Modern life - Gaye Godkin: Is it time to admit that traditional Irish foods are bad for us?
The new food pyramid, as announced by our Department of Health, places vegetables over carbohydrates for the first time. Nutritionist Gaye Godkin asks whether it’s time to admit that most traditional Irish foods are downright bad for us
For many of us humans, food presents a complex challenge when it comes to its consumption and regulation. Never in the history of mankind have we experienced such a glut of human fuel. Ireland has wonderful natural food resources, yet over decades, governments have failed to show any real interest or put any effort into helping Irish people make positive food choices.
Food is what we call, in psychological terms, a 'primary re-enforcer' and gives us satiety and enjoyment. As individuals we all have a relationship with food, for many it's functional and for others it's a love affair. This love affair at times is hard to reign in. Here in Ireland we now live in the land of honey (i.e. excess glucose availability from diet to our bodies). This very excess coupled with other negative lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, drinking and inactivity, is now responsible for 80pc of every euro that we spend on our health budget.
The new food pyramid has got one thing right, and that is that it is promoting eating fruit and vegetables. National nutrition surveys would show that our consumption rates of vegetables and fruit is very low. The pyramid could have gone one step further and advised that we aim to consume five portions of vegetables and two portions of fruit. It needs to clearly state that fruit juice consumption should be minimum. Typically a glass of fruit juice can contain six teaspoons of sugar. That is the maximum permitted per day, according to the World Health Organisation. All of the evidence points to the consumption of vegetables as being the most protective when it comes to staving off disease.
I encounter the confusion over food choices on a daily basis. There is a trend towards nutritional and food obsession. There is no one single credible place that the population at large can access evidence-based nutritional science that all scientists agree on. This is partly because it is not possible to design studies that test single foods on humans.
Where we do get good quality information from is nutritional epidemiology, which simply means how the diet and food affects populations' health outcomes. Our best and most consistent positive information has come from the Mediterranean and Japanese diets. Japan has the lowest rate of cardiovascular disease in the world. Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer in Ireland, and is a lifestyle-related illness. This should have had a bearing on the recommendations made. Recommending low fats and reduced fats does not, and will not, address this statistic.
People who live in the Mediterranean have far better health outcomes than Irish people. So what do they eat that is so different to the Irish? Lots of vegetables, salads and fruit. They also eat pulses - peas, beans, lentils and peanuts are all from the pulse family. I note that they are not highlighted on this new pyramid. This is such a shame. Pulses are packed full of protein, fibre, plant chemicals and are very inexpensive. They do not form part of our traditional diet, which clearly is not working for us.
This pyramid is a total lost opportunity when it comes to disseminating health literacy around fats. Olive oil forms a crucial part of the Mediterranean diet and people in Ireland are yet again being told to use fats sparingly. I find this shocking. Fats are such a crucial part of the diet and should be consumed daily.
There is no differentiation here between good fats and bad fats. We know that at this time of year in particular, Irish people are chronically deficient in vital Vitamin D. The only source in the diet is from fats. Vitamin D and A are both fat soluble vitamins. The low-fat reduced fat options are a daily dilemma for the consumer. Once fats are removed from foods they must be replaced with something that is going to provide taste and mouth feel. Sugar and sweeteners, polymers and emulsifiers among other artificial products are pumped into these products and are simply not good for human health.
Irish birth rates remain the highest in Europe, while we also have an ageing population. The cost of treating the weight issue in this country is around €1.5 billion. This is in direct services, but no one knows the real cost when we factor in illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis and diabetes.
The real cost which remains ignored is malnutrition in the elderly, which is estimated to cost the health services circa €1.9 billion. What we require is dietary recommendations which are applicable across the life-course.
Nutritional science is evolving, nobody has absolute consensus as to what constitutes the perfect diet for everlasting health. However, this new national dietary recommendation has been a long time coming, and will do nothing to alleviate the real issue in health in Ireland, which is what we as a population put in our mouths on a daily basis and our subsequent poor health outcomes.
It's too little too late, and will not achieve what is required to address our epidemic of chronic illness and our bulging waistlines.