The low-fat own goal?

Make food important

Our daily food choices are some of the most important decisions we make when it comes to our health


After last week’s arguments here in Great Britain over the UK government’s Eatwell plate, UK academics would have us believe that British people are now completely confused about what they should eat. I will provide as simple an answer as possible.

Eat Real Food

Food that our grandparents would have recognised. Fresh ingredients that would feature in home prepared and cooked food.

What to avoid, or at least restrict

Processed food – in particular heavily processed food. This includes all types of convenience food as well as traditional ‘junk’ food.

There you have it, it really is this simple.

To help you further, I’ll share an epiphany I had at breakfast one Sunday morning. I suddenly realised the only food product on our table regularly advertised on television was Yakult, the probiotic drink. After considering the rest of my weekly shop, my personal general guide since has been: the bigger the television advertising budget, the more reason to question and probably avoid the product.

Increasingly it is becoming accepted that the choices we make as to the kind of foods we consume on a daily basis is much more important than just hitting a daily calorie quota. The tragedy is that we have reached a point where, to have the best chance of a healthy diet, we must avoid the bulk of the processed products produced by Big Food. How did this happen?

The low-fat ‘own goal’

The story begins back in the fifties and sixties when nutritionists were trying to determine the reason for an alarming rise in levels of heart disease. The consensus agreed the high level of fat in our diets was to blame, and one particularly forceful and vocal scientist standard bearer for this belief was Ancel Keys. As has been well documented, John Yudkin, founder of the nutrition department at the University of London’s Queen Elizabeth College, came out against this theory. His experiments provided a clearer correlation between the rise in heart disease and a rise in the consumption of sugar. When he outlined these results in his 1972 book, Pure, White and Deadly, he questioned whether there was any causal link at all between fat and heart disease, pointing out we had been eating substances like butter for centuries, while sugar, had, up until the 1850s, been something of a rare treat for most people. “If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” he wrote, “that material would promptly be banned.”

Unfortunately Keys prevailed, Yudkin was pilloried and his career effectively ended. As it turned out the biggest beneficiaries of the victory of the anti-fat brigade and Yudkin’s condemnation was Big Food.

The quest to be healthy was embraced by the public – and ‘low-fat’ was quickly understood to mean healthy.  Of course, as we now know, sugar was used to make the low fat products palatable, but in the meantime throughout the seventies and eighties supermarket shelves became ever more awash with low-fat yogurts, spreads, desserts and biscuits, with the subsequent negative effects on health now culminating in the obesity crisis.

Low-fat ‘own goal’ compounded by real food health scares

Clearly under the cover of ‘low-fat’ Big Food was able to produce sugar laden products, but if this wasn’t already bad enough our trust in these ‘healthy’ low-fat processed foods coincided with a whole range of public health scares over real food. Think BSE – ‘Mad Cow Disease’, fears over salmonella in eggs, avoidance of ‘full fat’ milk, as well as butter. This erosion of trust in real food no doubt helped Big Food further – with people assuming their processing and additives improved food. No one would have thought it might actually degrade it. Further, with increasingly busy, hectic on-the-move lives, our craving for convenience (most likely combined with a rising addiction to sugar from increased consumption of processed foods) served to push consumers further away from real food at an accelerating pace.

Food is sold, not bought

What the food industry also came to appreciate was the power of ‘low’ or ‘free’ on a label. Label a product ‘fat free’, ‘lactose free’ or ‘gluten free’ etc. and people will buy it. In the process nutrition became defined by what we can’t eat, rather by what we can.

Cutting to the chase

Government nutritional guidelines to fight obesity should be, “avoid processed food”.

If your nutrition is dominated by processed food, you cannot be certain what you are consuming. Engineered to be addictive, they are filled with empty calories. While Mars and Nestle have recently come clean about the unhealthy aspects of some of their products, this is just the beginning of the major challenge facing Big Food. After years of producing foods loaded with salt, sugar and trans-fats, companies will struggle to make these heavily processed foods less damaging, even if they end up advertising some products as ‘healthier’.

Real foods deliver health benefits. These are foods with minimal processing and refining, maximising nutrition from natural ingredients rather than artificial substances. Real foods include vegetables, fruits, legumes, fish, lean protein and unsaturated fats providing essential nutrients to aid with overall health, well-being and in maintaining a healthy weight. They are better inputs and create better outcomes. Regular readers will be aware we refer to them as ‘food with benefits’. They should be at the core of your routine nutrition.


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          About the author
Iris is the driving force behind No Targets and a dedicated campaigner for real foods. Having spent years reading research on food she believes what we eat is more important than the calories we consume or burn. “It's about calculating nutrition, not counting calories.”

Iris is the driving force behind No Targets and a dedicated campaigner for real foods. Having spent years reading research on food she believes what we eat is more important than the calories we consume or burn. “It’s about calculating nutrition, not counting calories.”

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