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Everything you thought you knew about food is wrong

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Fiber’s bad for you. Fat’s healthy. And five-a-day is a gimmick to make fruit and veg firms rich. Or so claims a remarkable new book…

By Alice Hart-Davis, The Daily Mail, UK Posted Dec 3, 2010

We think we know what to eat: less red meat and more fiber, less saturated fat and more fruit and vegetables, right? Wrong, according to a controversial new book by obesity researcher and nutritionist Zoe Harcombe.

In The Obesity Epidemic: What Caused It? How Can We Stop It? Harcombe charts her meticulous journey of research into studies that underpin dietary advice — and her myth-busting conclusions are startling.

Myth: The rapid rise in obesity is due to modern lifestyles

According to Zoe Harcombe, the obesity epidemic has less to do with our lifestyles than with what we are eating.

‘The key thing that people don’t realize is that throughout history, right until the 1970s, obesity levels never went above 2 percent of the population in the UK,’ she says. ‘Yet by the turn of the millennium, obesity levels were 25 percent.

‘What happened? In 1983, the government changed its diet advice. After that, if you look at the graphs, you can see obesity rates taking off like an airplane. You might feel it is coincidence, but to me it is blindingly obvious.

The older dietary advice was simple; foods based on flour and grains were fattening, and sweet foods were most fattening of all.

‘Mum and Granny told us to eat liver, eggs, sardines and to put butter on our vegetables. The new advice was “base your meals on starchy foods” — the things that we used to know made us fat (rice, pasta, potatoes and bread). That’s a U-turn.’

Myth: Starchy carbohydrates should be the main building blocks of our diet

We’ve been told that carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes should form the bulk of what we eat. The trouble with this, says Zoe Harcombe, is that as carbs are digested, they are broken down into glucose. This process makes your body produce insulin, in order to deal with the extra glucose. One of insulin’s main roles in the body is fat storage, so whenever you eat carbs, you are switching on your body’s fat-storing mechanism. Whatever carbs you don’t use up as energy will be quickly stored away in the body as fat.

We should get back to doing as nature intended and eat real, unprocessed food, starting with meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and salads.

Myth: Losing weight is about calories in versus calories out

‘If only it were that simple,’ says ~Harcombe. ‘People think that if they cut out 500 calories a day, they will lose 1lb a week.

‘They might at first, but then the body will recognize that it is in a state of starvation and turn down its systems to conserve energy.

‘So you may be putting fewer calories in, but at the same time you will be using up fewer calories to get through the day.

‘Losing weight is more a question of fat storage and fat utilization. You need the body to move into a fat-burning mode and, to do that, you need to cut down your consumption not of calories, but of carbohydrates.’

Myth: More exercise is a cure for the obesity epidemic

This is standard wisdom; exercise, we think, will burn calories, lose fat and speed up our metabolism. Think again, says Harcombe.

‘If you push yourself into doing extra exercise, it will be counterproductive because you will get hungry — your body will be craving carbohydrate to replenish its lost stores.

‘If you are trying to control weight, it is so much easier to control what you put into your mouth. Not how much, but what. Then it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do by way of exercise.’

Myth: Fat is bad for us

‘Real fat is not bad for us,’ says Harcombe. ‘It’s man-made fats we should be demonizing. Why do we have this idea that meat is full of saturated fat? In a 100g pork chop, there is 2.3g of unsaturated fat and 1.5g of saturated fat.

‘Fat is essential for every cell in the body. In Britain (according to the Family Food Survey of 2008), we are deficient in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E, which are responsible for healthy eyesight, bone strength, mental health, cancer and blood vessel protection and, therefore, heart health. We need to eat real fat in order for these vital vitamins to be absorbed into the body.’

Myth: Saturated fat causes heart disease

Over the past 50 years, we have accepted this as one of the basic nutritional truths. But Zoe Harcombe says: ‘No research has ever properly proved that eating saturated fat is associated with heart disease, let alone that it causes it.’

