By Bianca Nogrady
“You look amazing – are you banting?”
In the 1860s there was only one diet, and it was the Banting. Conceived of by a corpulent English undertaker and coffin-maker called William Banting – who was clearly well positioned to observe the consequences of over-indulgence – it became the first popular diet.
Banting advocated reduced consumption of starchy and sugary carbohydrates and up to six ounces of meat a day – but no pork, as it was thought to contain carbs – all washed down with two or three glasses of good claret.
Since Banting’s time, the number of popular diets has skyrocketed. There have been any number of miracle foods, weight-loss tricks and single-ingredient solutions but how many of these have actually changed the way we eat? This is one of the questions that will be addressed at the BBC Future’s World Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney in November.
WHY ARE THE RECOMMENDATIONS OF ‘GOOD’ AND ‘BAD’ FOOD ALWAYS CHANGING?
It’s fundamental to the nature of science that nothing is ever ‘proved’, and the same goes for dietary science. What is demonised as being bad for us one year can be redeemed the next with new research and new understanding.
Remember when eggs were considered the dietary work of the devil because of their cholesterol content? Then in 1995, a study showed that even eating two eggs a day didn’t have any negative effects on the risk factors for heart disease. Eggs also contain lots of other good stuff, like protein, vitamins and minerals, so now they’re very much back on the menu.
Butter also copped flak in the 1980s because of panic about cholesterol and saturated fat, and its popularity plummeted in favour of margarines. Then everyone started getting worried about man-made trans-fats in margarines, which have since been largely removed.
IS THERE SUCH A THING AS A SUPERFOOD?
It would be great if we could eat whatever we liked, then fix all the resulting problems with a handful of blueberries or walnuts. But our fixation with superfoods completely misses the point of healthy eating, says Rosemary Stanton, who will be speaking at BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit.
“The super foods fad is yet another sign of the never-ending search for a magic bullet to solve problems,” she says. “Such thinking, that ignores the multi-factorial nature of diet-related health problems, is probably the greatest myth.”
The UK National Health Service agrees. In 2011 it produced a whole report debunking the idea of a miracle food, and pointing out that the best approach is to eat a balanced diet and exercise regularly.
WHAT ABOUT SO-CALLED ‘FORTIFIED FOODS’ AND NUTRACEUTICALS?
Ever since we got it into our heads that certain nutrients were ‘good’ for us, the food industry has been working to produce foods that give us an extra boost of those nutrients. It might be bread fortified with folic acid or niacin, table salt with iodine, and margarine with added plant sterols or vitamin D. These foods tiptoe a fine line between a food and a medicine, and the addition of nutrients can mean the manufacturer is able to make health claims about the benefits of their product, which they can’t necessarily make about something that isn’t processed.