February 25, 2015

The New York Times ran an opinion piece entitled “The Government’s Bad Diet Advice”. Written by Nina Teicholz, investigative journalist and author of the book The Big Fat Surprise, it looks at the dietary advice Americans – and Australians – have been fed for the past six decades.

Reduce fat, especially saturated fat, and red meat (because of the saturated fat) and increase consumption of ‘healthy whole grains’ has been common advice. The population – and food manufacturers – embraced the advice, and the population grew fatter and sicker.

Now the Dietary Guidelines Advisory committee in the USA has admitted that the advice was wrong, and they have eased their restrictions on fat and cholesterol and recommended new, decreased limits on sugar.

This turnaround has occurred as there is now an increasing body of research providing evidence about particular nutrients and dietary patterns and their effects on the body, including weight and disease risk.

While the guidelines have been sent to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture in the USA, they have not yet appeared in official Dietary Guidelines for Americans which are published every five years. What happens in the USA usually precedes what happens in Australia and New Zealand, and with our latest guidelines released in 2013, it’s likely to be a while before we see any official change here.

In the meantime, it can be very confusing knowing who to trust, what advice to implement, how much of something you should eat, how often you can eat something else, whether you’re getting all your micronutrients, how to incorporate ‘superfoods’, and so on. Most dietitians can’t even keep up with all the research, so the average person has no hope.

Instead, it’s logical to base your food choices on whole foods rather than specific nutrients. Don’t think about whether you’re getting enough Vitamin K or magnesium or tryptophan or whatever. By food, you need to think about food produced by nature: plant food and animal food. If it comes from a plant or an animal and is fresh, it’s probably OK. (I know, there are plants that are poisonous, but you probably won’t find them at the local greengrocers.)

Compare that to the ‘foods’ lining supermarket shelves. There’s nothing fresh there. Most have a very long shelf-life due to the added ingredients, which is why they can sit on shelves and not require refrigeration. Most have long lists of ingredients, many of which would not be included (and not needed) if you tried to reproduce the ‘food’ at home. If these ingredients can preserve food, it would be interesting to know what they do in our bodies.

So even if you’re confused about what you should be eating, do as Ms Teicholz says, “… we would be wise to return to what worked better for previous generations: a diet that included fewer grains, less sugar and more animal foods like meat, full-fat dairy and eggs. That would be a decent start.”