Forget about fats – it’s processed food we should be worried about


"....everything in moderation, especially ultra-processed foods."

Last week, the National Obesity Forum caused a furore by claiming that eating fat, including saturated fat, will help cut rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Public Health England hit back, calling NOF’s advice “irresponsible”.

There’s wide agreement that modern diets have led to a rise in illnesses such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Like most research, the recent controversy focuses on whether specific nutrients are the cause.

I’m not qualified to decide whether fat is good for you or will help you lose weight. But as a philosopher, and someone who has studied diet and health-related behaviours, I am curious about the question. What we ask determines what sorts of answer make sense. Does it make sense to focus on nutrients such as fat or carbohydrates, for example, or should we reframe the question?

There are many ways to think about the dietary changes in Western societies over the past century or so. Of course, we can think in terms of nutrients: more sugar, more refined carbohydrates, more animal fats, more oils. Another change is in terms of agriculture and animal husbandry: new fertilisers and pesticides, new ways to feed and breed animals, new ways to hasten their growth. A third sort of change starts with an organisational revolution: large corporations now dominate our food supplies.

These corporations are armed with factories and laboratories, with brands and trademarks and marketing departments. And they have created a new sort of food: the ultra-processed variety.

Why don’t we see cabbages advertised by modern food companies?

Raw ingredients are reduced to pulps and powders and concentrates and extracts. Chemicals are used to emulsify and enhance flavours (some of these familiar, such as salt, others unknown before modern chemistry). New technologies pound and process and bleach and coat, change liquids into pastes or solids, extract the last scraps from animal carcasses, and “fortify” with vitamins lost in earlier stages of processing.

We see appealing pictures of farms and crops on the packaging, but we’ve no idea how the products inside came from the baffling lists of ingredients.

Given these enormous changes, how can we discover which aspects of modern diets are damaging to health? I’ve just sketched out three major changes. But each of them involves many factors. So it is enormously difficult to establish which aspects of modern diets have increased rates of some illnesses.

This isn’t to say that conventional questions about different nutrients are unanswerable. Some answers are becoming clear: lots of sugar isn’t good for us; trans-fats are definitely bad for us. But just focusing on nutrients is a mistake. In particular, there are good reasons to think that modern food processing itself poses health risks.

Some of these problems overlap with concerns about specific nutrients. Adding salt, sugar or fat (sometimes all three) is a good way to make cheap ingredients palatable. Processing foods tends to remove the many micronutrients found in whole foods, and crops from modern industrial agriculture tend to be poorer in micronutrients anyhow.

Some problems overlap with concerns about energy intake. Processed foods tend to contain less water and fibre, so they are more calorie-dense and easier to consume in large quantities.

Alongside convenience, processed foods are carefully engineered for immediate appeal. They are also marketed with every trick in the book (unlike whole foods). All these factors encourage over-consumption. And then we can add suspicions that some aspects of modern food processing – various additives or “processing aids” or chemicals in packaging – pose health risks of their own.

Don’t focus on specific nutrients

Focusing on specific nutrients such as fat or cholesterol has often damaged the reputation of whole foods. Many people limit their consumption of eggs, butter or red meat, for example. Processed food companies are in a better position to defend their products, though. Packaging can easily make or insinuate health claims. Margarine might be made who-knows-how with industrial trans-fats, but it can be formulated to be low in cholesterol to reassure us of its health value. The breakfast cereal might be over a quarter sugar, but the packaging emphasises the fibre or vitamin or iron content.

No one can see or taste nutrients themselves. To focus on them means trusting labels and mistrusting your senses. Confused, we pick up a low-calorie fizzy drink, then choose a low-fat yoghurt that contains all the sugar we just tried to avoid. When healthy eating guidelines focus on nutrients, we become more susceptible to the processed food and drink industry.

Claims that “fat won’t make you fat” make headlines. I think they hide a more important idea also hinted at in the new report. On top of modern industrial agriculture, industrial food processing represents the biggest change to human diets since people began farming. Major food and drink companies compete with one another. But as Carlos Monteiro, a professor of nutrition and public health at the University of São Paulo, remarks, “they all have the same overall policy” – promoting ultra-processed foods.

Instead of asking about specific nutrients, we might also ask whether the rise of processed foods has contributed to the rise in diet-related diseases. And perhaps the best health advice is not to obsess about the latest demon nutrient, but to prepare whole foods for ourselves, adapting the old adage: everything in moderation, especially ultra-processed foods.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.




