Rethink Health - May  2012

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Myth or Mantra?

The media often buy into fashionable assumptions and stop questioning their basis. Just occasionally someone bucks the trend, however, as recently in the Independent. Kate Hilpern “exploded” some food myths, but didn’t manage to get to the bottom of some of them. Here is my take on her list:-


Some of us eat too much salt, usually in processed food like crisps and ready meals, or to give chips a bit of flavour. Those of us on fresh diets should ignore this assumption. Salt is an essential mineral and fresh food does not contain enough. The best policy is to trust your unspoilt appetite and add as much as you relish, using sea salt for better satisfaction per gram.

Avoid Fat – or Avoid Carb(ohydrate)

Actually, beware of eating too much for what we do, of energy-making food of any kind,. Most of us no longer toil enough to justify puddings or a pile of potatoes. It takes a great deal of activity to burn off just one small piece of toast! So the problem is more usually, how to eat normally and not put on weight.

The answer is to avoid mixing carbs and fat in the same meal. Decide which of the two the meal will feature, then avoid the other completely. So – bread without butter is not fattening. Nor is bacon and egg without beans or a fried slice. The reason is that you cannot deposit fat in your body unless you have both fat and insulin in your blood at the same time. The insulin is a response to starches in your food, so avoid them and the fat cannot be taken on board. What’s more, if you avoid carbohydrate consistently you will loose weight very effectively and quite safely – the basis of the Atkins diet. 

Contrary to another myth, eating fat does not raise your cholesterol – it lowers it! Cholesterol is made out of starch you have eaten and not burnt off, rather than fat. Triglyceride in your blood comes from fat, not cholesterol.

Dairy Food is Unhealthy

As part of a no-carb diet, dairy food is slimming – not fattening. It is intensively nourishing or it would be of little use to calves. However, humans are the only animals who consume  milk intended for other youngsters than our own, which raises a doubt. And it has been linked to added cancer risk, because of the hormone residues it usually contains from the intensively bred cows in most dairies now. So sheep’s and goats’ produce is safer, since they are not bred so highly.

Fresh is Best

Yes, it is. The idea that deep freezing from the field preserves nutrients is itself mythological – even wishful. As soon as the food is thawed its value drops – rather like Dorian Gray, after destruction of  his picture!

Red Meat is Bad

This cannot be, since without meat-eating human species would never have emerged. But meat is not what it was – chemical treatment of the animals, unnatural foodstuffs and limited exercise conspire to reduce its quality. Therefore pick certified organic, or else naturally grown, or else high welfare labels – do not shop for the lowest price. And go easy on processed meats such as sausage and bacon – these are chemically treated by definition.

New Superfood Claims

When new foods become available, people look for ways to market them. Claims about their healthfulness are therefore unsurprising, and deserve a certain skepticism.

One you will soon hear of is avocado oil. It has in common with olive oil a free radical scavenging property, which extends through all parts of the cell, including the organs within cells called mitochondria. Many other naturally occurring free radical scavengers do not extend that deeply, so have more limited benefit. I think, if you like avocados, eat them – they are expensive enough before you consider the oil! And try to evade pollution and radiation within reason, which are the principle sources of free radical damage in the first place.

The other novelty soon to emerge from the shadows is chia seeds. These are currently on sale only as bread ingredients in this country but will shortly be allowed in many more foods. 

All seeds are valuable foods because they contain everything required to produce a new plant. These taste uninteresting, however, which usually means we don’t really need them. However the Aztecs acclaimed them for some reason, and perhaps we should explore them. The most nutritious way would be to sprout them and eat the seedlings.

Prostate Cancer Risk

We have been told that possession of the BRCA1 gene (just short for BReastCAncer1) puts women at risk of breast cancer, to the extent that some women have elected for mastectomy to prevent it. Now we gather that men with the gene are more liable to prostate cancer.

I am very skeptical about these claims for genetic links. Many other factors are involved, because the correlation of gene and disease is not strong, merely stronger than average. Perhaps these people are more susceptible to the effects of oestrogen pollutants, which are the chief suspect for most genital cancers including prostate. And whereas you cannot help your genes, you can certainly help what you eat and are otherwise exposed to. A strong body of opinion suggests avoidance of food from the cow, for example, to avoid growth hormones that encourage undisciplined growth. 

I do not expect men with BRCA1 to line up for removal of  their prostates but we can all benefit from evading mischievous pollutants, particularly if they act as hormones.

The Department of Curious Facts