Angels and devils in your foods
If you believed every newspaper headline you ever read, you’d probably never eat again! Some of it is hype, or ‘cherry picking’ the most striking bits of research to make headlines. Because on the whole, the best diet isn’t headline-grabbing because advice hasn’t changed for years. A Mediterranean-style diet – high in fruit and veg, with plenty of pulses or beans, more fish and limited dairy fat -- is a great recipe for a healthy lifestyle.
Newspaper headlines seem to be full of conflicting advice about sugar and fats – one moment it’s all about reducing saturated fat, the next sugar is the ‘real’ bad guy. The truth lies somewhere in between. In fact, they’re both bad for you, especially in excess. But a life without any treats at all might be worthy, but it would be very dull. Today we tease out the facts behind the headlines to help you decide which foods you need to worry about and when you can indulge without guilt.
Caffeine – don’t believe everything you read
Caffeine – and coffee in particular – have come in for a lot of bad publicity over the years. It’s been blamed for everything from cancer to heart attacks. In fact, for the vast majority of people, moderate amounts of caffeine (up to 400 mg a day – four cups of brewed coffee, four mugs of instant coffee or eight cups of tea) are perfectly safe. At these levels it doesn’t cause cancer, serious heart problems or high blood pressure, and there’s a chance it could actually play a part in cutting the risk of type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. If you’re pregnant, you should limit your intake to 200 mg a day and caffeine can make migraines, irritable bowel and irritable bladder worse. Otherwise, enjoy!
Sugar – is it the real bad guy?
Sugar gives us completely ‘empty’ calories – it contributes to excess weight (and with it type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even cancer) without providing any nutrients we actually need. And as a nation we eat too much of it at every age. Change4Life’s Sugar Swaps campaign highlights particularly the problem of excess sugar intake among kids – those aged 11-18 year olds have the highest proportion of sugar in their diets, closely followed by those aged 4-10 year olds. However, following the same advice could improve anyone’s diet. Top tips include:
- Cutting out sugared fizzy drinks (which provide up to 30% of sugar intake)
- Drinking just one glass of fruit juice a day, with food (and avoiding ‘fruit juice’ drinks)
- Swapping high-sugar cereals for low-sugar ones, ideally high-fibre versions (add fresh fruit to sweeten if you want)
- Switching tea-time or after school sugary cakes and biscuits for fruited teacakes or malt loaf
- Substituting fruit or a low-sugar, low-fat yoghurt for starchy puddings.
Fat – is butter okay after all?
A sad fact about fat of every variety - it’s fattening! The vast majority of health experts still agree that saturated fat in particular should be lower in all our diets. The whole fat-sugar controversy reached a peak in 2014 , when a paper came out showing that people who had a low-fat diet weren’t at lower risk of heart attack than those who stayed on a high saturated fat diet . The trouble with this study is that there was no information about what the people on the low-fat diet ate instead. Now a review of two major studies shows that replacing 5% of energy intake from saturated fats with equivalent energy intake from either polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, or carbohydrates from whole grains was associated with a lower risk of heart disease – the risks dropped by 25%, 15%, and 9% respectively. On the other hand, swapping 5% of saturated fat calories for the same amount of refined carbohydrates and sugars did not change coronary heart disease risk.
Basically what this says is not that butter and saturated fat are fine – it’s bad, but no worse than sugar and refined carbohydrates. The best of all worlds is a Mediterranean diet, which includes monounsaturated fats and whole grains, along with plenty of fruit and vegetables and low levels of both saturated fat and sugar. It’s worth bearing in mind that olive or rapeseed oil are low in saturated fat but still high in calories, so don’t splash out too much
Artificial sweeteners – should I worry?
In short, as long as you’re not guzzling gallons of diet drinks, there’s nothing to worry about. The European Food Safety Agency has taken a long hard look at aspartame and concluded that it doesn’t harm the brain or the nervous system and is safe for pregnant women. Widely used in diet drinks, it’s a much less fattening alternative to sugary fizz – but if you’re happy with water, that’s just grand too.
Every food looks more enticing when it’s a rich golden brown, right? Well, it may look good but there are hidden hazards lurking in overbrowned breakfasts. Acrylamide, a chemical generated when foods are fried or burnt, has been linked with cancer. So throw away that toast that got a bit burnt and take your potatoes out of the oven a few minutes earlier to be on the safe side.
With thanks to ‘My Weekly’ magazine where this article was originally published.