Health experts leave us between a rock and lard place

It goes without saying that what we eat has a huge impact on both our health and the health of the planet. Official dietary advice and guidelines can help to shape our consumption habits. But, these edicts can often be as contentious as ‘facts’ about the economic impact of leaving or remaining in the EU.

What the public craves is simple, unbiased information and advice. Armed with this they can then make an informed choice – right or wrong. This week’s almighty row between health experts on the affect fat has on our health, and a dramatic recommendation did little to simplify the message for consumers and could have potential longer term negative consequences. Meanwhile, there is optimism that straightforward advice issued by the Chinese Government will have a seriously positive impact on the environment.

Fat is good vs fat is bad. That was the binary way in which the headlines portrayed the unseemly argument in the UK this week between Public Health England and the National Obesity Forum (NOF) which published a damning report claiming that low fat diets were responsible for “disastrous health consequences” and Britain’s obesity crisis.

Public Health England’s Chief Nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone responded, saying: “In the face of all the evidence, calling for people to eat more fat, cut out carbs and ignore calories is irresponsible.”

One would imagine that the average consumer would be left feeling mighty confused.  Break it down a little and you’ll find that NOF is encouraging people to return to a diet based on “whole foods” – meat, fish and dairy, while avoiding sugar.

Naturally the headlines focussed on the ding-dong about fat being good or bad for health, heart and weight. But as this quote from the report makes clear, the argument is slightly more subtle: “The most natural and nutritious foods available – meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, olive, avocados – all contain saturated fat. The continued demonisation of omnipresent natural fat drives people away from highly nourishing, wholesome and health-promoting foods.”

And the scientists behind NOF’s report called for a re-think on the recent Eatwell Guide published by Public Health England, which it claims promotes high-carb, low-fat diets as a silver bullet would appear well wide of the mark.

A queue of experts formed to get stuck into the argument.  Professor John Wass, of the Royal College of Physicians was among the few sticking to a sensible, simple non-hysterical or polarised message. He said: “What is needed is a balanced diet, regular physical activity and a normal healthy weight. To quote selective studies risks misleading the public.”

While another, Dr Mike Knapton of the British Heart Foundation, said: “This country’s obesity epidemic is not caused by poor dietary guidelines; it is that we are not meeting them.”

So where do foodservice businesses fit into this? Well, a healthy diet should read like a good restaurant menu – a balanced selection of dishes, featuring the core food groups and – hey perhaps a little bit of fat too. But seriously, by choice editing, restaurants can have a positive effect on the diets of their customers – and that doesn’t mean serving ‘health food’ alone – merely supporting sensible dietary guidelines.

Now, if you’re looking for a positive impact from dietary guidelines China might just have provided the answer.

The Ministry of Health there is urging citizens to limit consumption of meat and eggs to 200g a day. This represents a reduction of a third of current intake and, as well as the potential health benefits, environmentalists are eyeing the recommendations with glee. Commentators have estimated that if the Chinese population adhered to the guidelines the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions would be equivalent to taking 93m cars of the road. WOW!

While we argue about the benefits and ills of fat, the Chinese could be on the verge of saving the planet.

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