated fats, each with potentially different impacts. It never ends!

This shouldn’t come as a surprise – the process of growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, cooking, eating and digesting food is very complex. Tracing anything through that chain and finding links to our health is incredibly difficult.

Nutrition is simple, when you talk about food

It doesn’t need to be this way. Instead of debating what percentage of our diet should come from certain nutrients, official guidelines should talk about food. That way, the complexities of nutrition can be boiled down to some very simple messages. Brasil has learned this lesson, and published a set of very simple dietary guidelines that talk about food – not nutrients. You can find Brasil’s guidelines at the end of the article.

There is actually a lot that nutritionists agree on

All this fussing about nutrients and squabbling over whether saturated fat or sugar is the enemy only leaves the public completely confused. The question is why do we do it? When you start looking at food rather than nutrients, there is actually a lot that nutritionists agree on. They agree that we should eat real food, especially greens, and cut down on the processed stuff.

Eat real food, not the processed fake stuff

Processing is used by food companies to make food last longer. This reduces waste, which in turn reduces cost. Processing generally achieves this by stripping out all the stuff that makes food go off. The downside is that this is also the stuff that makes food healthy, and gives it flavour. To give processed food some flavour the processors instead pack in lots of sugar, fat and salt. This also helps make the food last even longer.

Cook – or be cooked for

This is why any meal that you cook yourself (or if you eat out, is prepared fresh for you) is likely to taste better and be healthier. Fresh food still contains plenty of nutrients, and is packed full of flavour so you won’t have to add as much sugar, salt and fat to make it taste better.

So here is an idea: stop reading confusing media articles, nutritional guidelines, or scientific journals about nutrients, and start reading cook books about real food instead.


Time to talk about real food, not nutrients was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.