Myth: Cholesterol is a dietary enemy

Controversially, Harcombe does not consider ‘high’ cholesterol levels a bad thing!

‘To pick a number — 5 (mmol/l) — and to say everyone should have cholesterol level no higher than this is like declaring the average height should be 5ft 4in and not 5ft 9in and medicating everyone who doesn’t reach this meaningless number to reduce their height. It really is that horrific.

‘Ancel Keys, who studied cholesterol extensively in the 1950s, said categorically that cholesterol in food does not have any impact on cholesterol in the blood.

‘What is abnormal is the amount of carbohydrate we eat, especially refined carbohydrate, and this has been shown to determine triglyceride levels — the part of the cholesterol reading your GP may be most concerned about.

‘It’s the ultimate irony. We only told people to eat carbs because we demonized fat and, having picked the wrong villain, we are making things worse.’

Myth: We should eat more fiber

For three decades, we have crammed fiber into our bodies to help us feel full and keep our digestive systems moving. This is not a good idea, says Harcombe.
‘The advice to eat more fiber is put forward along with the theory that we need to flush out our digestive systems. But essential minerals are absorbed from food while it is in the intestines, so why do we want to flush everything out? Concentrate on not putting bad foods in.’

Myth: You need to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day

‘Five-a-day is the most well-known piece of nutritional advice,’ says Harcombe. ‘You’d think it was based on firm evidence of health benefit. Think again!

‘Five-a-day started as a marketing campaign by 25 fruit and vegetable companies and the American National Cancer Institute in 1991. There was no evidence for any cancer benefit.’

Myth: Fruit and vegetables are the most nutritious things to eat

Apparently not. Harcombe allows that vegetables are a great addition to the diet — if served in butter to deliver the fat-soluble vitamins they contain — but fructose, the fruit sugar in fruit, goes straight to the liver and is stored as fat.

Fruit is best avoided by those trying to lose weight, says Harcombe, who adds: ‘Vitamins and minerals in animal foods — meat, fish, eggs and dairy products — beat those in fruit hands down.’

Myth: Food advisory bodies give us sound, impartial advice

The organizations we turn to for advice on food are sponsored by the food industry. The British Dietetic Association (BDA), whose members have a monopoly on delivering Department of Health and NHS dietary advice, is sponsored by Danone, the yogurt people, and Abbott Nutrition, which manufactures infant formula and energy bars.

The British Nutrition Foundation, founded in 1967 to ‘deliver authoritative, evidence-based information on food and nutrition in the context of health and lifestyle’, has among its ‘sustaining members’ British Sugar plc, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, J Sainsbury PLC and Kraft Foods.

‘When the food and drink industry is so actively embracing public health advice, isn’t it time to wonder how healthy that advice can be?’ says Harcombe.

“With 400 references and every fact backed up with sourced and presented evidence – this is the most informative book on the subject of obesity ever written. You cannot fail to learn a great deal and to have your thinking continually challenged in a highly engaging way. The research for this book changed everything the author held to be true – read with an open mind – it could do the same for you. Love it or hate it, you have to read it.”

Available at Amazon books:
The Obesity Epidemic: What Caused It? How Can We Stop It?

Posted in Food and Health Tags , , ,
  • FreeFromDirt

    "More exercise is a cure for the obesity epidemic " is not a myth. It is statistically more probable that you will not be fat if you exercise regularly.

  • Tim Shannon

    I think she was stating it's not a cure in off itself. Yes exercise helps, but you still need to eat right.

  • adawnson

    Ha! My mom, when I was young always force fed me fruits and vegetables. Why did I just know this now? Here I come MEAT!

  • Sue W.

    It is mainly all the processed food – gunk with no nutrition but high in calories that is causing most obesity…If you put rubbish fuel into your car it goes wrong, yet people do it to their bodies…make the manufacturers use high quality nutritious ingredients and most of this should change…

  • Ed

    I still think most of the obesity problem is everyone is in a fast pace these days, and want something fast and now. We don’t take the time to cook a good meal like they did back in the old days. We throw something in the microwave or run to a fast food restaurant. Also we don’t exercise right, walking, riding bikes ext. I have watched myself go down by these same reasons and now since I’m eating right and working out again, I feel better and the weight has come off. That’s my opinion.

