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What headlines tell us about healthy eating (and what they don’t)

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What headlines tell us about healthy eating (and what they don’t)

The other day we were having a discussion in the office, when I mentioned something I’d read about sugar in drinks. 

“If you drink a 350ml bottle of energy drink every day, it’s the same as eating an extra 45 slices of white bread every month”.

To me that’s quite a shocking number. Who would want to eat that much refined, starchy food? But one of my colleagues had a different take. “So that means I can have a V instead of a piece of toast for breakfast!” he said.

He was joking. But this does illustrate a wider point. People tend to take whatever message they want from things they read about nutrition, and their conclusions don’t always make logical sense.

Newspaper headlines are a minefield for this. Here’s a few of the stories I’ve read in the last few weeks: “Cure breast cancer by avoiding all milk products”; “Fasting can repair damage to your immune system caused by ageing”; “Healthy pizza enlisted in battle of bulge”; and “Gwyneth: Yelling at water hurts its feelings”. Then there were these two, which were published on the same day: “Skipping breakfast may not be so bad for the diet, study finds” and “Breakfast helps burn fat and control blood sugar – study”.

If you were to change your eating habits based on these stories, you’d be cutting out all dairy and most meat; fasting for several days each week; eating a ‘high-protein, low-sugar’ pizza topped with cashew ‘cheese’ from a fast-food outlet and washing it down with water you’d talked to kindly. What you would be doing about breakfast, I’m not sure!

The same could be said for a recent issue of Time magazine, which featured the huge cover line: Eat Butter. If you simply looked at that (admittedly quite compelling) cover, and did not read the story inside the magazine, there’s a pretty good chance the message you’d take from this headline is not what nutrition experts would actually like you to take. Or, indeed, what the article actually said which was quite a bit more complex than that. If you were to change your eating based on this headline, and just add more butter to your diet, it’s very unlikely you’d end up being healthier.

So perhaps it is no wonder we are confused about what to eat. And it’s no wonder we are vulnerable to self-proclaimed diet experts taking advantage of this. “Everything we’ve been told about healthy eating is wrong!” they often say. “The experts can’t make up their minds! Here, I have the answer!”  This is usually followed by a ‘revolutionary’ diet plan that includes some or all of the fad diet standards: a science-ish sounding theory; a restrictive first phase; a list of banned foods; a ‘magic’ food that must be included. Oh, and a diet book, a website, and handy products you can buy to support your new ‘lifestyle’.

I’m not sure why we fall for this again and again. But we do, and have done for generations. I wonder, for some people at least: is it easier to commit to the rules of a restrictive short-term diet – even when it means denying ourselves foods we enjoy because they’re not ‘allowed’ – than it is to commit to eating a bit less and moving a bit more every day forever? Or perhaps it is the thrill of the new. A message of ‘everything in moderation’ seems so old-fashioned and uncool when everyone around you is going paleo or becoming a raw foodie.

And yet these fads will come and go. Recently I picked up a wonderful vintage diet book called The Complete Woman Book of Successful Slimming, published in the UK in 1966. Its premise, apart from advice to invest in good quality corsetry: a low-carb diet. A reminder that there’s very little that’s new in the world of weight loss.

It seems to me that the only sensible approach remains (and we all know this in our hearts) to eat moderate amounts of real food and lots of veges. But that’s far too simple to make headlines.  

 




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