Tim Spector’s new book Spoon-Fed – fascinating busting of food myths!

Is salt really the enemy? Is all processed food bad for us? Does red meat give you cancer? Renowned UK epidemiologist, Tim Spector, has a new book out which reveals why almost everything we have been told about food is wrong. He questions every diet plan, official recommendation, miracle cure or food label and encourages a rethink on our whole relationship with food.

Tim Spector’s new book, published late 2020, is called Spoon-Fed, and has as its main argument 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”. 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.

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 distill 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.

Debunking the trumpeted ‘CICO’ concept

Would you automatically eat more healthily if you knew the calorie content of every meal you ate? 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 – that the human relationship with food is something far too “complex and intricate” to be reduced to calories in and calories out (CICO).

Spoon-Fed was written before the pandemic but it covers ground that is as relevant now as ever. While we’re now used to alarming headlines on the link between low vitamin D levels and an elevated risk of dying from Covid-19, Spector’s chapter on vitamins convinces 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 greatest obstacle to 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 Guardian: Read the full article

Interview with Tim Spector

It’s a bold claim: that (almost) everything you’ve been told about food is wrong. But by the end of today’s conversation, you’ll be questioning what you previously thought was true and embarking on a new way of eating that’s right for you, writes interviewer, Dr Rangan Chatterjee.