The scientist myth-busting foodie fibs

Tim Spector: “Items I thought were naughty like chocolate… are actually likely to be healthy” © Francesco Guidicini

Could everything we’ve been taught about food be wrong? Recent research by leading geneticist Tim Spector looks set to overturn some of our most cherished beliefs about healthy eating.

The alleged benefits of drinking lots of water are a con invented by the bottled water industry. Eating unpasteurised cheese is incredibly unlikely to cause any problems during pregnancy. Locally produced food is not always better for the planet. Cutting salt out of your diet is more likely to do harm than good. Furthermore, supplements are a waste of money.

By Tim Spector’s own admission, almost every opinion about eating healthily that he held a decade ago has turned out to be a dud. In his new myth-busting book Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food is Wrong, the professor of genetics challenges much of the received wisdom we have come to believe about healthy eating.

The overall thesis of the book is that it is fine to eat most food types in moderation, and not stress about it. But we should certainly consume more plants — and less meat and fish — and vary our diet more.

He is a particular proponent of taking care of our gut, where trillions of friendly microbes can be helped by a regular intake of fermented foods such as yoghurt.

Spector believes it is the “industrialisation” of food — the mass consumption of heavily processed snacks and meals — that is behind that particular curse of the modern age, widespread obesity and all the health problems that come with it, particularly diabetes.

He would far rather you sat down with a juicy steak from a good farmers’ market than with anything that comes in a packet from a factory.

The food industry is one of his targets. The ten biggest food companies control 80 % of store-bought products globally, and their combined profits were more than $100 billion in 2018. Little wonder they are keen to spend their money on research that doesn’t affect their sales.

Calories are another false friend in our fight against obesity, Spector argues. The system of measuring the calorific units in different foods by establishing how much heat they give when burnt was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, but little has been added to the science since.

World Health Organization guidelines suggest men eat 2,500 calories a day and women 2,000, but widely varying metabolic rates render these figures useless.

Furthermore, he says, we are now gaining a better understanding of how foods interact. The calorie content of almonds, for example, has been inflated by 31% because we didn’t realise that much of the fat they contain is not released when we eat them.

Likewise, no one would suggest that a corn on the cob has the same nutritional value as a bowl of processed corn flakes, yet the calorie count is the same. To use such a simplistic measure as your guide when pulling ready meals off a shelf is clearly nonsense.

So, could everything we’ve been taught about food really be wrong?

Gut reaction

Yes, say some. Food and nutrition is a much more complex subject than we’ve been led to believe. As a result, lots of the certainties we have about food are often oversimplifications or simply wrong. Food is also a very emotive subject, and we would understand our eating habits better if we put it in the context of our mental health.

No, say others. Spector himself doesn’t really believe his own title. As the Times review says: “This is not a book for those seeking definitive answers; the subtitle might better read not as Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Wrong but Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Not Necessarily Right.”

You Decide

  1. Where do you get most of your information about food?
  2. Should online personalities like influencers and bloggers be telling us what we should and shouldn’t put in our bodies?

Activities

  1. Design a menu at your dream restaurant. Think about what your favourite food is and why you like it so much.
  2. In a group, discuss the emotive words we use when talking about food and eating. For example, some people describe particular foods as a ‘guilty pleasure’.

Some People Say...

“I despair of the term 'clean eating'...it necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad.”

Nigella Lawson, British food writer and chef

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that a balanced diet is the key to a healthy lifestyle, meaning we should all have a mixture of vegetables, fats, proteins and carbohydrates. As well as this, “everything in moderation” is a good guide to live by when it comes to eating. It is not inherently bad to eat sugar or fat —the problems only arise when we eat too much of them. Similarly, a diet that is made up of mostly vegetables and not very much else could also lead to health problems.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around how to improve the nation’s health. One common suggestion is a tax on sugar, for example. But high taxes put pressure on poorer families. Another idea is that the government should fund more programmes in schools and local communities to encourage people to be active, while there remain strong arguments for greater emphasis on individual responsibility.

Word Watch

Emotive
Something that has the power to arouse intense feeling or emotion in somebody.
Genetics
A branch of science that studies genes. Genetics can include looking at how some diseases are passed down the generations, like cancer or heart problems.
Received wisdom
Information that most people generally believe to be true, although it might not necessarily be.
Marketing strategy
A plan a company devises to help sell a product: in this case, a catchy phrase designed to encourage people to buy breakfast cereal.

Subjects

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