We hear a lot about positive thinking and repositioning messages through a positive lens, and this is no less important when thinking about nutrition. We recently read a brilliant article which highlights why government policies that focus on reducing “‘unhealthy’ nutrients are insufficient to tackle the childhood obesity problem. A few days later Boris Johnson declared a “war on fat” saying that his weight was part of the reason he suffered so badly with COVID-19. True to his word, this week we saw the new obesity strategy published.

Reducing the sugar content of food was a key pillar of the government’s earlier obesity strategy.  The sad reality of this move to reduce sugar is that the industry has (in a lot of cases) simply replaced sugar with artificial sweeteners. In a way it’s understandable – they are businesses with a responsibility to their shareholders to turn a profit, so they will find a solution which is affordable and still mean their products sell well. But my view based on the research I have read is that sweeteners are worse for our health than sugar (pop a comment in below and I’ll happily send you some research articles).

This week’s strategy focused less on targets to reduce sugar but more on reducing calories. We absolutely agree with the actions in it to stop promotions (like 2 for 1s) on unhealthy foods and stop advertising unhealthy food to children, but we think focusing on calories is an outdated approach to nutrition and risks, like before, the food industry reformulating products to be lower in calories without making them healthier (i.e. increasing the amount of vitamins and minerals in them), or worse, making them unhealthier. The other risk is that it demonises all calories, even the ones that come from nutritious food like nuts and seeds…no one can deny these are beneficial to eat, but, on first glance, they look calorific and so focusing the debate on calories (rather than nutrition) means they’ll likely be avoided. We can get all of our calories from eating 'low calorie' sweets but we'd very quickly gain weight and become malnourished!

The most important time in life to determine healthy weight is in childhood. We need fibre to help the microbiome grow and thrive, we need unrefined carbohydrates to give a steady flow of energy, we need nutrients in plants and vegetables to build a strong immune system. The simplest (though not always easiest) way to ensure children have a diet rich in the nutrients they need, is to eat real food. Eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains (e.g. rice and oats) will provide a huge amount of positive nutrition and negates the need to count calories. Human psychology tells us that focusing on what you can’t have just makes you want it more (often the reason so many diets fail).

This is where a policy that enhanced positive nutrition rather than targeting the reduction of things such as sugar and calories could play a vital role in improving the nation’s health, and our resilience to future viruses.  Imagine a target that asked the food industry to prove positive nutrition – to demonstrate that the food they manufacture enhanced rather than hindered health?! Idealistic I know but, wow, wouldn’t that make a difference!

This is what we (and the Government) should be focusing on – what foods we can and should eat to thrive, rather than focusing efforts on asking the food industry to reduce what they shouldn’t.

July 31, 2020

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