Older but not healthier
Older but not healthier: Ignore the government’s advice about to what eat if you want live to a ripe old age is an article in the November 2013 issue of WDDTY.
It is written by Robert Verkerk, founder of the Alliance for Natural health, a supplement industry pressure group based in the UK.
It advises readers to ignore government advice on nutrition and take instead the advice of a pressure group. Is this a sound approach?
Older but not healthier:
Ignore the government’s advice about to what eat if you want live to a ripe old age
Robert Verkerk, founder, ANH Europe
National statistics give us a clue of our predicted lifespan on this planet. Most men and women in the UK are expected to live more than 80 years, but relatively few make it beyond 90. That may be better than we were doing 50 years ago, but recent statistics suggest lifespans might be shortening again.
This is true, and is indeed thought to be mainly due to the effects of diet and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Some contend that those who grew up during and shortly after the war, with rationing, have better health as a result.
But mortality statistics show us just one side of the coin. Possibly the more relevant issue is how long we remain healthy and disease-free. As a society more of us are living longer, but with chronic illness.
This is true up to a point: chronic illnesses such as arthritis are age-related and not really preventable at present, whereas type II diabetes is largely caused by lifestyle. The best advice is to eat healthily and exercise moderately. Give or take the occasional fancy bit of dressing-up, this has been the advice for a long time.
Heart disease and diabetes, two of the big killers, are now developing among children, and few of us make it to 70 without cancer, heart disease, diabetes or dementia. This raises the question: How much control do we have over our destiny?
These are two disjoint statements. Childhood obesity is a significant problem, but is separate from the question of, say, cancer, where it’s widely recognised that improved early diagnosis is a significant driver for increased diagnosis. This is not universally thought to be a good thing: Margaret McCartney’s The Patient Paradox details some of the issues with screening for cancer.
The evidence suggests that while it may be more difficult to dramatically alter our lifespan, we can easily reduce our risk of disease and improve our quality of life. Although Big Pharma and modern medicine have yet to come up with a silver bullet that helps us prevent disease to any significant degree, the science is clear on one factor: our choice of diet and lifestyle is the single strongest determinant—genetics apart—of the health quality we experience during our lives.
Let’s unpack that.
- The evidence suggests that while it may be more difficult to dramatically alter our lifespan, we can easily reduce our risk of disease and improve our quality of life
Yes, we can reduce risks of some diseases and improve quality of life, mainly by eating less and exercising more. But “easily” is a questionable claim, and still the greatest determinant is income. So you could just as well say that we can “easily” reduce our risk of disease and improve our quality of life by becoming richer.
- Although Big Pharma and modern medicine have yet to come up with a silver bullet that helps us prevent disease to any significant degree
This is rubbish. Leaving aside the subtext of demonising “Big Pharma”, the elimination and prevention of infectious disease, the ability to treat bacterial and other acquired infections, and improved survival from trauma, have all had a major impact on life expectancy. Nobody has died of smallpox, or even contracted it, since the 1970s. The last large poliomyelitis outbreaks in the West were half a century ago. Vaccines have done vastly more to prevent disease than diet ever has or can.
- the science is clear on one factor: our choice of diet and lifestyle is the single strongest determinant—genetics apart—of the health quality we experience during our lives
Debatable. The WHO lists three main determinants of health:
- the social and economic environment,
- the physical environment, and
- the person’s individual characteristics and behaviours
The order in which these are placed is a judgement call, but health outcomes are very strongly correlated with income both within and across populations. Put simply, the rich can afford better choices more easily than the poor, and that is directly relevant to this article.
Given the wealth of evidence on this point, you’d think that governments would be bending over backwards to ensure we make the best possible choices to help reduce the future burden on our already overtaxed healthcare system, but they simply pay lip service to the notion. And sometimes their advice is in conflict with the latest scientific views.
They do. And if the advice sometimes lags the latest scientific views, that is because the latest scientific views are not necessarily the consensus scientific views. Most early findings are wrong, constantly following the early findings is a recipe for constantly see-sawing between potentially contradictory poles.
So government advice tends to be small-c conservative. Following the consensus, not the bleeding edge, is prudent.
Guidance on nutrition, for example, can be found in the form of the ‘eatwell plate’ on the NHS Choices website. But nearly 60 per cent of the food recommended—from starchy carbs, milk and dairy to “foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar”—is unnecessary to health and largely responsible for the current type 2 diabetes and obesity epidemics.
The eatwell plate is designed by dieticians (the trained and regulated health professionals) not nutritionists (who are unregulated and often untrained, and may believe in copromancy). It’s not intended to be the minimum or optimum for health, it’s designed to be an achievable goal that improves on the unhealthy choices that might otherwise be the default.
It is not the be-all and end-all of advice on diet, it is a reasonable, pragmatic guide. And it’s not presented as anything else. There is no real evidence that the composition of the eatwell plate is responsible for the prevalence of diabetes; the small segment for sugary junk is there because people actually like it and want to eat it, so it proposes a maximum that such foods should form as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
In other words, you are letting the best (specifically, your narrow vision of “best”) be the enemy of the good.