  • Mat

    @Free from dirt –

    Care to back that up with evidence??

  • Jane

    EXERCISE IS EXTREMELY important towards benefiting the person for whatever ails they have, including reversing some such as type 2 diabetes. Same goes that diet is not a substitute for exercise. QUIT EXPECTING QUICK FIXES PEOPLE… no “lose weight in a pill”. Take the time to take care of yourself, you will live longer and be healthier, look younger etc because of it. You want excuses cause you have no will power to exercise and take a little bit of abuse… eventually you will get used to liking the sweat and feeling healthier. I exercise, take supplements, and have a decent diet… I don’t overindulge… I was carded for cigarettes back when I smoked last a few months ago! Yes that was a bad on and off habit, but I’m telling you otherwise I took pretty good care of myself and i switched to esmoke.

    • dtlc

      I agree totally

  • LA DUI Lawyer

    I still think that obesity problem is the result of being modernized. We always want the fastest way of getting the food that we want to eat that's probably the reason why fast food chains are available everywhere. Come to think of the reality that most of us will just sit and order and there it is… ready to eat. But I would still prefer exercise as a cure for obesity. Exercise and a healthy diet will lead to a healthy lifestyle. Anyway, it is still the responsibility of the people involve to take good care of himself/herself.

  • Terry

    High carb foods are more affordable than high protein foods. And food companies like McDonalds have figured out how to make them taste good. Low price, good taste …sure beats sliced apples!

  • Morgan

    Exercise may not be the cure for obesity, but it has to be one of the keys to maintaining healthy weight levels. There is the obvious benefit of burning calories, but I think equally important is the idea that once you are in the habit of exercising you are taking responsibility for your health, and this encourages other healthier habits. When you start realizing there are muscles beneath the fat, it encourages you to eat better as well because you can see progress. Good health is a complete package and exercise is definately a key ingredient.

  • Ty03

    The obesity epidemic was born during the bubble years when people could afford healthy foods. So I don't buy into any connection with obesity and the depressed economy that some commenters here have made.

  • chas

    The obesity epidemic is more than just diet. The old world ethic of hard work and self-restraint has given way to the lure of luxury. Bigger cars, McMansions, bigger credit limits, bigger TVs, super size food portions at fast food outlets. Obesity is a frame of mind. Bigger is better and the heck with the consequences.

    • troy

      well said chas!

  • JJ35

    Refined flours (white), white rice, sugar and processed foods in massive quantities while sitting all day is what is causing health problems.

  • meatisgross

    But meat/ eggs/ milk produced in factory farms are not good for you! the fats they contain are not the healthy fats bc of what the animals eat. it's true that animals raised on pasture produce milk and meat that is good for people (in moderation like everything else) but I think it's kind of irresponsible of this article to suggest that eating meat is the way to good health when the vast vast majority of meat and animal products available (at least in the usa) are from industrial sources

    read In Defense of Food for references to exact studies

  • Susanne

    Re: the actual advice given…some makes sense. The best is to have a "balanced plate" together with exercise. A "balanced plate" is essentially
    1/4 protein (preferably dried legumes, peas and lentils ("pulses" in Britain), any fish that isn't fried or served in high fat sauce, chicken, nuts, eggs, and red meat – in my opinion in that order),
    1/4 starch (potatoes, grains, cereals, corn (a grain not a vegetable) and anything made with flour like bread, crackers, pasta)
    1/2 the plate as vegetables other than potatoes
    Fruit as dessert
    and low fat milk or yogurt made with vitamin D-enriched milk on the side.
    If you do your best to watch the fat, especially saturated….and make sure that your plate isn't too large (!), you'll likely lose weight (as clients who follow this simple advise do).
    Re: exercise: it should be as important as eating. You eat every day. You should exercise every day.

