Food Matters Live 2018


One of the most pressing global challenges in healthcare to be faced over the next fifteen years is to reduce the impact of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain forms of cancer, so it’s no surprise that the opening session of Food Matters Live 2018 should focus on the subject. A distinguished panel including Duncan Selbie, CEO of Public Health England, Chris Bavin, Presenter of The Truth about Obesity, Hugo Harper, Principal Adviser, The Behavioural Insights Team and Nick Lesica, Neutoscientist, Senior Research Fellow, The Wellcome Trust, came together to discuss government plans as well as other possible initiatives. The importance of government policy initiatives in ‘nudging’ people toward better eating habits was covered by Hugo Harper, while a great takaway from Nick Lesica was “the healthy choice needs to be the easy choice.” Chris Bavin highlighted how it is possible to eat well on a low budget, suggested higher levels of VAT on junk food with the proceeds subsidising healthy foods or going to fund the National Health Service to help off-set the rising cost of chronic disease, but most emphasis was placed on the importance of kids learning to cook at a young age.

However, the big area for concern for the panel was the likely effectiveness of the current policies being pursued by Public Health England, which has placed a big bet on a 20% sugar/calorie reduction and reformulation of processed foods over the next few years making a big difference. As was pointed out by Nick Lesica, a 20% sugar/calorie reduction will not necessarily lead to this level of reduction in diets, with the likely number being close to 5%. This of course will not make much of an overall difference to the problems needing to be addressed.

My concern is twofold:
  • Why are we still so coy in the UK about warning people about the dangers of highly processed foods in comparison to the South American example set by Chile? There the government has required packaged food to display black warning logos in the shape of a stop sign on items high in sugar, salt, calories or saturated fat. Cereal bars, yogurts and juice boxes, products long advertised as “healthy,” “natural” or “fortified with vitamins and minerals,” carry one or more of the black warning labels.
  • Are we right to place so much faith in reformulation, when we may be simply making unhealthy food slightly less bad, rather than healthier?    

We know that changes to our eating patterns combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles are major contributors to the growing health crisis, but as an extensive five-year French nutrition study published earlier this year pointed out, it is eating ultra-processed foods that leads to an increase in overall cancer events. Ubiquitous foods like bread, pastry, sodas and sweetened drinks, chicken nuggets, instant noodles, frozen ready meals and processed cheese. Simply reformulating such products is unlikely to provide the solutions needed.

Why is nutrition and its impact on health so slow to be accepted as the key issue, even though we have known for well over a century that micronutrient deficiency is the big issue linked directly to human disease.

Make smarter eating the aim

Addressing the importance of balance and variety in our diet should be our primary goal, including identification of the “wrong kinds of foods” and “right kinds of foods” – foods that can damage us as opposed to real foods that deliver health benefits. Eating a varied diet of unprocessed food with everything in moderation is a likely better way to protect health than obsessing about individual nutrients; a diet high in plant-based foods i.e. consuming fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts has been widely advocated by international agencies.

Extraordinary as it may seem, in the developed world micronutrient deficiency and malnutrition has made a comeback as obesity is a common example of malnourishment. A balanced diet is the answer and is now strongly associated with the promotion of health and the reduction of major chronic disease.

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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