New diet advice sparks row

Attack on conventional advice about low-fat foods

The government has been telling us all how much and what to eat for a long time – and we’ve just grown fatter. Today, one in four adults is now obese with Britain dubbed the ‘fat man of Europe’.

Yet not one paper from Whitehall has considered treating obesity as an addictive issue with a clear focus on what goes on in the mind, rather than the mouth – arguably at great cost.

Now a massive food fight has erupted, with some experts attacking the official dietary advice of the last three decades.

The compelling debate kicked off this morning (23 May) when the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration, published a joint report.

The report and subsequent statements  suggested:

  • We should all be eating more fats via dairy products, meat and ‘whole foods’ such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocados
  • Calorie counting is a waste of time because it doesn’t account for the individual ‘metabolic effects’ of food
  • Government advice on nutrition (including the Eatwell Plate) is biased, as it’s produced in consultation with the food industry, who rather like the tobacco industry, put commercial interests first
  • Saturated fats do not cause heart disease and full-fat dairy foods – including milk, yoghurt and cheese – can actually protect the heart.

Professor David Haslam, Chair of the National Obesity Forum said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high carbohydrate, low fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, the chief nutritionist for Public Health England (who publish official dietary guidelines) was quick to challenge the credibility of the report.

She said: “It’s a risk to the nation’s health when potentially influential voices suggest people should eat a high fat diet, especially saturated fat. Too much saturated fat in the diet increases the risk of raised cholesterol, a route to heart disease and possible death.”

Obesity scientist Dr Kelly Johnston of weight-management company LighterLife also questioned the advice. “It’s just plain wrong to say that calories don’t matter. Of course they matter. Consuming more than we burn (i.e. the state of positive energy balance) is exactly why we are all getting fatter. The suggestion that eating more fat (of any kind quite frankly), is, under these circumstances, really rather counterproductive when it comes to tackling obesity.”

It's just plain wrong to say that calories don't matter. Of course they matter. Consuming more than we burn is exactly why we are all getting fatter.

Dr Kelly Johnston

Of course, what the report doesn’t explore is why a person keeps on overeating even when their knees hurt and they’re being prescribed medication for diabetes type 2. Why can’t fat people just eat in moderation?

The report also perpetuates the habit of treating obesity as a ‘food problem’ rather than a feelings problem.

It could also be argued that telling an obese person the answer to their problem lies in switching from carbs to fats, is rather like telling an alcoholic to switch from beer to wine.

Nevertheless, there is no getting away from the fact that for years people have been given conflicting and confusing information about food.

Certainly, the demonisation of fats has not been helpful. Fats (advisable in moderation) are relatively filling and can help people feel fuller for longer, thus cutting back on snacking. Protein, is also far more satiating than bread, cereal, and other carbs.

And, it must be said, people already eat plenty of very fashionable ‘whole foods’ such as nuts and avocados. Indeed, these types of foods have been seized upon by food bloggers as the holy grail of enlightened eating. But the fact remains that they are extremely calorie-dense.

We live in a food swamp. There is simply too much of everything, everywhere, all the time.

Dr Kelly Johnston

Dr Johnston concludes: “We live in a food swamp. There is simply too much of everything, everywhere, all the time.

Plus, it’s evident that so many of us tuck in when we’re bored, lonely tired or because we think we deserve it after a tough day. And here’s the catch – emotional hunger cannot be fixed with food. We need to modify our behaviours so we eat more mindfully and not from a position of stress and tiredness.

At LighterLife, therapeutic tools such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are used which are designed to help change people’s relationship with food. To help provide long-term results and the way a person eats, they need to change the way they think and how this is to be achieved? Well that’s one conversation that’s long overdue in the public arena.