  • Susanne

    The obesity crisis in a nutshell has probably got something to do with the fact that humans, like all other animals, evolved to eat when food was available and "store" the excess as fat for the lean times. Those who had a "sweet tooth" were healthier, and hence "selected for" :), because until relatively recently "sweet" essentially meant ripe nutritious fruit. Those with a "fat tooth" also had an advantage (we are talking paleolithic times here) as they were more likely to survive the lean times. (my hypothesis, not one from my profession). In developed countries, food is available all the time ….so we are tempted to eat…all the time…and of course the food we tend to reach for is high in sugar, fat or…yes, those notorious "carbs"…that we evolved to crave and love.
    Keep it balanced and you'll be fine.

  • Julian

    In all things ….. moderation.

  • Guest

    Exercise, imho, is key to fitness, and is linked with diet. Exercise gets the blood flowing and wards off depression, which makes people want to eat comfort food.

  • I do Yoga and Its very helpful in living a healthy life.

  • Matt O

    This post is very misleading. Where is the evidence that the vitamins and minerals in animal products and dairy beat those of vegetables hands down? You forget to take into account the different metabolic types and the completely different effects a food can have on a person to person basis. I agree that some vitamins and minerals are fat soluble but that doesn't mean you have to get the fat from animal product. I suggest reading the Diet Revolution by John Robbins, the nephew of 1/2 of the Baskin-Robbins empire. He actually uses facts and corroborative evidence not just name dropping and vague statement like you just did.

    • Schultzd

      Your right read The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden and Keep Fit not Fat For Life by Harvey Diamond

  • There are multiple reasons why we're sick and obese in this country…..we really just can't blame one or two reasons.

    Moder technology (which causes us to move less), over sized, over salted, high fat, very addictive food is cheap and plentiful. High fructose corn syup is in EVERYTHING……from salad dressings to bread and crackers.

    Our over stressed, "hurry-up" lifestyle leaves us very little time to prepare "real" food, so we rely on pre-packaged, chemical laden meals. And what about genetically modified food? Who knows what that's doing to our metabolism, body, and overall health?

  • CandidaCounsel

    It is a problem that food pyramids and the like advertise breads and pastas as the best food to eat. So many people are allergic to wheat, gluten, and other additives that are put in bread to soften it. There should be some mention of what type of bread is the healthiest choice if bread must be on the "good food" list. Even whole wheat bread is filled with preservatives to make it soft and can sometimes add to problems such as yeast infections or candida albicans because of the gluten content.

  • HealthNut

    You need to eat right and excercise as well as cutting down on the processed foods. I believe that the latter is the most important factor.

  • preeya

    I still think most of the obesity problem is everyone is in a rapid pace these days and want something fast and now. We do not have time to cook a good meal as they did in antiquity. We throw something in the microwave or run a fast-food restaurant. So we do not exercise this right, hiking, horseback riding, bike position. I saw myself for the same reasons, and now since I’m eating well and working again, I feel better and the weight came off.

  • mutuelle

    If the message of media is to enlighten society & tell news,on this level advertising may break this noble mission,when channels,radios, newspapers & new media shot the brain of people with intensive advertising,they will try this product & that one…This way, we find the number of fat persons is growing day after day …We have no one to blame but ourselves,the fault is ours 🙂

  • Barbara

    This lady is saying everything that many people want to hear – eat meat, eat fat, veggies and fruit don’t matter, don’t bother about fiber! Her reasoning is absurd – meat has as many vitamins and minerals as veggies? On what planet? Fiber just washes nutrients out of your gut? (She actually says that!) Check the statistics on colon cancer – people who eat high fat diets and low fiber are much more likely to get colon cancer. There is no protective benefit to eating fruits and vegetables? She hasn’t been reading any of the more recent research! Her references mostly date back in the 1950’s. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

  • Hey, i totally agree with you. Our food intake has changed over the years and this generation is facing an increased number of diet malfunctions day by day.

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