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‘Nutrition is essentially a very simple thing’

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Mark Radcliffe on kebabs, Viennese whirls and why nutrition is simply common sense

After years of being falsely accused of causing heart disease and clogging arteries, the good old-fashioned egg has been enjoying its recent release from the Unhealthy Food Club, where it shared a cell with high-fat cheese and the potato waffle.

The egg is now at the gym with its old friends the mackerel and the blueberry. Yoghurt tried to join them but was turned away after a dispute about how much fat it contained. Nothing gets past the healthy food police. Nothing except the obvious.

Fifty years ago, a successful advertising campaign urged us to ‘go to work on an egg’. Decades later, as our knowledge of nutrients, cholesterol and saturated fats grew, we began to label what we ate.

And that was when the humble egg was rebranded from natural source of protein and vitamins to potential Bringer of Death.

It’s OK, we were told, if you have two a week but any more and you’ll risk raising your cholesterol – and cholesterol is bad.

Now new research tells us this was all rubbish. Eggs do not raise cholesterol levels. Eggs in fact are not such bad things and are a better friend to have than a kebab or a Viennese whirl.

I’ll avoid the obvious route here and not poke fun at the pursuit of temporary truths that is evidence-based health care. Suffice to say that research – no matter how robust – is really no substitute for thinking.

Instead let’s chat about the exciting near-science of nutritionism, which is the process of understanding and meeting the nutritional needs of people. Its emergence has led to technicians playing with all sorts of previously dull foods to ensure they contain more omega-3 or less saturated fat.

Nutritionism says the key to understanding food is examining and reorganising its nutrients. I can’t say I’m convinced.

Now, I don’t have anything against nutritionists and I don’t mind omega-3 but, as healthcare professionals, shouldn’t we be cautious of intervening too much? Nutrition is fundamentally a simple thing, summed up wonderfully by the American writer and campaigner Michael Pollan: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’ Like others, he is concerned about the industry we have constructed around the inventing, processing and marketing of foodstuffs.

All nurses know changing unhealthy habits is difficult, and that an ever-shifting evidence base makes for complex and contradictory messages. Food is better than foodstuffs. Plants are better than processed stuff. Meat and fish are probably fine if you don’t fill them with rubbish before you kill them. And eggs? Eggs are fine.

This is just common sense, isn’t it? And wasn’t that always the nurse’s best friend?

  • Want to read more of Mark Radcliffe’s opinions? Just click the more by this author link at the top of this page.

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