Garrath Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University's Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion. He has collaborated on two large European research projects on children's health, the IDEFICS and I.Family studies, and is co-author (with Kristin Voigt and Stuart Nicholls) of Childhood Obesity: Ethical and Policy Issues (Oxford University Press, 2014). He has also published widely in philosophy, political theory and applied ethics.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Added 17.07.2018
There are two ways of tackling chronic lifestyle diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes: discover new drugs and treatments or persuade people to make positive lifestyle changes to avoid developing them in the first place. Health coaching is one of the most powerful ways of changing people’s mindsets for the long term. Practitioners are rapidly taking their place alongside executive coaches, life coaches and personal trainers as another means of making us better people through one-to-one improvement sessions.
Added 16.07.2018
Getting rid of loneliness is also about letting go of cynicism and mistrust of others. So next time you meet someone new, try to lose that protective shield and really allow them in, even though you don’t know what the outcome will be.
Added 12.07.2018
From the beginning Donald Trump’s administration has been marred by corruption and outright contempt for the rule of law – with the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey “because of the whole Russia thing”, and persistent efforts to undermine Robert Mueller’s Russia probe; with his refusal to divest himself of private businesses, his attacks on judges who rule against him, and much else besides. Trump’s shameless claim to unbounded executive power manifested itself recently in repeated calls to deprive unauthorized immigrants of their due process rights. The conditions in migrant detention centers are horrifying and photos from one facility in McAllen, Texas showed children being held in cages. According to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Facebook report, this border facility is an enormous warehouse “filled with cages. Cages for men. Cages for women. Cages for mamas with babies. Cages for girls. Cages for boys.”  Such an unconscionable state of affairs makes the current exhibition of Alberto Giacometti at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City all the more electrifying. The show features more than one hundred and seventy-five sculptures, paintings, and drawings, spanning more than forty years and across all the various media with which he worked.  
Added 12.07.2018
I sometimes meet with apologies from venues when a piano’s action may not be serviced to top form. I reply with a smile that such apologies are unnecessary, for in my youth I had to pull up as many keys as push down upon them when playing on battered uprights before elementary school children. In those days I played as often with my palms up as down, like a day at the gym dedicated to both push and pull. Once, however, just before a recital in a private South Carolina home, I encountered a woman whose main concern was – though my naked hands were plain before her – that I remove any rings I might be wearing before playing upon her piano’s vulnerable ivories.
Added 12.06.2018
Extract: “Nothing is beautiful except what is true,” Cézanne once said, “and only true things should be loved.” As the philosopher Jacques Derrida put it: “The truth in painting is signed Cézanne.” Perhaps it is this above all else that makes him the indispensible painter for our times, this era of so-called ‘post-truth.’ For Cézanne “painting was truth telling or it was nothing.” That is what it meant to paint from nature, to be primitive, to be free from all affectation, to be like those “first men who engraved their dreams of the hunt on the vaults of caves…” This is why we need to look and look again at Cézanne. And it is perhaps best that he has come to the National Gallery, to D.C., but a stone’s throw away from where truth is daily made a mockery of, and lies are proffered with breathtaking ease.
Added 06.06.2018
Extracts from the article: "Johnson and Johnson recently announced that it was halting a clinical trial for a new Alzheimer’s drug after safety issues emerged. This latest failure adds to the dozens of large, costly clinical trials that have shown no effect in treating this devastating disease. The growing list of failures should give us pause for thought – have we got the causes of Alzheimer’s all wrong?".............."Another option is to look at the risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s. One of these is type 2 diabetes." ............"Testing these [diabetes] drugs in animal models of another neurodegenerative disorder, Parkinson’s disease, also showed impressive effects, ............These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference. To see any protective effect in the brain in a clinical trial is completely new, and it supports the new theory that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are caused, at least in part, by a lack of growth factor activity in the brain. These new theories bring a fresh view on how these diseases develop and increase the likelihood of developing a drug treatment that makes a difference."
Added 01.06.2018
Extract from the article: "The most common defense of truth is the pragmatic one – namely, that truth works; that true beliefs are more likely to get the job done than those that are not true. The pragmatic account of the value of truth is not wrong, but at the same time it is not enough. Truth is not valuable for solely instrumental or extrinsic reasons. Truth has intrinsic value as well. When we reduce the value of truth to instrumentality, it is a very short step to saying that we just want beliefs that work for us, regardless of whether they are true or not."
Added 14.05.2018
During the first century of modern art, Paris was a magnet for ambitious artists from all over Europe. Remarkably, the current exhibition at Paris’ Petit Palais tells us that “Between 1789 and 1914, over a thousand Dutch artists traveled to France.” Prominent among these were Ary Scheffer, Johan Jongkind, Jacob Maris, Kees van Dongen. But of course most prominent were Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondrian.
Added 10.05.2018
The Jewish Museum in New York City is currently presenting the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), featuring just over thirty paintings by one of the most distinctive and significant artists of the early twentieth century. Focusing on still life paintings, of which he was a master, "Chaim Soutine: Flesh" includes his vigorous depictions of various slaughtered animals - of beef carcasses, hanging fowl, and game. These are dynamic works of great boldness and intensity, and taken together they constitute a sustained and profoundly sensuous interrogation of the flesh, of carnality - of blood, skin and sinew.
Added 08.05.2018
The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.
Added 05.05.2018
 

