Thursday, 6 March 2014

Age of the sugar-free caveman

High protein diets are as deadly as cigarettes. Sugar is addictive and the real cause of diabetes and the obesity epidemic. Diets high in saturated fat are not bad for you...
Boy, it’s been a week and a half of headlines when it comes to diet. Healthy eating? It’s all up in the air.
As far as I’m concerned, the uncertainty is a good thing. Health and diet isn’t about having lots of the things that are “good” for you and none of the things that are “bad” for you. It’s about balance. Not least because our knowledge about what is good and bad is constantly changing – remember it took 150 years of tobacco use before we finally worked out it was bad for you in 1950. 
But balance isn’t easy for us, because our environment is constantly discouraging us from moderation. The world of market forces depends on giving us more and more of what we want.
Yesterday I was talking to a representative of food and drinks companies, who asked me how the industry could get the trust of the public and journalists like me. (This, appropriately enough, was on the day that Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, suggested a sugar tax in the face of the food industry’s reluctance to reformulate sugary products.)
It struck me as a curious question. I tried to explain to her that trust is a strange quality to expect from a journalist, whose job it is not to trust anything. Even for the general public, “trust” is complex: just because you trust a company to provide a crisp that gives you the flavour you want, it doesn’t mean you trust it to provide something healthy. 
I suggested to her (perhaps a little too bluntly) that the words food, industry and health are incompatible. As long as food production is organised into large companies, the priority will be – has to be – making money. Making money out of food involves giving people what they want.
If foods that naturally appeal to us are offered to us at very affordable prices, then we are going to eat more and more of them. And the fact of human biology is that we are programmed to crave foodstuffs that, in our ancient history, gave us an important survival boost but were available only in small quantities. For ancient man, getting some sugar and fat into your system over the course of a long winter might be the difference between surviving and dying. Today, such is the surplus of sugar and fat we are confronted with that they are the threat to survival.
It’s all about supply and demand. For our health’s sake, what we need to do is artificially create a new caveman environment: free from the danger of famine, free from the danger of surplus. 
One way to do that would be to control how much of these products we could afford, for example by introducing a sugar tax, as proposed by Sally Davies. Not a bad idea, not perfect. Another way would be to ask the food and drink industry to genuine re-think everything they do: limit the supply of the foodstuffs we crave, make genuine efforts to reformulate products, stop trying to convince us that brands full of sugar, fat or salt are really “healthy”, embark on a national, collaborative endeavour to reshape our tastes.
Do I “trust” them to do that? No, I’m afraid I don’t, and that’s what I told the unfortunate woman on the telephone. They simply wouldn’t take the risk to profit. The food industry thrives on “more” and “less”, “high in...” and “low in..”, “good for...” “bad for” – those are the marketing messages that produce profit. Our bodies don’t thrive in that world. So, barring everyone becoming self-sufficient, it looks as if taxes and government interventions are the only way forward.