Between the dentist and the dietician: a rock and a hard place
Amidst all of the politically correct advice on diet and health which occupies so many column inches of our newspapers, an article by Angela Dowden in the Evening Standard catches our attention: Now Apples are bad for you!. At first this seems like a candidate for our Scares and Miracles column. But no. It is in fact a nicely worked piece which challenges many of the 'myths' of what passes for dietary guidance these days.
The problem with apples, according to the Standard and the British Dental Association, is that they may encourage tooth decay. Given that we are now almost force-feeding them to children in the new National School Fruit Scheme, so eloquently revealed recently as nonsense by Professor Tom Sanders in these pages, dentists around the country may be looking forward to fuller waiting rooms.
Angela Dowden takes a closer look at a few other misguided assumptions – 'chocolate gives you spots', for example. Well, in fact, it doesn't. Nor is spinach a particularly good source of iron. Someone misplaced a decimal point and exaggerated its value in this respect by a factor of ten. Neither, it seems, does sugar cause diabetes in adults. Eggs do not clog arteries – in fact they generate higher levels of the 'good' type of cholesterol. And no, vitamins do not give you energy.
So why is it that these myths surround us in the first place? Everybody from the Food Standards Agency to the quack 'dieticians' of popular magazines purports to know what is best for us to eat. And most of the time they are wrong. There is no such thing as a perfect diet. There are no intrinsically 'good' or 'bad' foods. What we eat certainly has an impact on our health and our weight. But the rise of obesity and other eating disorders has occurred during a time when a myth-laden, moralising dietary correctness has replaced proper evidence-based advice.
What is missing from all of the propaganda is consideration of the nature of the relationship we have with food – the role it plays in our lives not only as a source of nutrition but also of enjoyment and pleasure. Instead of celebrating the joy of eating we surround it with warnings of hidden dangers and disease. In generating faddist anxieties we sow the seeds of unhealthy states which may be far worse than the occasional excess of fizzy drinks and cheeseburgers.
13 February 2002