The National Obesity Forum created a storm last week by claiming eating saturated fats, such as butter, would help reduce obesity and type 2 diabetes. Public Health England retaliated, calling NOF’s advice “irresponsible”.
The modern diet is widely accepted as a cause of illnesses like coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases. The recent controversy, like most research, focuses on which nutrients are to blame.
I am not qualified to say whether fats are good for you or if they will help you shed weight. As a philosopher and someone who’s studied diets and health-related behaviors, I am curious to know the answer. The questions we ask will determine the kind of answers that make sense. Is it logical to focus on nutrients like fat or carbohydrates, or should we reframe our question?
There are several ways to look at the changes in diet that have occurred in Western society over the last century. We can certainly think about nutrients: more sugars, refined carbohydrates, animal fats, and oils. A change in agriculture and animal husbandry is also needed: new pesticides and fertilizers, as well as new methods of feeding and breeding animals. The third type of change begins with an organizational revolution: big corporations dominate our food supply.
These corporations have factories, laboratories, trademarks, and marketing departments. They have also created a brand new food: the ultra-processed version.
Why adon’t modern food companies promote cabbagestoday?
The raw ingredients are converted into pulps, powders, concentrates, and extracts. Chemicals can be used to enhance and emulsify flavors. Some of these chemicals are familiar (such as salt), while others were unknown until modern chemistry. The new technologies can pound, process, bleach, coat, transform liquids into solids or pastes, remove the last scraps of animal carcasses, and “fortify” with vitamins that were lost during earlier processing stages.
We’re not sure where the products came from, despite the appealing images of farms and crops.
How can we determine which of these dietary changes are harmful to our health, given the huge shifts that have occurred? To give you a quick overview, I have listed three major changes. Each of these changes involves a variety of factors. It is very difficult to determine which factors in modern diets are responsible for the increase of certain illnesses.
It’s not that the conventional questions about nutrients can’t be answered. It’s becoming more and more clear that a lot of sugar can be bad for you; trans fats will also do us harm. It’s a mistake to focus solely on nutrition. There are many reasons to believe that modern food processing poses health risks.
Some of these issues overlap with specific nutrient concerns. It is easy to make inexpensive ingredients more palatable by adding salt, sugar, or fat. Processed foods are often stripped of the micronutrients that make up whole foods. Crops from industrial agriculture are lower in micronutrients.
Energy intake and some problems are related. Processed foods contain less fibre and water. They are, therefore, more calorie dense and easier to eat in large quantities.
Processed foods are designed to be appealing immediately, as well as being convenient. Like whole foods, they are marketed using every marketing trick known to man. All of these factors promote overconsumption. We can also suspect that certain aspects of food processing, such as “processing Aids” and chemicals in packaging, pose their own health risks.
Focus on the whole food, not just specific nutrients
The focus on specific nutrients, such as cholesterol or fat has damaged the reputation of whole food. Some people limit their intake of red meat, eggs, or butter. The companies that produce processed foods are better positioned to defend their product. Packaging can make or imply health claims. Margarine may be made with industrial trans fats but can be formulated low in cholesterol. Breakfast cereals may contain more than a quarter of sugar, but packaging will highlight the iron, fiber, or vitamin content.
Nutrients are not visible or palatable to anyone. Focusing on them is to mistrust your senses and trust labels. We are confused and pick up a fizzy drink with low calories, but then select a low fat yoghurt which contains the sugar that we were trying to avoid. We are more susceptible to processed food and drinks when we focus on nutrition in healthy eating guidelines.
Claims that “fat will not make you fat” are making headlines. They hide an even more important concept that is also hinted at by the new report. Industrial food processing is the most significant change in human diet since humans began farming. Food and beverage companies are in competition with each other. Carlos Monteiro, professor of nutrition at the University of Sao Paulo, comments that “they have the same policy” in promoting ultra-processed food.
We could ask, instead of asking about specific nutrient content, if the increase in processed foods is contributing to diet-related illnesses. The best advice for health is to not obsess over the latest “demon” nutrient but instead to cook whole foods, adapting an old saying: Everything in moderation.