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Embalmed food

Medicine Balls

Phil Hammond

Tuesday, 04 June 2019

AdobeStock_168765949_carbs.jpg‘Guys, why the vitriol? We have a lot to learn from each other, but hurling data and entrenched beliefs (and insults) will not help further better eating. I can’t help thinking that open inquisitive minds and good manners make for more productive debate?’ So tweeted GP and broadcaster Dr Mark Porter recently, whilst trying to officiate in yet another very angry nutrition war. Dr Porter had previously tweeted his top tips for avoiding nastiness on Twitter (learned the hard way).  1. Don’t engage with nationalists and / or racists. 2. Don’t take on people who think the Earth is flat 3. Never retweet anything Tony Blair says (even if sensible). 4. Don’t discuss anything to do with carbs.

So what is it about carbs that makes people so angry? Could it be that eating or avoiding carbs makes you angry? (I’m expecting some angry responses to this). Is the science confusing and contradictory, or are some people just out of date? Are all carbs the same, or are some better or worse than others? And is it fair to say that in the wonderful world of nutritional complexity and biological diversity, it could just be that some people are healthier on carbs and some are healthier on fat?

In an n = 1 study of myself, I’m 57, I’ve never been on a diet, never had any chronic disease, never been obese, never had a day off work, never had a night in hospital and never picked up a label of mental illness (although there’s still time, of course). And I eat carbs and fat. I don’t look at labels, don’t divide up food groups and hate wasting food, so always have an empty plate. I like to think of food as nutritious and delicious. The only conscious thing I do is try to avoid too much ultra-processed food-like substances. I think my gut deserves to break down food that is delivered roughly as nature intended, rather than bathed in hydrogenated or interesterified oils, hydrolysed proteins, soy protein isolate, maltodextrin, invert sugar, high fructose corn syrup, dyes, colour stabilisers, flavours, flavour enhancers, non-sugar sweeteners, carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants. Not that I read the labels….

I know why we chemicalise food – so it will withstand a nuclear attack. I’ve got biscuits in my cupboard that look and taste the same as when I bought them in 1970 to celebrate Chelsea winning the FA Cup. If we don’t want our food to go off in a decade, we need to do the equivalent of embalming it. And because that makes it taste repellant, we have to bathe it in some sort of sweetener (usually sugar). Two recent cohort studies suggest that ultra-processed foods are linked to heart disease and early death, but as we can’t easily do randomised controlled trials, it’s very easy to argue around the trial evidence.

As Dr Porter rightly observes, much anger and energy is wasted in ‘macronutrient wars’ – focusing on whether carbohydrates or fat do you more damage. This depends not just on an individual’s genes and microbiome, but where you live and how the nutrients are delivered. Parts of the world where up to ten times the global average of citizens live past 100 were coined ‘blue zones’ by the Belgian scientist Michel Poulain. They have much lower rates of chronic degenerative diseases such as dementia, heart attacks and strokes. But do they all eat the same magic diet? Er… no.  Some eat meat, some are vegetarians; some eat loads of fish, and some - like the Okinawans – have a very (shock, horror) high-carb diet based on sweet potatoes. All eat mainly seasonal whole foods, not processed.

As Hippocrates observed in around 400 BC ‘let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.’ And he lived to ninety. Of course, it may have had nothing to do with his diet. People with wealth, status and control tend to live longer anyway, whatever they put in their mouths. But if you’re financially secure, better educated and in control, my guess is that you’re more likely to eat whole food and minimise embalmed food. Your thoughts please, and please be civil.  

Links to the science:
  • Srour B, Fezeu LK, Keese-Guyot E, et al. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé). BMJ 2019;365:l1451.
  • Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González MA, Alvarez-Alvarez I, et al. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ 2019;365:l1949.

Dr Phil is launching his campaign to become Health Secretary with two shows at the Edinburgh Fringe www.drphilhammond.com for details. 

Author's Image

Phil Hammond

Phil Hammond is an NHS doctor, journalist, author, broadcaster, speaker and comedian. He qualified in 1987 and worked part time in general practice for over 20 years. For the past seven years he has worked in a specialist NHS team for young people with chronic fatigue. He presented five series of Trust Me, I’m a Doctor on BBC2, encouraging patients to be more involved, assertive and questioning. Phil is Private Eye’s medical correspondent; in 2012, he was shortlisted with Andrew Bousfield for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism for ‘Shoot the Messenger’, an investigation into the shocking treatment of NHS whistleblowers. In 2013 and 2014, he was judged to be one of the top 100 clinical leaders in the NHS by the Health Service Journal. As a comedian, Phil was half of the award-winning double-act Struck Off and Die, with Tony Gardner. He has done five solo UK tours, appeared on several TV shows, and has written five books.
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