Is Healthy Eating Making Us Ill?


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?”. More foods and drinks marketed as ‘healthy’ than ever before. Yet 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.

You might be surprised to know that a lot of us at Rude Health make our porridge with cows milk. Yes, we do produce a range of dairy free milk alternatives, but we have never had a problem with milk itself. In fact, we love it so much that our founder Nick Barnard has written about and holds workshops extolling the wonders of raw un-homogenised milk.

Blinded by Science

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. Instead, a collection of ‘nutrients’ made to look and taste like food. A sad imitation of real food.

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.

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 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.

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 and the increase in long term living. They 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. Yet 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. We shouldn’t 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”.