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century.

Added 01.05.2018
Quote from the article: "Who is talking about how globalized the world was between 1880 and 1914 -- until war broke out and fascists subsequently determined the course of history -- and the parallels between then and now? Globalization always had a down side, and was never meant to last forever -- but the gurus chose not to talk about it. It is always just a question of time until economic nationalism reappears, but the gurus have done a poor job of addressing the nexus between economics and politics, and its impact on business, which is the real story."
Added 29.04.2018
"......if we did manage to stop the kind of ageing caused by senescent cells using telomerase activation, we could start devoting all our efforts into tackling these additional ageing processes. There’s every reason to be optimistic that we may soon live much longer, healthier lives than we do today."
Added 29.04.2018
Many countries have introduced a sugar tax in order to improve the health of their citizens. As a result, food and drink companies are changing their products to include low and zero-calorie sweeteners instead of sugar. However, there is growing evidence that sweeteners may have health consequences of their own. New research from the US, presented at the annual Experimental Biology conference in San Diego, found a link with consuming artificial sweeteners and changes in blood markers linked with an increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes in rats. Does this mean we need to ditch sweeteners as well as sugar?
Added 25.04.2018
Female doctors show more empathy than male doctors. They ask their patients more questions, including questions about emotions and feelings, and they spend more time talking to patients than their male colleagues do. Some have suggested that this might make women better doctors. It may also take a terrible toll on their mental health.
Added 25.04.2018
The English-born Thomas Cole (1801-1848) is arguably America's first great landscape painter - the founder of the Hudson River School, the painter who brought a romantic sensibility to the American landscape, and sought to preserve the rapidly disappearing scenery with panoramas that invoke the divinity in nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Thomas Cole: Atlantic Crossings" is an astounding exhibition featuring a painter of extraordinary power and vision, underscoring his environmentalism and the deep sense of loss that pervades many works as he reflects on deforestation, the intrusion of the railroad, and the vanishing beauty of the untrammeled wilderness.
Added 23.04.2018
Quantitative evidence from three independent sources — auction prices, textbook illustrations, and counts of paintings included in retrospective exhibitions — all pointed to the fact that some important modern artists made their greatest work late in their careers — Cézanne, for example, in his 60s, and Kandinsky and Rothko in their 50s. But the same evidence indicated that other important artists produced their greatest work very early — Picasso, Johns, and Stella, for example, all in their 20s. Why was this was the case: why did great artists do their best work at such different stages of their careers? I couldn’t answer this question until I understood what makes an artist’s work his or her best.
Added 19.04.2018

People of all ages are at risk from diseases brought on by loneliness, new data has revealed.

Added 09.04.2018

I was a senior university student in Baghdad, Iraq. It was March 2003, and over the past few months, my classmates had whispered to each other about the possibility of a US-led invasion and the likelihood that 35 years of dictatorship and tyranny could be brought to an end.

Added 26.03.2018
In 1815, 69-year old Francisco de Goya painted a small self-portrait. Today it hangs in Madrid’s majestic Prado Museum. Next to it are the two enormous paintings of the uprising of May, 1808, in which Madrid’s citizens had been slaughtered by Napoleon’s troops, that Goya had painted in 1814 for King Ferdinand VII, to be hung in Madrid’s Royal Palace. One of these, of the execution of Spanish civilians by a French firing squad, is now among the most famous images in the history of Western art.