The latest issue of the American TIME magazine shows on the cover a picture of a roll of butter with a caption ‘Eat butter,’ below which are the words ‘Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.’
There we go again! – I ruminated before I went on to read the article. What are the scientists up to? Can we rely on them? Time was when fat was bad, now fat is good – or at least not that bad. The new baddie kid around the block is sugar, which is currently the hit culprit for all our health problems related to lifestyle such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and the other associated ones which any layman can now reel off in a jiffy. And then, after a couple of decades, we may well be told that no, sugar is not all that bad…
So? About the scientists, yes we can still trust them – but with a pinch of salt, the salt being the collective experience and wisdom of mankind with which we must temper their findings and recommendations, especially where biological matters and the human interface is concerned. This is because the living organism, in our present case meaning the human being, is so complex and so variable both intrinsically and in its responses that our knowledge of it only progresses by leaps and bounds. We have to continually revisit and update, and this is precisely what scientists keep doing, and hence the advice that changes accordingly.
The positive point is that, unlike those who feed on dogma, scientists are prepared to change their views, even radically, when new evidence comes up. The flip side is that, basing itself on the latest data as the final word, industry picks up from there to market products which become in vogue and may do much harm before other findings come up that contradict the earlier ones.
An increasingly fat world
The association between science and industry is taken up by the TIME article’s author. He starts by describing how in 1976 a US Senate Committee ‘published Dietary Goals for the United States, urging Americans to eat less high fat red meat, eggs and dairy and replace them with more calories from fruits, vegetables and especially carbohydrates.’ There followed the US Department of Agriculture Guidelines, a primary directive being to ‘avoid cholesterol and fat of all sorts’ so as to reduce chances of a heart attack. And then ‘the food industry – and American food habits – jumped in step. Grocery shelves filled with “light” yogurts, low fat microwave dinners, cheese-flavoured crackers, cookies’ along with other calorie-filled items as part of a ‘vast national experiment.’
The author cannot help underline that ‘nearly four decades later, the results are in: the experiment was a failure. Americans cut the fat, but by almost every measure, they are sicker than ever.’ As they substituted fat with ‘a whole lot of low-fat junk food that increased caloric intake’ the result is ‘an increase in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes by 166% from 1980 to 2012, with cardiovascular disease being the No. 1 killer.’ Further, notes the author, ‘even the increasing rates of exercise haven’t been able to keep Americans healthy. More than a third of the country is now obese, making the US one of the fattest countries in an increasingly fat world.’
Another article titled ‘Food marketing creates a false sense of health’ posted online two days ago in Medical News points out that ‘Health-related buzzwords, such as “antioxidant,” “gluten-free” and “whole grain,” lull consumers into thinking packaged food products labelled with those words are healthier than they actually are,’ and that this ‘as well as a failure to understand the information presented in nutrition facts panels on packaged food, may be contributing to the obesity epidemic in the United States.’
The complexity and variability of the human organism alluded to above means that fat, being a chemical, reacts with other chemicals that the body is made up of to produce effects not all of which are known, and to which must be factored in genetic influence which is still unravelling. Besides, the impact of fat may well be at several levels, from the individual cell to the molecule to the atom.
Additionally, there are millions of such reactions, and the findings of scientific studies are about only such reactions that can be detected by current techniques. Thus there is more unknown than is known. Whatever advice or recommendation is given is necessarily based on this limited information, and is therefore bound to be itself constrained.
Diets: Mediterranean and…
Not only that, there are different types of fat, and we now talk of good fat and bad fat – that is, all fats are not the same. For example, the fat in salmon and olives is considered to be good fat, compared to the one in red meat. Hence also good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. That does not mean that you have to eat on a daily basis, only or exclusively salmon – availability and affordability will come in – or olives! The prevailing wisdom is that the Mediterranean diet, which among other things makes liberal use of olive oil, is the one associated with the least prevalence of the disease mentioned earlier, and perhaps to the longevity of these generally healthier people. Decades of industry and serious research-driven advice have led us to a worldwide health crisis which shows no sign of abating.
