It’s the healthy eating advice which is really bad for you

Ursula Philpot  is a dietitian at Leeds Beckett University and urges a more considered view.
Ursula Philpot is a dietitian at Leeds Beckett University and urges a more considered view.
  • The seemingly endless barrage of healthy eating advice needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, says one Leeds expert. Neil Hudson reports on the latest academic study
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It seems the list of foods which are good for you (and those which are not) changes with alarming regularity. But now it seems that advice itself could, in fact, be bad for you.

Earlier this week, a new study suggested a moderate intake of chocolate could, in fact, do wonders for your health. A study carried out by a group of analysts in Norfolk concluded that up to 100g a day of the UK’s favourite snack might have health benefits - it followed the diets of 25,000 men and women and found there is no evidence for cutting out chocolate to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, it also warned against overindulging.

A new study out today claims that popcorn, long lauded as a healthy treat, is, in fact, among the worst. Researchers from Consensus Action on Salt & Health (CASH) found some cinema popcorn contains nearly 30 teaspoons of sugar - more than would be found in three cans of cola.

But one health expert says we all need to take such reports with a pinch of salt.

Dr Charlotte Evans, a lecturer in public health and nutrition policy at the University of Leeds, said it was important to take a considered view of individual reports.

“We seem to be moving from a food policy based on nutrients to one centred on foods, so these days we’re hearing much more about specific foods rather than sugars and fats.

“Before the Department of Health will say ‘this is our recommendation’, they go through a very thorough system in which they review all the evidence. We have individual media reports about a particular study, or a review of several studies, or one which follows a cohort of people over a long period of time and this represents a healthy dialogue in terms of what’s happening in the media but at the same time it can be very confusing for people.

“If we take the chocolate study, there appears to be a lot of evidence that taken in moderation, it could reduce cardiovascular disease but it does not say it’s due to that alone.

“It might be that the people the study followed actually did more exercise or were thinner in general than other people. What would be needed to provide a proper answer is a randomised study. At the moment, we have some evidence but not enough to say anything concrete.”

Commenting on the latest study into popcorn, Dr Evans added: “Popcorn is a whole grain food and so it’s good for you but I’ve tried in the past to give it to my children and failed miserably. Without anything on it, it’s just really very bland and we’re just not used to that taste.

“I think we have to ask whether there is any point in trying to promote something which is pretty much guaranteed to be covered in lots of sugar and salt.

“Additionally, there is the issue of the size of the containers in which it is served to people in cinemas. If you look at the US, I don’t see any evidence coming out to indicate eating popcorn increases the amount of fibre in our diet. All that said, there’s nothing wrong with popcorn on its own.”

She added: “People need to take a considered view of these reports.”

Dietitian Ursula Philpot, who lectures at Leeds Beckett University, agreed: “If we look at individual reports, we’re reacting to things all the time. I always tell people to take a big step back and look at the whole picture. These are reports on individual studies but when it comes to the headlines, they look like advice and they can be confusing. It’s rather like saying people who stand outside a lot are prone to lung cancer. It might be true but it’s not the standing outside, it’s the smoking of cigarettes. It’s the same with the chocolate study.”

The latest up to date healthy eating advice can be found on the NHS Choices website, which has a food and drink section and plenty of advice.