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England's Debate Over Fats And Sugars Shows You Can't Believe Any Health Advice Anymore

Photo: Flickr user Alexis Lamster

Who do you believe when it comes to healthy eating advice? Is it the guidelines put together by a board of experts and endorsed by the government, which is therefore subject to the pressures of the food lobby? Or do you prefer guidelines put together by another group of experts, without government control, but possibly with its own agenda?

That’s the debate in the U.K., currently, where official government advice has been contradicted by a report published by a group called the Public Health Collaboration. The PHC report advises eating minimal carbohydrates and maximizing consumption of all kinds of fats, in order to not only be healthy, but to lose weight.

The report might be classed as a polemic, because it picks apart the U.K.’s official Eatwell Guide, which continues the decades-old advice of basing your diet on a foundation of pasta, grains, rice, and starchy vegetables like potatoes.

Recently we have seen lots of reports that saturated fat isn’t in fact the killer we thought it was. Although manufactured trans-fats are still pretty deadly, delicious butter is as healthy now as it’s always been. Sugar is the real danger. It’s so bad that the U.K. will tax sugary drinks, and is considering a ban on advertising junk food to children.

So the PHC’s paper would seem to be good advice, usurping fusty old government advice with dietary recommendation based on up-to-the-minute facts. But in the meantime, various experts have accused the PHC report of "cherry-picking" data, says the Guardian, and the U.K. Government’s official response says the same:

This paper highlights one trial suggesting high dairy intake reduced the risk of obesity, while ignoring a systematic review and meta-analysis of 29 trials which concluded that increasing dairy did not reduce the risk of weight gain.

So who should you believe? On the one hand, the official advice is over-conservative, and its insistence on a basis of cheap and filling starchy carbs seems more about feeding a hungry country in times of post-WWI scarcity. On the other hand, while the PHC recommends that we cut out processed and sugary foods in favor of natural fats, fruits and veggies, and proteins, its list of patrons and its advisory board includes Atkins-diet and anti-sugar campaigners.

Really, though, we know what’s good for us. Don’t eat too much of anything, avoid processed foods, prefer fruits and veggies. And of course, don’t stint on the delicious butter.

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