There is something radically wrong somewhere, which does not render useless or unnecessary the ongoing work of scientists – because what they do is to help us understand how food components produce their effects, that is, they throw light on the mechanisms of action of individual constituents in food. This is vitally important from a pure science point of view, but as regards what use we make of this input, that is where I have added the caveat of empirical lore known to human beings since millennia that must be given due consideration. For example, researchers are now going to town about the benefits of what used to be known as ‘exotic’ spices. En passant, how interesting that whatever is unfamiliar to the westerners is always described as ‘exotic’ by them! In which case, some degree of ‘reverse exoticism’ is surely justified…
The properties of the ubiquitous safran (turmeric) and other herbs and condiments that are standard fare in oriental cuisine are being discovered afresh, and the underlying mechanisms of action that confer their virtuous and wide-ranging health effects are at present the subject of serious study. What an irony that peoples who have had the privilege of enjoying such healthy food have allowed themselves to succumb to the pervasive influence of junk food that has spoilt food eating habits across the globe, with a destructive impact.
All junk food is processed food, and that means loaded with additives and preservatives. Doesn’t it strike one’s commonsense how is it that all those frozen sausages – chicken, pork, beef, and vegetable too! – invariably have the same shape, size and dull pinkish-brown colour? How does a beautiful green leafy produce, or an orange carrot, or deep red beetroot become such an insipid looking sausage? – and for all I know the assumption that I am making, namely that the veggie sausage contains these or similar vegetables, may be wrong. What then does vegetable sausage contain that makes it look an exact copy of a non-veg sausage?
I never eat any, but I have always been bugged by this question. And I beg of mothers and fathers to ask it themselves too before they do any further harm to their children.
The appropriate diet
For that is the crux of the issue: it is parents who are vehicles of transmission of food habits to their children, and the responsibility to inculcate the good ones from the start is crucial to the future health and development of the child. I concede that the pressures of industrial society do not make matters easy, with time and other constraints. But that does not absolve them of their responsibility.
Nutritionists have moved from the traditional balanced diet to the prudent diet, and from the pyramid through the food wheel to the plate model of food as the recommended mix of food items. And yet these have done noting to stem the tide of the looming epidemic, nor did the low-carb Dr Atkins diet, described as a ‘nutritionist’s nightmare.’
Given the cyclical swings in opinion – which from decades may change to years because of the volume and turnover of research studies – the average layman may legitimately want to know where to put his mouth, literally! I can only share my view, based on my multicultural and medical experience: instead of low-this and low-that or high-this and high-that, I would suggest a rule-of-thumb namely, go for average-this and average-that both as regards quality and quantity. Every individual has a fair idea what’s average for him, so there would be no need for people to walk about with a weighing-scale or magnifying glass to read micro-types on food labels. This rule would apply to the average, healthy individual. However, for anyone suffering from any medical problem, it is important to then strictly follow nutritional and medical advice.
At least in our county I do not see that it is very complicated to follow the average rule. We have an abundance of vegetables, grains and fruits of all sorts throughout the year. These must form the basis of our diet to which non-vegetarians may add whatever be their preference.
In this modern world, processed food is a reality, and its consumption is not altogether avoidable. But let this be moderate (that is, average) and infrequent, so that the bulk of our consumption is fresh food. Yes, vegetables and fruits are treated with pesticides, and some types of fish (tuna) contain high levels of mercury. Sweeteners are added to many items. This is all the more reason for moderate consumption, and of a variety so that there may be some cross-neutralisation of any potential untoward effects as a wise old doctor friend told me. The advice about proper washing and ‘treatment’ of vegetables must be followed carefully. Sugar and salt must be used in moderation too, and children brought up on lower consumption levels of these will stick to the habit in their later years and pass it on to their own progeny in due course.
As regards alcohol, moderate consumption should be the rule too. However, what has systematically been shown to be absolutely harmful is tobacco and whoever decides to indulge in it will have to bear the consequences.
Interestingly, recently scientists have been finding that periods of fasting tend to be beneficial to the body in many ways, and may even add years to life. Some cultures and religions have regular fasting as part of their routine customs, and this along with the traditional food may well explain the resilience of peoples who would otherwise be expected to be less healthy.
Being in good health is not rocket science: a sound combination of traditional fare and avoidance of junk food, supplemented with regular exercise in the open air will go a long way towards achieving that goal. Plus having a pleasant social circle and occupying one’s mind with pursuits that bring joy and tranquility. If there is a better formula, I would be very glad to learn about it…
* Published in print edition on 20 June 2014