Despite repeated challenges from health advocacy groups, it was not until 2010, when US dietary guidelines were amended, that public health advisers on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledged that the chemical process for hardening polyunsaturated oils in margarines and spreads created artery-clogging trans fats.
Manufacturers have now reformulated their spreads, hardening them by chemical methods which they assure us are more benign. Throughout the 20th century, as we were breezily encouraged to embrace supposedly heart-healthy spreads, the prescription was killing us. Those who dutifully swallowed the bitter pill, reluctantly replacing delicious butter with dreary marge, have yet to hear the nutrition establishment recanting. Government evangelists of duff diet advice are not keen on eating humble pie.
What lesson can we draw from the cautionary tales of eggs and trans fats? We would surely be slow learners if we did not approach other well-established, oft-repeated, endlessly recycled nuggets of nutritional correctness with a rather jaundiced eye. Let us start with calories. After all, we have been told that counting them is the foundation for dietetic rectitude, but it is beginning to look like a monumental waste of time. Slowly, but surely, nutrition researchers are shifting their focus to the concept of “satiety,” that is, how well certain foods satisfy our appetites. In this regard, protein and fat are emerging as the two most useful macronutrients. The penny has dropped that starving yourself on a calorie-restricted diet of crackers and crudites is not any answer to the obesity epidemic.
As protein and fat bask in the glow of their recovering nutritional reputation, carbohydrates — the soft, distended belly of government eating advice — are looking decidedly peaky. Carbs are the largest bulk ingredient featured, in Britain, on the National Health Service’s (NHS, the UK’s publicly funded healthcare system) visual depiction of its recommended diet, the Eat Well Plate. Zoe Harcombe, an independent nutrition expert, has pithily renamed it the Eat Badly Plate — and you can see why. After all, we feed starchy crops to animals to fatten them, so why will they not have the same effect on us? This less favorable perception of carbohydrates is being fed by trials which show that low-carb diets are more effective than low fat and low-protein diets in maintaining a healthy body weight.
When fat was the nutrition establishment’s Wicker Man, the health-wrecking effects of sugar on the nation’s health sneaked in under the radar. Stick “low fat” on the label and you can sell people any old rubbish. Low-fat religion spawned legions of processed foods, products with ramped-up levels of sugar and equally dubious sweet substitutes, to compensate for the inevitable loss of taste when fat is removed. The anti-saturated-fat dogma gave manufacturers the perfect excuse to wean us off real foods that had sustained us for centuries, now portrayed as natural born killers, on to more lucrative, nutrient-light processed products, stiff with additives and cheap fillers.
In line with the contention that foods containing animal fats are harmful, we have also been instructed to restrict our intake of red meat. However, crucial facts have been lost in this simplistic red-hazed debate. The weak epidemiological evidence that appears to implicate red meat does not separate well-reared, unprocessed meat from the factory farmed, heavily processed equivalent that contains a cocktail of chemical additives, preservatives and so on. Meanwhile, no government authority has bothered to tell us that lamb, beef and game from free-range, grass-fed animals is a top source of conjugated linoleic acid, the micronutrient that reduces our risk of cancer, obesity and diabetes.