The government’s approach to healthy eating is causing me concern. First let me say I recognise the pressures on the NHS and wholeheartedly agree with the premise of pre-empting many of the health problems weighing it down. The research is clear that obesity increases the risk factors for major health challenges such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
The difficulty I have centres on the definition of ‘healthy’. What exactly are ‘healthy’ products? Ones that are not high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), ones that are high in other nutrients, or ones that are both? We are still awaiting the answer from the 2018 review of the UK nutrient profiling model (NPM).
We seem to have regressed into an old way of thinking: some foods are ‘good’ and others ‘bad’. Any food can be ‘unhealthy’ if eaten in sufficient quantities. Tackling incipient health problems is about adopting a healthy lifestyle, with regular exercise – not just eating well.
Another popular trap the media and consumers fall into when talking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods is demonising the ‘chemicals’ and ‘E numbers’ in products. Everything around us contains naturally-occurring chemicals, including ourselves. And many E numbers occur naturally in fruit and veg. Take ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which is used as a preservative, or the binding agent guar gum.
And don’t even get me started on the term ‘ultra-processed’, which is enjoying a renaissance. Presumably homemade cakes or biscuits aren’t ultra-processed, as they are made with minimal ingredients and simple processes. But I think we would all agree we would be in a sorry state if that was all we ate.
Furthermore, many foods deliver regular hits of vitamins and minerals precisely because they have been further processed. Many breads are fortified with iron and folic acid. Breakfast cereals are packed full of nutrients and milk is sometimes fortified with vitamin D, as well as being naturally high in calcium.
Animal-based products have, of course, fallen between two stools according to the NPM. They are often high in nutrients rarely found elsewhere without deliberate fortification. But they are also high in fat and, in many cases, salt, and so fall foul of the NPM.
A line must be drawn between products that are HFSS but also high in nutrients, and those that are just HFSS. Otherwise, if we cut such products out of our diets altogether, we would remove plentiful sources of essential vitamins, such as vitamin A and B12 in the case of dairy products. We also need to remember that fat, salt and sugar are essential nutrients too – we just need to ensure we don’t overconsume them.
A better approach would be to focus on a varied and balanced diet and portion control. Nutrients need to be properly bioavailable.
I’m sick of the food industry being used by successive governments and the mainstream media as a scapegoat for failed health policies because it is an easy target. Instead, let’s examine the science, address lifestyles and diets in their entirety through incentives as well as penalties, and have a robust, UK-wide food strategy that takes all of that into account.
Then, maybe, we can create a balanced and sensible approach to nutrition, start to seriously tackle health and wellbeing, and take the pressure off the NHS.