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On the Table: Healthy eating? There's no mystery

“It really is so very simple: eat real food. Don’t diet. Take a bit of exercise.” When it comes to boosting health and losing weight, Cambridge Cookery’s MD Tine Roche says the ingredients are simple

In normal times, the year begins with a plethora of punishing diets. In these very challenging times, though, most of us are unlikely to face 2021 in quite the same mood as previous years.

Much has been written about the huge role played by metabolic health in relation to Covid-19. And yet, to me and so many others in the world of food and health, it seems that the message continues to be ignored. It really is so very simple: eat real food. Don’t diet. Take a bit of exercise.

Diets don’t work. Some are pretty harmless but many do active damage by narrowing down what we eat, skewering a balanced diet. So far, in the 75-odd post-war years during which lifestyle changes created an epidemic of obesity and metabolic ill health, the main culprit has been the incorrect focus on reducing intake of fat and carbs, when it should have been sugar.

Many of us now shop online, but if we imagine the layout of supermarkets - they are all the same - the path to a healthy life gives a wide berth to the “zero fat and low fat” aisles. All the products there pose a threat to health. Where fat goes out, sugar goes in. Always. And it’s the worst kind of sugar - corn syrup derivates. One of the main drivers of Type 2 diabetes.

The double whammy comes from the fact that these zero fat products fail to trick our brains into registering that we have eaten. Instead, our brains will carry on signalling a need for more, and more. As long as zero-fat, quasi-food deprives us of the original nutrients that the doctored products once included, our brain will tell us to carb-load.

Indeed, the path to a healthy life circumnavigates almost all the main aisles and keeps us instead on the perimeter. If you heed this advice, your trolley will contain fresh fruit and veg, fresh fish, poultry and meat, fresh dairy, bread, wine, tea and coffee.

A caveat re the bread: almost all shop-bought loaves offer nothing but empty carbs, super-charged gluten, sugar, salt and preservatives. Full kernel ryes are the only exceptions. What is sold as sourdough is largely very far from the real deal and therefore does not offer any of the low gluten/low glycemic/fermented gut benefits. The many wholemeal breads offer so little fibre as to be negligible. If you dutifully chew your way through them, longing for white bread, go back to white. Neither will do you any good.

What I have outlined here has been much more eloquently summed up by Michael Pollan, the well known food and environmental writer: “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t have recognised as food”. It doesn’t take many seconds of reflection to realise that that excludes most of the so-called foods which make up a modern diet.

Those who suffer from Type 2 diabetes or simply from carrying far too much weight, need do nothing more than buy raw, unadulterated ingredients, cook them and eat them. Don’t forgo eggs and bacon for cereal and skimmed milk. Don’t forgo home made cake or desserts for low fat yoghurts and energy bars. But have less of the expensive animal proteins and more plant-based food.

Convenience and commodity are the twin evils in our food and health crisis. The counter argument has remained the same for a long time - cost. Alas, we are repeatedly told, only the most privileged can afford to buy healthy food. What utter nonsense. Ingredients cost less than processed food. What’s lacking is knowledge and information.

Children and their parents need to be taught how to cook real food - not the Frankenstein concoctions on the curriculum in most food tech classes. The Covid epidemic has shown us the catastrophic impact on all of us of leaving behind the less well-off. For too long, we have turned a blind eye to the poor and the diet of millions of people who have been sold the dream of convenience.

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