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Why ‘A Little of What you Fancy’ Might Save the World.


Last year, the potatoes in my veg garden had blight. It was so depressing: a hatful of spuds where previously we’d have had a sackful. As I was looking at this year’s kitchen garden, it set me thinking.

Diets and Diets

A friend of ours is currently on a diet. She is always on a diet, which she then recommends to us. As an overweight and sedentary academic, I am tempted but wary. After all, what we eat and how it affects us is very personal. (And she never seems to get much thinner…)

There are two types of diets that people recommend, aren’t there?

On the one hand, there are ‘popular’ (restrictive) diets, which limit the food you eat so that you lose weight (or not, as is often the case). On the other, there are healthy diets, which are inclusive and balanced, exemplifying ‘moderation in all things’.

I favour the latter: ‘A little of what you fancy does you good’ as the music hall song used to go.

I want my diet to be enticing and exciting. I want it to reflect my cultural and geographical context with a broad range of traditional, locally grown foods in season, where possible. But, because I am a Western consumer, used to the benefits of international trade, I also want to be able to get a proportion of my fruit and veg out of season, imported from abroad.

Shibboliths are Us

But, in arguing for this approach, I may have to burn a few boats.. or bridges…or sacred cows…

You see, there are two debates here that I want to conflate: one is about personal diet and individual health and the the other is about food policy and the eradication of starvation. This, in itself, is not a problem. GM foods are the problem.

When GM research trials were initiated in the UK, I was firmly opposed to their introduction. The possibilities of cross-contamination were simply too great and the regulation of bio-tech firms was too lax at that time. Yet, I have come round to seeing that, to a limited extent, they have to be supported. A position I would have regarded as unthinkable a short while ago.

Saving the World

I come to most of my work from a position of scientific progressivism: that is, I believe that, properly harnessed, science and technology will work in the greater interests of the health and welfare of the world’s poor and vulnerable as well as the wealthy and powerful. Although objectively neutral, they can be great forces for the good.

Our endless restrictive food fashions, though, including macrobiotic or organic diets, are self-indulgent and regressive.

If we want to feed the world, we won’t do it by rejecting food technologies, whether fertilisers or genetic modification. And we won’t eradicate malnutrition and starvation through organic gardening or the Atkins diet. These are the fashions of the rich West: expressions of our collective unease with food, personally and socially. They may serve an educative role, but they do not make long-term sense – globally or individually.

Saving Ourselves

Returning to poor nutrition, a recent study looked at four popular diet plans (Atkins for Life diet, The South Beach Diet, the DASH diet, The Best Life Diet) to see if they reached recommended dietary intake (RDI) of a range of micronutrients crucial for physical and mental health

None of them provided enough micronutrients and they were RDI sufficient in only 12% of the 27 micronutrients examined.

Vitamin B7, vitamin D, vitamin E, chromium, iodine and molybdenum – variously responsible for the production of insulin and thyroid hormones as well as healthy digestion and cell tissues – were identified as consistently low or nonexistent in all four diet plans.

This work, by JB Calton, is important, not just because of the negative impact of diets on healthy participants, but also because overweight people are more likely to have nutrient deficient diets in the first place.

Spuds, Food and Fashion

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, potatoes were starting to be seen as a food to avoid. Starch means obesity and fatness is bad, went the logic. Today, we eat potatoes – baked or roasted, new or old – several times a week. They are a good source of energy and make for healthy, happy humans.

Fashions change in how we consume and it is as true of food as it is of clothes or cars.

Hysteria about foods is not new. Our current ‘superfoods’ – blueberries or broccoli – are a case in point. Excellent as part of a mixed diet: not so good if you eat them to the exclusion of all else.

Whether as individual consumers or worldwide providers, we need to provide broad and balanced diets which are culturally and geographically appropriate and include traditional, locally grown foods in season.

We won’t do that without a sensible, progressive and inclusive approach to food production. One that is based on science, not on fads and fashion.

Maybe, too, I will find it easier to grow my tatties without potato blight. This year I’m using resistant varieties. Now, I wonder how they were developed?

Source: Calton JB (2010). Prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in popular diet plans. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7 (1) PMID: 20537171

From → Health, Policy, Research

One Comment
  1. The “moderation” argument is a great one – if only bad foods were not so addictive and made one crave more of the same.

    And of course we are coming from an overabundance – and what we need might be totally different from what the Third World (what a misnomer!) needs.

    Using modern technology is certainly advisable. The crux lies in how they are used – often without our knowledge. GMO and irradiated foods should be labeled – then the public can decide about them.

    The “superfoods” – they are just media hype. Best diet is local, seasonal, and rotating. And vitamin D? Don’t forget that we can catch one by a daily walk.

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

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