Forget the crazy food fads and follow your gut instinct
A healthy portion of common sense when it comes to our diet is just what the doctor ordered, writes Brendan O'Connor
I USED to take a blister pack of vitamins every morning and every evening. High dose of vitamin C, fish oils, some other stuff, and something called Brain Food. They weren't cheap but I fancied that it kept me from getting sick. As I understood it, high doses of vitamin C were a great source of antioxidants which I think prevents cancers and they also staved off colds and the like. The omega 3 fish oils were good for me too, in some way I didn't quite understand. I thought it was to do with the heart but then I read somewhere else that taking omega 3 makes no difference to your chances of having a heart attack. And something called brain food would have to be good for your brain, wouldn't it?
Being on this regime made me feel vaguely superior to other people. I was helping along evolution, becoming a fitter, more efficient, more disease-resistant human being.
Until I found out taking omega 3 in capsule form could increase the risk of fatal types of prostate cancer by 70 per cent and antioxidants like vitamin C, E and beta carotene don't actually prevent cancer, and possibly do the opposite. So I stopped. I still have an unloved expensive box of them there and I take the occasional blister pack of them when I feel a cold coming on or when I have a hangover. Maybe they work. Who knows? I certainly don't take enough of them to cause cancer now. Or so I think. But who knows?
It's hard to keep up anymore. The cycle of health scare stories has gone completely out of control. You assume science knows things, that it is an art of certainty. But it turns out they are just blundering around in the dark like all the rest of us. And clearly, much of what passes for the latest wonder diet or regime these days is a snake-oil type of situation,
In the last week alone, I have learnt the following from my newspapers. A diet high in animal protein is as bad for you as smoking, when it comes to causing cancer. Saturated animal fats, which have been demonised since the Fifties, are actually not that bad for you. We all need to halve our sugar intake. And finally, binge drinking in your middle years, even if you stay below the recommended weekly intake, means you are twice as likely to die. I realise that last one makes no sense because we are all as likely to die as each other, but you get the drift.
All of this is very worrying. Very worrying indeed. It is worrying because it goes against many of the rules of how to be good that we abided by up to now.
For example, I never went on the Atkins diet, or any diet for that matter. I did, like probably most of you, try to eat less white carbohydrates and take more of my energy in through protein. There is no doubt protein fills you up for longer than carbs. So, for example, instead of a few slices of toast in the morning, I'll have a few slices of toast with a couple of eggs. Eggs, as I understand it, are a good, non-meat, source of protein. There was a time when I would have been viewed as a cholesterol daredevil for eating two eggs every morning, but nowadays eggs are OK, apparently. For the time being.
Failing the eggs, I might have some nice ham with my toast. That always gives me a slight chill because there was another scare recently concerning processed and cured meats. Last year, researchers in Sweden discovered that eating an extra 50g of processed meat a day, which is about one sausage, increases my risk of getting pancreatic cancer by 17 per cent. I don't weigh my ham as such but I'd say I'm eating 50g of it and the rest. So I am always conscious that I shouldn't have the ham option too much at breakfast. But I like it. And ham now and pancreatic cancer then is a no brainer trade-off for me. I like to think I will not get pancreatic cancer anyway, so the bit of ham shouldn't make a huge difference; 17 per cent extra of the zero chance I like to think I have of getting pancreatic cancer is still zero.
Anyway, back to protein. So, like all of you, I was led to believe more protein was a good thing until last week, when boffins in California discovered that eating a diet high in animal protein in your middle years increases your risk of cancer fourfold. This is the same level of risk you would incur if you smoked 20 fags a day. Which seems a bit alarming. Ask most doctors for health tips and the one thing they will all tell you is to give up fags. Smoking is the single most lethal lifestyle choice you can make. And now a high protein diet is up there with that?
Before you go home and throw out all your meat and cheese, you might spare a thought for poor old saturated fats, which were the devil for the last 50 years. Most of the modern healthy-eating creeds have been based on the one simple truth that saturated animal fats are bad for you, will harden your arteries and ultimately give you a heart attack. Like most other food "truths" the evidence for this is, in fact, quite conflicting. I usually go with my gut on the saturated fat issue. Have you not always felt that as much as butter is apparently deadly, you're better off eating butter than some processed spread?
Sugar is the new saturated fat. It is now the devil incarnate. I even feel bad about my high daily fruit consumption now, because I am told that eating too much fruit gives you too much fructose (fruit sugar). There is a mass-scale moral panic going on about sugar and the amounts of it so called "Big Food" are putting into processed food. Indeed, sugar has now pretty much been completely blamed for the obesity epidemic and particularly the childhood obesity epidemic. I have to say I was ahead of the curve here when I read a book years ago called The Hungry Years by William Leith. Leith was early on the bandwagon with this. His thesis essentially was that sugar in all its forms, including the sugars found in all white carbohydrates, like flour and potatoes and pasta and whatnot, actually just made you hungrier. In a sense, Leith said, sugar and white carbohydrates were the perfect food for the consumer era because they were a product that didn't actually satisfy your need; they just made you want more of them. A marketing man's dream.
Ultimately, you could tie yourself in knots with all this. It seems to me a bit of common sense might be the order of the day here. Giving your kids cans of dyed sugary fizzy drinks every day probably doesn't feel like a good idea, so maybe its not. Eating too much meat doesn't feel quite right either, so it's probably not a good idea. Having too much caffeine, or sugar, or alcohol, usually doesn't feel like a good idea either. So you know what? It probably isn't. Drinking all your weekly allowance of booze in one go if you are 50 probably doesn't feel great either. So maybe don't do it. Comforting ourselves with junk food and rubbish might feel good at the time but we all know it's a bad idea. Eating plenty of fruit and veg feels pretty good and right and your body tends not to rebel against it so that sounds like it's probably a good idea. Indeed, in general, there is no question that if we were to listen to our common sense it would tell us to eat everything in moderation, have a balanced diet and to avoid very processed foods. And our common sense is probably right. We are all going to die eventually anyway and this notion of avoiding all illness by following the latest diktats from uncertain scientists is probably more trouble than its worth. And here is the real news. It actually won't work.
Food aside, moving a bit and getting some exercise seems to be a good idea. Your body will tell you that too.
All these crazy food scares are probably not a bad thing in a way in that they are all roughly pointing in the same direction, which is to exercise and eat as natural and unprocessed a diet as possible. The middle classes are tending in this direction already and the type of diet you eat is rapidly becoming another stark class distinction.