There’s a bit more to food than that By Glen Matten MSc
How often do we hear optimistic messages about food and health? It’s got to be a minority of the time, hasn’t it? For decades we’ve been freaked out by fat. The mere thought of buying milk with a blue top is enough to conjure horror images of clogging arteries. But now we have sugar as the new dietary devil, lurking in every food we eat, greedily fuelling society’s obesity and diabetes ills. In fact, why stop at sugar, when we could condemn another macronutrient in its entirety? Yes, carbs are the real enemy, and as for gluten and grains, boy do they have a lot to answer for. Then there’s fruit. What, you mean you haven’t heard how bad fructose is? Blah! Ok, what about caffeine then? Don’t even get me started on caffeine.
There’s not a lot of positives in there. Actually, it’s all a bit anxiety inducing. I totally get it when people tell me they genuinely don’t know what to eat any more. As a practicing clinician, I’m hearing it increasingly. How do we make sense of this barrage of bad news?
The answer is to see it for what it is: misguided reductionism. I’m talking about the idea that we can reduce highly complex foods to one single component and then judge the whole food on that basis. The fact is, food is a bit more complex than that. Let’s take a few examples, starting with two very high fat foods, extra virgin olive oil and nuts. Recently, the results of a major study called PREDIMED were published. Conducted on almost 7,400 individuals at high risk of cardiovascular disease, it looked at how a Mediterranean-style diet, supplemented with either extra virgin olive oil or nuts compared with a more conventional diet. The results were staggeringly in favour of the pro-fat Mediterranean style diet, which reduced the incidence of cardiovascular disease (and diabetes) by around 30%. If you found a drug that could do that, it would be the envy of the pharmaceutical industry.
What about sugar? Eating it in its highly refined form in significant amounts is clearly not a great idea. But does that mean that all foods high in sugar are inherently bad? Let’s take super-sweet dates, which contain an eye-watering (and mouth-watering) 66% sugar. Yet eaten in moderation, they have no real discernible blood-sugar raising effect. On the contrary, consuming them is linked to less diabetes and heart disease, not more.
As for caffeine, we only have to look at the foods and beverages that it is found in to see that they are amongst the healthiest we could consume. Think coffee and its strong links with reducing diabetes risk, green tea with its cardio-protective and probable cancer-protective properties, and cocoa / dark chocolate and its heart health credentials, and you get a flavour of the profound health benefits of caffeine-containing foods and drinks.
The point is that we can’t understand anything about these foods simply by reducing them to one of their components. Plant foods, by their very nature, are highly complex and contain hundreds, indeed thousands of different components. Some of these are familiar, like vitamins, minerals and fibre but even then, we’re only just scratching the surface of what’s good about plant foods. To understand that, we have to look even further into the biochemical complexity of plants and take account of the vast array of natural compounds they contain, such as their polyphenol content. Only then can we understand why foods that are high in fat (nuts or extra virgin olive oil), or sugar (dates), or caffeine (dark chocolate or coffee) all have such profound potential to benefit our health. We don’t need to obsess about fats, carbs, sugars or caffeine to be healthy, we just need to consume these delicious foods.
Michael Pollan famously said “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” and what better way to express the need to stop the reductionist view of food that leaves us in a state of fear and confusion? By incorporating abundant plant foods into our diets not only do we reap the benefits of their vast spectrum of phytonutrients, but we can finally filter out all that anxiety-inducing background noise about what we shouldn’t be eating, and get on with the important business of enjoying food once more.