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Dietary Choices - Where Did We Go Wrong?

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We have never had easier access to reliable information about health and diet than we do today. Almost 30 years ago, I chose as the subject of my medical student final dissertation 'The role of dietary fibre in prevention of disease'. Then, I had to spend days in a library leafing through dusty textbooks. Today, I could access the same information in minutes with the click of a button. Yet despite having access to more information on health than our ancestors could have dreamed of more, we continue to get fatter at a super-size-me rate. In 1993, 12% of the British population was obese. By 2010, that figure had doubled to 25%.

Why are we choosing to ignore the risks? Why don't we make, to use the politically correct parlance of nursery school, 'good choices'? Healthy eating advice isn't rocket science, and very little of it is new. But therein, perhaps, lies the problem. I've never seen the sales figures to back it up, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the 'statistic' that puts cookery books at number one and diet books at number two in the UK non-fiction book genre popularity stakes is true. Common sense isn't newsworthy - miracle solutions are.

More than one in four Britons are trying to lose weight 'most of the time '. An easy way to kick-start your diet for the day is to skip breakfast, right? Wrong. Almost half of 16-24 year olds do it, but scientific studies suggest that the more often you skip breakfast, the more likely you are to be overweight . Scientists don't know exactly why, but avoiding breakfast may leave you more tempted to give in to the 'quick fix' of high fat, high sugar, calorie-laden snacks mid-morning. Rapidly absorbed carbohydrates raise your blood sugar quickly but don't satisfy your appetite for long, so you may then go on to eat more at lunchtime. What's more, missing breakfast has been shown to have a negative impact on performance, whether at work or at school.

One day the message is 'Eat food which is raw or almost raw to avoid losing vitamins and vital nutrients'. The next, we discover that as far as tomatoes are concerned, the opposite is true - cooking tomatoes releases the antioxidant lycopene, linked with reductions in cancer and age related skin and eye changes.

And what about fats? If we listened to advocates of the Mediterranean diet, nothing but extra-virgin olive oil will do. In fact, rape seed oil (at just 7%) has half the saturated fat of olive oil, and is second only to flax seed oil in levels of heart-healthy omega 3s . Unlike flax seed oil, which has a relatively low 'smoke point', meaning the health benefits are lost in cooking, rape seed oil can be used for frying without losing its nutritional benefits. Does it need to cost a fortune? No - most vegetable oils in supermarkets is rape seed oil. But while oils may be better for your heart than butter, they are just as high in calories - so definitely not good except in moderation.

The World Health Organisation recommends that everyone should aim to eat at least 400g of fruit and vegetables a day. They have a point - they estimate that worldwide, 2.8% of deaths are attributable to low fruit and veg consumption . You might be forgiven for assuming this only relates to Third World countries, but you would be very, very wrong. Almost a decade from the launch of the Department of Health's '5 a day' message, only 1 in 5 Britons regularly eats 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day . Perhaps the message was watered down too much in an attempt to make it easy to remember, and much was lost in the translation. Your 5-a-day only 'works' if you eat a rainbow of foods - ideally, each of the five portions should be different, each should be at least 80g and potatoes don't count. But there are easy wins too - a glass of pure fruit juice at breakfast gives you one of your five a day; frozen and tinned vegetables 'count' every bit as much as fresh.

The messages may not be exciting, but they're there for a reason. Fad diets don't work - there is no magic bullet when most dieters regain all their weight and more . Breakfast is important; fruit and vegetables matter; and the secret of long term success is not to go on a diet but to decide your body deserves long term healthier choices.

Sarah Jarvis will be hosting a live webtv show here on 24 September at 12.45pm. Please join in and submit any of your questions.

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