Lies, Damn Lies and Nutrition

I’ve read some great posts recently that I could really relate to about diet and exercise. About running and overcomplicating something that should be simple and pleasurable.

Thinking about these separate issues, I couldn’t help but notice a lot of cross-over. Because, like running, nutrition is an area which is made a lot more confusing than it should be.

For me, the one thing that really gets my goat is the term ‘natural’ where diet and nutrition are concerned. Whether it’s the latest brand of cereal bar or yoghurt touted as being all-wholesome, virtuous and natural. It just really winds me up.

I suppose I feel the word natural has been misappropriated and is just another marketing buzzword to justify premium pricing. A veneer to hide the fact that these foods are, well, far from healthy. Comparing the nutritional value of a so-called natural energy bar recently, it was pretty similar to a confectionary bar. But guess which one cost nearly five times as much as the other.

It’s also the fact that hand in hand with the natural eating rhetoric is the message that all things chemical or artificial are bad. Whether it’s nitrates, artificial sweetners or additives to prolong the life of products. I’m not going to wade into this area, as it’s something that a thesis could be written on. But the words chemical and artificial have become dirty words. They’ve become synonymous with processed and junk food at best, with cancer-causing substances at worst.

Chemicals aren’t intrinsically bad because essentially, everything’s a chemical. Whether it’s those that are created naturally and shaped by evolution or those made in a laboratory by the hand of a human (or machine). Once you get down to a molecular or atomic level, it doesn’t really matter who the creator was. Molecules are molecules. Atoms are atoms. There are chemicals that are naturally occurring in nature that can kill you – asbestos, snake venom, aflatoxin. And on the other hand, artificially made substances such as pharmaceuticals are pretty much vital for the survival of the human race. Modern medicine is far from natural and is built on chemicals and artificial substances.

Apologies if I’m getting side-tracked or being boring. I don’t mean to alienate anyone or wade into a subject when I’m not qualified to do so. I’m not a food scientist or nutritionist and this post is only intended to skim the surface of a wide range of complex issues. I don’t know if it’s the ‘bad science’ angle that frustrates me; as someone with a science degree I’m passionate about evidence-based research and this seems to be lacking in the claims made about these natural products being superior. It could be the fact that it’s the same companies that made un-nutritious food so cheap and ubiquitous in the first place and are now putting forward a cure.

As a runner and someone that’s always striving (but not necessarily succeeding) to eat healthily, I love discovering new recipes to keep my diet varied and fuel my body. But my healthy, my natural, is using fresh ingredients and preparing meals from scratch. Blending up some fruit to make a smoothie. Because, like running, diet doesn’t need to be made expensive or complicated either.

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10 thoughts on “Lies, Damn Lies and Nutrition

  1. You’re like the female Ben Goldacre when it comes to running! Great post, and your pictures at the end look mouthwateringly yummy. Full of good sense as ever!

  2. I would like to add ‘paleo’ and ‘eating clean’ to this list. I know of someone who has started the paleo diet and she complained of feeling really tired. I felt like dragging her to the nearest Italian for a pasta party!

  3. i agree with a lot of what’s written here, but i’d also contend that while everything is a molecule/chemical, there are ones put in our food by “food scientists” that our bodies weren’t meant to digest. Some of them pass through without doing harm, while others – we don’t know how they’re interacting with our cells. Not that we can protect ourselves from everything, but I think it’s good to limit the amount of questionable chemicals we ingest.

    • Thanks for your comment. In terms of the human-made chemicals in food, any additives that are put in food have to undergo extremely rigorous testing procedures before they are allowed there in the first place. There are independent bodies are in place (eg the Food Standards Agency) to regulate the industry and I personally have every faith that the system in place works the way it should. But I definitely think it’s good to question what we’re putting into our bodies and diet is an extremely personal thing so everyone should have the right to say yes/no to certain foods.

  4. I definitely don’t trust that the artificial stuff in processed foods has been tested and is therefore not bad for us. And – I am a decade older than you and I notice now that my body just does not feel well if I don’t eat mostly real food (stuff that doesn’t have a list of ingredients as long as a book). And you know I don’t eat sugar 🙂 (and artificial sweeteners).

    • Thanks for your comment, Mrs B. The post isn’t really about additives per se – like I say, that’s something extremely complicated and there are others far more qualified that can give an opinion on these. But I suppose that, as a scientist, I’m more inclined to lean towards rigorous and tested methodology (in my view the press would rather scaremonger than look for the facts). But like I say, it’s an entirely personal thing what we put in our bodies, so if you find something that works for you then that’s great!

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