How Important is Eating Healthily?- Pete Wormald

by amateurflaneur

Well, here are the maxims that I live by. Too much junk food is probably bad for you. If you try to maintain a healthy diet, you’re probably going to be better off than if you don’t. If you’re overweight, stop eating so much and if you have the body type of an Ethiopian long distance runner, eat some more.

In my ideal society, this would be the extent to which most people bother to think about the relationship between what they eat and their overall health. The healthy section of society (which is the vast majority of those under fifty in contemporary Britain [BBC 2011]) would not preoccupy themselves with no-carb diets and the alleged importance of “5 a day.” They would realise that such things were of little or no use to them, and would get on with what actually matters in their lives.

The society in which we live in is nothing like this. We are continually reminded by a wide range of people from public health authorities and journalists to our uncles and aunts that eating healthily is very important. Doing so will lead to a longer life, will protect us from numerous diseases when we get old, and of course, will make us healthier beings. Such messages have been fully accepted as undisputable “truths” in contemporary society and so it is unsurprising that there is a huge amount of pressure nowadays to carefully monitor what we eat.

The problem with the healthy eating discourse is two-fold. First of all, those undeniable “truths” are not necessarily true, and in the instances that they are, the way in which the evidence is interpreted and acted upon is often obsessive and illogical. Secondly, it represents an irritating and excessive intrusion in our everyday lives.

Having a meal is something to be enjoyed. However, it is nearly impossible to get through my dinner nowadays without someone giving me a five minute speech detailing the exact vitamins the fruit salad contains or the reasons why Tesco’s organic basmati rice is the best thing that’s ever been invented.

The other day, my father actually printed out “Dr Oz’s 100 Healthiest Foods” and stuck it on the fridge so as to make it unavoidable anytime we walked into the kitchen. Everyone (bar myself) studied it carefully as though it was some groundbreaking political manifesto. It was actually a load of rubbish. The point being that the whole subject of “eating healthily” is annoying, excessive and increasingly pervading our everyday lives.

On to my second point. The entire basis of eating “healthy” foods is that doing so is actually good for your health. However, if you look into the science behind this, you will find much of it is remarkably weak. One of the main reasons to eat healthily is based on the assumption that maintaining a moderate weight will lead to a longer, healthier life.

A paper recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2013) has shed serious doubt on this claim. The researchers who covered nearly 2.9 million individuals in their study found that overweight people (BMI 25-30) were actually less likely to die sooner than those of normal weight (BMI 18.5 – 25). Underweight people (BMI less than 18.5) and obese people (BMI 35 and over) died sooner than the overweight and normal people. Contrary to what is commonly thought then, based on these findings, if your eating choices are geared up towards maximising your overall life span, then pushing towards the overweight category is actually your best bet.

Others reasons to follow a healthy diet include ‘helping you feel your best and having plenty of energy…handling stress better…and preventing many health problems and diseases’ (WebMD). Unfortunately, many of these claims similarly fail to stand up under scientific scrutiny. For instance, it has long been claimed – and until recently, rarely challenged – that a low fat diet is good for you because it reduces health risks in later life. However, a $415 million study was conducted in 2010 that involved nearly 49,000 participants and concluded that the diet has absolutely no effect whatever (NY Times 2010). This is an extraordinary finding.

Millions of people round the world had completely changed their consumption habits based around something that they had taken as “fact” but in fact was pure fiction. There is so much misinformation, speculation and phony science in the healthy eating discourse that even its most solid foundations that are (or were once) universally accepted are being dismantled one by one.

Of course, that is not to say that there is no correlation between certain foods and our general health. What is important though is that we scrutinise the “truths” and “scientific claims” that are so often made in this complex and underdeveloped area of science. Until we have a much better understanding of how our bodies are affected by difference foods, we should stop obsessively talking about it, because aside from being an extremely dull topic of conversation, we still don’t really know what we‘re talking about.