Yet the industries that make these foods are by far the dominant ones in the food industry, with the ‘Big 10’— Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International (formerly Kraft Foods), General Mills and Associated British Foods, amidst a sea of 1.5 billion food producers worldwide—controlling around 70 per cent of our food choices.
This packs two fallacies into one: appeal to motives and poisoning the well. These companies are indeed large and influential, something of which ANH are plainly jealous (see below) but there’s no evidence that their influence guides the health advice produced by the NHS.
It is true that in the matter of promoting abject nonsense in sciencey-sounding language, the likes of Danone acknowledge no master. But since precisely the same rhetoric is used by the supplement industry, as represented by ANH, this is a bit of a pot and kettle situation.
These companies exert their influence in many ways, but lobbying and advertising are two of the most important. They also function under several guises: as themselves through their trade associations; or sometimes via third parties, ranging from celebrities to ‘patient groups’ that supposedly represent the interests of those suffering from a wide range of diseases or conditions like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Bait and switch. They do indeed exert influence, and this is felt in policies. Try to introduce a rule limiting portion sizes of fizzy drinks, and you’ll get an astroturf campaign by return.
But there’s no credible evidence that they use pernicious influence to skew advice given by Alzheimer’s’ patient groups and the like.
The use of celebrity endorsements is of course a staple of the promotion of quackery, too, as we saw with the recent “homeopathy works for me” campaign which aims to use pictures of flowers and butterflies painted onto the bodies of female celebrities, as an alternative to all that tiresome evidence that homeopaths can’t provide.
Most scientists and skeptics would be more than happy to see celebrity endorsement removed from the field of health advice.
There are undoubtedly many behind-closed-doors meetings that few of us ever get to hear about, while the more public interactions are between the large trade associations and both unelected and elected representatives of government—officials and MPs and MEPs, respectively.
Yes, for example the meetings that Prince Charles has had, where he lobbied for alternatives to medicine. And we know that his meetings affected the material published by the NHS, because someone inside the NHS blew the whistle. There’s no evidence that the bogeymen listed above have been doing the same in respect of dietary advice.
One simple rule applies in lobbying: the influence exerted is directly proportional to the size of the company represented. That’s why in the food and natural-health areas, Europe-wide associations like the Association of the European Self-Medication Industry (AESGP), FoodDrinkEurope, the International Life Sciences Institute and Food Supplement Europe, which represent both Big Pharma and Big Food, wield the lion’s share of influence. Smaller associations and groups such as the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (UEAPME), ourselves (Alliance for Natural Health Europe) and the European Benefyt Foundation need to work very hard to even be heard.
So ANH are jealous of the influence of larger lobbies and want the same ability to push their agenda. The alternative – reducing lobbying activity – does not seem to be suggested. Why would it be bad for all special interest groups to be excluded, rather than for the special interest groups you like to get a larger slice of the action? This is not explained.
Many who become aware of this reality feel disempowered. But there are two simple things we can do.
First, we can reduce our dependence on products made by these companies. Put simply, that means avoiding processed foods whenever you can. The size and might of these corporations is maintained only if we support them via our wallets.
Fine if you have adequate disposable income. But WDDTY’s core demographic will already be avoiding “processed foods”. Note, though, that “processed food” is a bit like “toxin”, a word that sounds bad and is easy to pin on the things you don’t like, but meaningless in practice. Bread is a “processed food”. Flour is a “processed food”. It’s hard to see how anything other than uncured meat, raw milk and eggs, and fruit, would qualify as being anything other than “processed foods”.
There’s good evidence that processing can be entirely desirable. Pasteurisation of milk is controversial only with extremists. Preservatives mean that meat is much less likely to contain bacteria such as e.coli or salmonella. Obviously these are entirely natural but most people regard them as undesirable nonetheless.
So without needing to write letters to your MP or bearing a placard in an anti-globalization rally, you can make different choices over the way you feed yourself and your loved ones. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to ‘go local’, or choose wisely when you are doing your weekly shop. Try to buy organic fruit and vegetables as much as you can.
Sorry to rain on your parade, but for urban dwellers there is not much in the way of local produce to be had, and evidence of the superiority of organic produce is sadly lacking.
You can subscribe to an organic-box scheme and have your weekly supply of organic fruit, veg and other produce delivered to your door. And for those of a non-vegetarian persuasion, you can buy locally sourced meats at your local butcher.
Or, you know, don’t. If you’re on a limited income you are almost certainly better off buying fresh fruit and vegetables from your local supermarket, than spending the equivalent sum on a reduced quantity of the more expensive organic produce you recommend.
While you may pay a premium for such foods, many find the net cost is no higher mainly because wastage is reduced and the many temptations in supermarket aisles are avoided.
This is simply wishful thinking. Organic produce is more expensive, and organic produce from farmers’ markets is generally more expensive than the equivalent organic produce from supermarkets.
For those yet to experience the pleasure of becoming independent of the Big Ten, you have almost nothing to lose and so much to gain—not least of all, a healthy long life.
Translation: buy produce from our members not their members, it will make you live longer (terms and conditions apply, value of investments may go down as well as up, objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear, we reserve the right to substitute opinion for evidence as we see fit).
What Doctors Don't Tell You Why don’t doctors tell you that eating organic food will make you live longer?
Because there’s no real evidence it does.