These days nutrition advice seems to be everywhere. You can find it in the mainstream media, on supermarket websites (and on labels and notes in stores), being dished out by Influencers on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, Facebook, and in magazines.
UK government advice on nutrition is a lot less shiny, a lot more boring, and a lot more out of date than pretty much any other source. If you can be bothered, it can be found lurking on the NHS website or on Gov.uk.
What make things particularly confusing is that the advice out there is rarely consistent, with different sources claiming different things. Added to which, sometimes the advice changes. So, what was being touted a few years back as the absolute pinnacle of healthy eating is suddenly off the table. Instead, something else is being promoted as the “in” thing.
So how reliable is the nutrition advice that is out there? And who should we really be taking notice of?
The mainstream media
What we eat (and how much of it) has long been linked to illness. But although the study of nutrition has been going on for over a century, acceptance of the connections between diet, health and wellbeing has been slow to build. The trouble is that research is expensive, and it is more lucrative to investigate pharmaceutical drugs (which can be patented) than it is to investigate the bugs that inhabit our gut, or a vitamin (neither of which can be patented). It is also a lot easier to keep track of a man-made molecule through the various digestive, absorptive and elimination processes in our bodies, than it is to work out what a naturally occurring substance that is part of our normal diet is doing.
No easy ways of losing weight
The days of red-top newspapers issuing screaming headlines like “Vitamin C Cancer Fear” seem, thankfully, to be in the past. These days a lot of the information in mainstream media is focused on “easy” ways to lose weight (spoiler alert – there is no such thing). But articles by experts, nutritionists, science writers or just journalists who happen to write for the paper can often contradict each other. One day a mainstream media paper runs an article about how bread is laden with pesticides and a few days later the same paper runs another article about how great bread is. So do you cut bread out? If you make your own does this mean it won’t contain pesticides? Who to believe??
The thing with the mainstream media is, they love a sensationalist headline. Because sensational headlines, whether they are based on sound science or not, sell newspapers, even in this digital age. If a newspaper article is telling you something about diet, it may be worth checking other sources to make sure it isn’t misleading.
Supermarkets and food manufacturers
Supermarkets and food manufacturers “steer” consumers in the way they place stuff on shelf and by what they put on labels. Without making direct claims about something being healthy, marketing departments use pictures of green fields, sunshine, and statements like “free from”, “low in”, “source of”, which carry implications of health and wellbeing. Because consumers put their own perception and expectations onto foods that make claims – even when those foods are not particularly healthy.
Although the law supposedly controls what claims can be made about any food being healthy, there are (unfortunately) some substantial holes in the rules. And marketing departments are sneaky. So a product claiming to be a source of vitamins, which implies that it is healthy, may also be really high in salt and or sugar. Likewise, the words “made with natural ingredients” on a label suggests that the product is healthier than other products which do not make that claim. But not all of the ingredients may be “natural” and just because something is “natural” does not automatically mean it is healthy.
UK and ultra-processed food
Very often, the kinds of foods which imply they are healthy by putting claims, or pictures on their labels are actually ultra-processed. They are made of ingredients created in factories and which would not be found in any domestic kitchen. This is particularly important because the UK is the third highest consumer of ultra-processed foods on the planet. And consumption of ultra-processed food is destroying the health of the nation and adding layers of fat to the obesity crisis.
If you pick up a product which “looks” healthy – read the ingredients list. If it contains a list of things that you have never heard of and cannot pronounce, don’t buy it!
The phenomenon of individuals on social media influencing millions of followers is relatively new. Social media gives everyone an equal voice, but are those influencers really qualified to give advice? Research suggests, mostly not. How evidence based is their information? Not very. And are they paid to say what they say? Very often – but they tend to hide it!
These questions are important because more and more people are turning to social media influencers for information and guidance on this subject. Research from all over the world is finding that influencers may not be good for your health. Many promote foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar; in fact, posts about foods that are unhealthy have far more “likes” and comments than posts about healthy foods. Information on social media is not peer reviewed, nobody checks its veracity and there is a huge amount of misinformation and pseudoscientific advice out there. And, unlike “normal” advertising, social media is largely unregulated.
Targeting the susceptible
Influencer promotions for foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar on social media are often specifically aimed at the groups most susceptible to suggestion and manipulation – children and adolescents.
It isn’t just the promotion of unhealthy foods that is a concern. According to the media “thin is back” (did it every really go away?) A lot of social media content out there is about being thin, getting thin, or staying thin. There is a rise in young people in the UK being diagnosed (and admitted to hospital) with eating disorders. And there seems to be a clear link between the use of social media, particularly when influencer driven, and eating disorders.
If you follow a social media influencer who promotes ideas around diet, nutrition, and health, do a bit of digging. And take what they say with a large shovel full of salt.
And the government?
That is, as they say, a whole other can of worms. The UK government is particularly bad at communication when it comes to nutrition, diet, and health. The 16 different government departments with fingers in the UK’s nutrition policy pie are notoriously bad at communicating – internally, with each other, and with the wider population. It is nearly 20 years since the “5-a-day” message was launched. Most of the population may have heard of it, but almost nobody puts it into practice, and it has been so badly communicated that there is little understanding of what it really means.
The wheels of government grind slowly and reluctantly. Much government advice remains firmly wedded to outdated science; new ideas are viewed with suspicion and often considered controversial, particularly if they contradict established dogma. Like the view that saturated fat is “bad” and that everyone should be consuming low fat foods, despite growing evidence that saturated fat (in moderate amounts) is good for us. The NHS website is very clear; saturated fat is evil and should be avoided at all costs.
So what advice is best?
It doesn’t need to be complicated. The best advice for everyone is to eat real food. Stay as far away from the ultra-processed stuff as you can. Try to keep your sugar intake at a minimum. Too much of anything is not a good idea. And try to eat as wide a variety of foods as possible – fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, pulses, fungi, meat, fish, poultry and dairy products. Eat the rainbow, and try to make it a different rainbow every day.