Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Leave the veg for the rabbits, you’re going to die anyway

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A few weeks ago, Dr Sharma shared this article (on twitter and on facebook), without comment. It’s an article by the dreaded Zoe Harcombe about why we shouldn’t be striving for at least five servings a day of fruit and vegetables. No, it’s not what you think. She’s not suggesting that people should have more than 5 servings of veg and fruit a day, she’s suggesting that people should have fewer servings of veg and fruit a day. “Great,” I thought, “Zoe strikes again“.

After working myself up into a bit of a rage about the article I noticed the date on it. January 2011. When I first saw that I thought that I wouldn’t blog about it after all as it’s not current. My second thought was, “whatever”. If I’m only seeing this for the first time there are probably others only seeing it for the first time as well.

Harcombe argues that recent research showing the lack of protection against myriad chronic diseases through increased vegetable and fruit consumption means that we should cease encouraging people to eat more vegetables and fruits. And everyone rejoiced and ate doughnuts for dinner and lived long and healthy lives dying peacefully from old age in their sleep! Dietitians, nutritionists, and other health professionals were suddenly out of work as there was no more chronic disease to contend with. If only.

In the article, Harcombe states, “no doubt some dieticians and nutritionists will reject my arguments. But science backs me up.”
Well, she got the first part of that statement right, at least.

A great deal of Harcombe’s hypothesis centres around the assertion that vegetables and fruit don’t contain many vitamins or minerals. She concedes that vegetables do contain vitamin C and some A and K. Fruit apparently is only good for potassium. According to Harcombe, meat and other animal products are superior sources of most vitamins and minerals. This truly is a load of nonsense. Veg and fruit can be good sources of many vitamins and minerals. Not to mention the fact that they are usually good sources of water and can provide greater volume to your meal with few calories. Food is not just about individual nutrients. It’s about taste and texture and pleasure. Imagine eating a salad without vegetables. Think about the pleasure of eating a fresh blackberry off the brambles. How dull food would become if we didn’t have vegetables and fruit in our diets.

Harcombe moves on from her argument about the lack of vitamins and minerals in vegetables and fruit to say that some dietitians will argue that they are a source of antioxidants. She doesn’t object to this statement but instead says that she would rather not ingest oxidants in the first place. What was it that she said earlier? Oh yeah, “Science backs me up.” Might be time for a review of the oxidizing process, Zoe. If she’s avoiding oxidizing agents I want to know how she’s managed to survive without breathing air or drinking water. Our environment is chockfull of oxidizers. We should certainly avoid adding to them ourselves by avoiding smoking, excessive sun exposure, excessive alcohol consumption, etc. However, avoiding “chemicals” as Harcombe suggests is both ridiculous and impossible. Everything is chemicals. We are chemicals.

There is too much in this article to address it all. I mean, I could, but it’s too nice out as I’m typing this, and would you really keep reading if I went on and on? I just want to touch on one more issue with Harcombe’s vendetta against vegetables and fruit.

Harcombe takes issue with the belief that vegetables and fruit are important sources of fibre in our diets.

“The fact is, we can’t digest fibre. How can something we can’t even digest be so important to us, nutritionally?”

Apparently Harcombe doesn’t mind being constipated. Nor does she recognise the importance of fibre in prevention of heart disease. The desire to feel satisfied after a meal? Also not important. Even if these things are not important to her fibre serves other important organisms inside our bodies. That indigestible fibre is food for the bacteria living in our digestive tracts. Those same bacteria that provide us with things like vitamin B12, protect us against GI upset and harmful micro-organisms. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the importance of our gut bacteria but it seems that they do a lot more for us than we ever realised.

So, if we are to listen to Harcombe and throw those five-a-day away, what are we to eat? Her top five foods: liver, sardines, eggs, sunflower seeds, and dark-green vegetables. That’s right. After telling us that vegetables and fruit are overrated and should be left for the rabbits, Harcombe then turns around and recommends vegetables in her top five foods. I rest my case.


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The “real food” fallacy

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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.