Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

The “real food” fallacy



All of a sudden, it seems that Zoe Harcombe is everywhere. She was providing ludicrous nutrition advice for sufferers of yeast infections (thanks @RD_Catherine for the link). Sorry y’all yoghurt won’t cure yeast infections. Yes, choosing a yoghurt with probiotics is great for overall health but it’s more because of the by-products produced by the bacteria (e.g. B vitamins) than because of the bacteria themselves. Unfortunately, most of the bacteria in yoghurt will not survive your stomach acid.

What I really want to address though, is her popular article in the Daily Mail (thanks to @ERHWG for sharing the article and her rage): Diets Make Us Fat. The Solution is Simple. The basic premise is that we need to eat “real food” as opposed to fake  “manufactured food”. Calories don’t matter, and we shouldn’t be counting them. All that matters is eating “real food”.

But what is “real food”? I don’t think you’ll find many dietitians who disagree with the importance of cooking and eating more vegetables, fruits, and minimally processed foods for overall health and weight loss. However, I don’t think the division between “real” and “fake” food is particularly useful. Nor is the vilification of whole grains. Grocery shopping is complicated enough and people are hard-pressed for time. Making them feel guilty for buying anything in a package is not going to help them to adopt healthier habits.

It’s also possible to be over weight when consuming a “real food” diet. You know why? Because calories do matter. I’ve met plenty of people who are over weight who eat very healthy diets. Simply telling people that if they eat “real food” is not going to solve the obesity crisis. If I was over weight and someone gave me this advice I would be insulted. Not everyone who is over weight or obese is subsisting on a diet of big macs and kit kat bars. Consuming more calories than we need, regardless of the source, will result in weight gain.

Finally, the reason that diets don’t work is because they’re short-term fixes. Not because people are necessarily consuming the wrong types of foods or because they’re counting calories. The problem with diets is that they have an end date. They are not sustainable lifestyle changes. The other reason that they don’t work is because our food system is broken. Our environment is structured such that the unhealthy choice is the easiest choice and it’s a lot of work not to be over weight. Placing the onus on the individual and suggesting that if they only stopped counting calories and ate “real food” doesn’t even come close to addressing the true societal roots of the obesity epidemic.

Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people see food and nutrition from a different perspective and understand that nutrition and health are not necessarily a result of personal choice.

11 thoughts on “The “real food” fallacy

  1. Brilliant. Sharing.


  2. One small comment, would advice to ‘supposed’ suffered of yeast infections be more accurate?

    Candida is of course real and can cause real local infections in certain, ahem ‘places’, it can also be dangerous in those who are immunocompromised, but there is little evidence to suggest as zoe does that in the general population Candida overgrowth is even a real problem.

    Usually diagnosis is done via unreliable self reporting of symptoms, many of which are ubiquitous, although these can of course be relived via special diets or supplements otherwise known as the walletectomy.


  3. Hi Diana,

    One comment, I think “providing ludicrous nutrition advice for sufferers of yeast infections” could say “supposed suffers of yeast infections”, certainly in the context Zoe (mis)uses it.

    Candida is certainly real and can cause local infections in, ahem certain places, and is dangerous to those who immune systems are severely compromised, but there is little scientific evidence I am aware of to support Zoe’s very specific claim – that the majority of people are suffering from a ‘Candida overgrowth’ and that this causes food cravings. In fact there is little to suggest that Candida is a problem at all in healthy individuals, and no formal diagnosis criteria for ‘overgrowth’.

    It seems to be a problem for the worried well, promoted through checklists which have ubiquitous symptoms making self diagnosis virtually inevitable. There was a history in the 1980’s in the US of Candida supplements sold using self diagnosis checklists to consumers which led to prosecutions and it appears Zoe has produced a more complex version to enable her to claim a USP for her ‘diet’.

    Obviously if you cut out many of the foods she recommends you are likely to feel generally better and many of the ‘symptoms’ will disappear, but I’m old fashioned in that I think you shouldn’t scare people by telling them they have a problem unless it is genuine and can be independently diagnosed.



  4. Brilliant. (I was shared with). :)


  5. I think zoe harcombe makes a lot of sense. I note it is only dieticians who don’t seem to like what Zoe has to say, yet those of us who are impartial find a lot of sense in her words, particularly around cholesterol and saturate fat. You don’t need to be ‘qualified’ to look at research results, but when you look at what is in a dietician course it’s mostly old outdated information that revolves around cholesterol equals heart disease which is total rubbish. I’m not saying what you have to say is not good information, but you must admit that dieticians do get it wrong too, by telling people to replace saturated fat with low fat high sugar, high seed oil products thereby affecting our omega 6 balance and suggesting aspartame as a sugar subsitute, and promoting low fat dairy products which are junk. Dieticians give really bad advice around diabetes care. I’m not knocking the profession, at all, I’ve known really good dieticians, but mostly they just bleat the same old Heart foundation and diabetes foundations bad advice.


  6. Pingback: Leave the veg for the rabbits, you’re going to die anyway | bite my words

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