Would you automatically eat more healthily if you knew the calorie content of every meal you ate? Boris Johnson certainly seems to think so, and he is not alone. One of the elements of the UK government’s new obesity strategy is calorie labelling on the menus of restaurant and takeaway chains. According to Tim Spector, however, calorie counts on menus are flawed for a number of reasons. In his view “the calorie has been a disaster for the average consumer”.
Spector’s beef with calories is that they simply don’t add up. Calorie estimates are often less accurate than we might hope, with studies showing that “the actual calorific content of a meal can deviate 200 per cent from the number on the menu” and the deviation is nearly always an underestimate. Even if the numbers on the menu were accurate, they still do not reflect the ways in which humans obtain nutrients from food.
Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology, has conducted research involving twins, which shows that humans vary hugely in how much energy they extract from a given food. If twins are given a meal of starchy carbohydrates such as pasta, one may metabolise the meal much more quickly than the other. Another problem with calorie counts is that we digest food very differently depending on how it is processed and cooked. Corn on the cob is much more fibrous than the same corn in the form of cornflakes yet “the simplistic calorie intake theory treats the energy gained from each as the same”.
Calorie counting is just one of many food myths that Spector sets out to demolish in Spoon-Fed: they can give consumers a “false sense of security and precision” about food. Something important that he fails to discuss is that for a subsection of eaters, calories on a menu are actually a source of panic rather than of security. For eating disorder sufferers, calorie counts in restaurants can trigger feelings of distress. But Spector’s point stands, which is that the human relationship with food is something far too “complex and intricate” to be reduced to calories in and calories out.
Spoon-Fed was written before the pandemic but it covers ground that is as relevant now as ever. For weeks, I had been reading alarming headlines on the link between low vitamin D levels and an elevated risk of dying from Covid-19. But Spector’s chapter on vitamins convinced me that vitamin D pills are not a panacea, despite the way they are currently being marketed. “Overuse of vitamin D supplements has been linked in several trials to weakened bone density, as well as increased falls and fractures,” Spector writes.
The book’s main argument is that to find the best way of eating we need to ignore much of what we are told. Spector’s myths include the idea that fish is always a healthy option and the dogma that “sugar-free foods and drinks are a safe way to lose weight”. Spoon-Fed is a worthy successor to Spector’s earlier bestselling book, The Diet Myth, which focused on the powerful role that the microbes in our guts play in determining our health. This new book is broader, but he manages to distil a huge amount of research into a clear and practical summary that leaves you with knowledge that will actually help you decide what to add to your next grocery shop. He convincingly argues that coffee and salt are healthier for most people than general opinion decrees, while vitamin pills and the vast majority of commercial yoghurts are less so. He is in favour of vegetables – as diverse a range of them as possible – but does not rate vegan sausage rolls as any healthier than the meat equivalent.
The greatest obstacle when it comes to getting accurate information about food has been the food industry
Much of what we think we “know” about food is often “dangerously inaccurate”, Spector writes. One of the reasons is that, given the sheer complexity of food, it is difficult to produce high quality scientific research on it, which leads to oversimplification. Nutrition scientists divide all foods into three simple categories: fats, proteins and carbohydrates. But this is “scientific nonsense”, Spector notes. All foods are actually a combination of proteins, carbs and fats. Moreover, a fat is not just one thing but “a vague umbrella term for anything made up of building blocks of three fatty acids joined together”. One of the myths he identifies is the idea – which until very recently was medical dogma – that saturated fat is a major cause of heart disease. Spector notes that no study has shown that switching from a normal-fat diet to a low-fat one reduces heart disease. Another problem with the saturated fat myth is that it encouraged consumers to switch from butter to “cheap highly processed items with multiple additives and new industrial fats that we know little about”.
Why do so many people still fervently believe that margarine is healthier than butter? The great beneficiary of this belief has been not consumers but the margarine industry. Spector shows with great clarity that “the greatest obstacle of all” when it comes to getting accurate information about food has been the food industry. Like the pharmaceutical industry, the vast multi-national food companies have influenced nutritionists with gifts and sponsorship. Spector reveals that industry has also funded huge amounts of nutrition research, influencing the information that we receive on everything from the safety of artificial sweeteners to the question of whether we can eat large amounts of red meat with impunity.
Many of our most unquestioned beliefs about diet suit the industry just fine. In the days when we worried about fat, they sold us a raft of highly profitable low-fat products. When we started to worry about sugar, they sold us low-sugar snacks for our children. Food manufacturers, notes Spector, “love the current guidelines based on general dietary proportions, as they give them great flexibility and distract from the steady rise of ultra-processed foods”. The new government policy paper on obesity talks about restricting the sale of foods high in fat, salt and sugar; but this leaves open the possibility that ultra-processed foods laced with artificial sweeteners could still market themselves as healthy.
Given the endless smokescreens put out by the food industry, it can be hard to know what to eat. Spector offers a few rules of thumb, with the proviso that our responses to food are deeply personal. He advises avoiding anything labelled as a “diet” food and especially anything containing artificial sweeteners which, he suggests, can trick our bodies into gaining weight. He questions whether breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, a line which has been most forcefully peddled by the breakfast cereal industry. Although he does eat breakfast himself, he notes that evidence is gathering for the benefits of time-restricted eating, where people skip breakfast and limit the time frame of their meals to six or eight hours in the day.
Occasionally, the myth-busting set-up of the book forces Spector to sound less nuanced on the subject of food than he actually is. One of the chapters is entitled “Bringing Back the Bacon. Myth: All meat is bad for us”. Yet he actually agrees that mortality is somewhat increased in processed meat eaters, though he makes no mention of the nitrites that are considered the problematic aspect of bacon. Most of the chapter is concerned with the fact that, on environmental grounds, we should all “consider being flexitarians”, eating very little if any grain-fed beef because “meat is not essential” – not exactly bringing back the bacon.
Yet, taken as a whole, this is one of the clearest and most accessible short nutrition books I have read: refreshingly open-minded, deeply informative and free of faddish diet rules. Spector’s recommendations include subsidies for vegetables and restrictions on the voracious lobbying of the food industry. He would approve of the new restrictions on junk food marketing on TV before 9pm.
But the greatest hope for better diets, he suggests, is in education – something not covered by the government’s new policy paper. “We need to be teaching our children about real and fake foods with the same zeal that we teach them how to walk, read and write.” If Spector is right, then knowing how to recognise real nourishing food when you see it is a far more useful life skill than mindlessly counting calories. Spector concludes with a galvanising call for governments around the world to think differently about food, to ditch the pointless calorie counting on menus in favour of policies that could actually make it easier for people to eat a healthy diet. The unanswered question is whether any UK government will ever be brave enough to enact the radical food policies that are needed, rather than simply slapping a calorie label on a menu and leaving consumers to their fate.
• Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food is Wrong
by Tim Spector is published by Cape (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.