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On the Table: The healthiest option? Scratch cook

Knowing how to cook fresh, from-scratch meals filled with flavour and nutrition isn’t a luxury: it’s a life skill vital to the health of both humans and the planet, writes Cambridge Cookery MD Tine Roche

Fresh, flavour- and nutrient-filled salads are a staple on Cambridge Cookery's counter (49952953)
Fresh, flavour- and nutrient-filled salads are a staple on Cambridge Cookery's counter (49952953)

September is usually a month when we return from a less structured summer life to more fixed routines. The past year has been different; for most of us, some routines and habits have changed permanently. One of the major changes has been an increased reliance on food deliveries and with it a relaxing of previous principles around what is and isn’t acceptable at meal times. Whilst lockdown caused a flurry of interest in baking and to a lesser degree cooking, the reality is that more and more of our meals are being delivered to our door, as and when we fancy it.

Only a couple of generations ago, pre-supermarkets, pre-ready-meals and pre-Deliveroo et al, cooking was done at home, mainly on a very limited budget and based on frugal recipes. Meals were not exciting, but they were nutritionally sound. In less than 50 years we have lost our connection to where food comes from and how to prepare it.

Our newfound reliance on processed food, made in distant factories and production kitchens, means the food we eat is depriving us of vital nutrients. Being well fed used to mean the opposite of going hungry. Now it can also mean the exact opposite - having access to plenty of food, but none of it giving us any sustenance.

In the UK, and most other parts of the Western world, obesity is linked to lower socio-economic conditions - poor diet as a result of poverty. Until recently, food poverty equalled under-nutrition and starvation. Now it also means malnutrition in the form of poor quality over-nutrition, with many developing countries battling both starvation and obesity at the same time.

Obesity, and the many consequences of the diabetes that it causes, is one of the fastest growing diseases of our time. This summer saw the completion of the Henry Dimbleby-led independent review of our food systems, resulting in the National Food Strategy. Hailed by some as a wake up call and criticised by others for not being radical enough, the report tackles huge issues within a complex food system; from biodiversity and land use to food security. Diet is only one aspect of the crisis.

Cambridge Cookery School Café - Tine Roche, Managing Director of the Cambridge Cookery School...Pic - Richard Marsham. (49953002)
Cambridge Cookery School Café - Tine Roche, Managing Director of the Cambridge Cookery School...Pic - Richard Marsham. (49953002)

Headline grabbing topics such as a tax on sugar and salt are, to my mind, simply not helpful. Any kind of traffic light system, or focus on single ingredients, is pointless. We need a complete overhaul of how and what we eat. Grass-roots education is vital, but will not in itself be enough. We need honesty on an entirely new level from politicians as well as from health practitioners. The topic has become a hot potato of political correctness, which means that any statement or research linking ill health to excess weight risks being vilified as “fat shaming”.

Professor Tim Spector, who started his medical career in rheumatology but who has focused much of his interest in recent years on diet, is the co-founder of the ZOE app which has gathered Covid related data from more than four million people in the UK. As a result of the data gathered over the past year, Professor Spector found that quality of diet is crucial for Covid-19 outcomes. Even adjusting for obesity and deprivation, researchers found that people eating a larger proportion of ultra-processed foods and fewer vegetables and fruits had higher levels of severe Covid-19. They are 20 per cent more likely to go to hospital.

A poor quality diet is also the main cause of the rapid increase in Type 2 Diabetes, which currently costs the NHS £10 billion a year, or roughly 10% of its budget. Unlike all other life threatening illnesses, Type 2 diabetes can quickly be put into remission by dietary changes and weight loss. The go-to medical quick fix solution is meal replacements. Whilst I understand why that is the simplest change for health professionals to prescribe, I believe it serves to further alienate those who most need an improved diet from real food and the skills needed to cook.

The globe is facing many issues, the most pressing of which is climate change, in which food production plays a huge part. We urgently need to educate the next generation in such a way that the majority of our population knows how to cook simple, nutritious, everyday meals. I think we also need to legislate in such a way that tackles processed edible products in the same way as governments tackled smoking. The growing number of people suffering from ill health caused by ultra processed food is putting impossible pressure on our health services and is, quite simply, killing us.

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