At Abergavenny Food Festival this year we held a lively debate as we put a controversial question to our panel of experts; “Is Healthy Eating Making Us Ill?” With more foods and drinks marketed as ‘healthy’ than ever before we are a population suffering from severe health ailments and an obesity epidemic. A conundrum.

In our debate we talk about food prices, improving food equality with education, the effect supermarkets have on local independent shops and the monopoly of big food over our food chain.

Julian Baggini

Blinded By Science

First up, Julian Baggini, philosopher and food writer, urges us to be much more forensic about what is understood as ‘healthy’. He argues that our views have been skewed by ‘nutritionism’, a term coined by Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food). The central idea is that much of what we’re eating is not food but a collection of ‘nutrients’ made to look and taste like food but which is a sad imitation of real food.

We can analyse food and work out how much of what we need for the basis of a healthy diet but we have moved away from the real foods our grandparents ate to processed ingredients with added nutrients and we have asserted these new fake foods as superior to and healthier than the originals.

Julian explains that the way the body processes food is very complex, depends on so many things and that all calories are not at all equal.

We forget that Nutritional Science is still very young. It’s a fool’s error to try and measure our health through inputs of nutrients.

Joanna Blythman

Many “Healthy” Foods Are Highly Processed 

Second to speak up, Joanna Blythman, investigative journalist and broadcaster, breaks healthy eating down into three simple words “eat unprocessed foods”. And if we can only follow one, “cook”.

Joanna flies the flag against the government’s eat-well plate for being complicated, unclear and wrong. It doesn’t account for processed and unprocessed foods and fat is doomed as the anti-christ. However, several meta-analysis studies show high fat and low carb diets are much more effective for weight maintenance. Finally, animal fats are being favored over processed fats; a huge step in the right direction.

Shaun Hill

Cheap Ingredients & Hijjacking “Healthy”

Third to join the debate, Shaun Hill, head chef of The Walnut Tree, says cheap ingredients are making us fat. The way people eat and live has changed. We are time poor, eat out regularly and pick up cheap convenience food over cooking from scratch in our kitchen. This is often industrial made food packed with preservatives, which ultimately we still know very little about.

We need to readdress and redefine ‘healthy’. The word ‘healthy’ has been hijacked by the low fat, low sugar, dairy-free, gluten-free, everything-free brigade. Healthy is about eating a balanced diet, not low or free from anything unless of course you have allergies.

Healthy is also inclusive of plenty of wine, says Shaun.

Laura Sandys

The Health Fashion & Division in Society

Fourth to give their wisdom, Laura Sandys an MP from Thanet representing constituents whose average wage is £9,000 per annum. For them, shopping in Tesco or Sainsburys is like shopping in Harrods. They shop in Poundland and their only cooking facility is a microwave.

Laura makes a powerful point; this is a group of people who are falling away from the increase in health, the increase in long term living and who are finding it very hard to interact with the healthy food system which is hugely controlled by fashions and trends. We see foods that are in and out, good and bad and then 6 months later it all turns upside down. This is confusing for most and so it’s important to talk about the science of nutrition and provide messages on the real foundations of health.

Of course we have huge structural problems too. We have huge health industries doing very well with lots of really excellent food available and at the same time people being made further removed from healthy living. How do we make sure that all can benefit from longer and better living?

It’s crucial that the food system and us in the industry are not patronizing, condescending or have unfair views about what people should and shouldn’t eat and see what people eat as a reflection on them as people. We need to create systems, products and retail offers that work to help those families make the right decisions.

Laura points to marketing as a hugely complex and frightening problem. A “natural” bar can easily be packed with sugar but it has a message of good and unprocessed. These choices aren’t necessarily good, are highly deceptive and take advantage of those who aren’t as aware of what’s going on in the food industry.

After hearing from all our debate members, an important message we took home was that there is a real need for us as individuals to readdress how we define “healthy”, whilst questioning what we are being told is “healthy”.

Join the debate and tell us, what is healthy eating to you?