It seems with every passing year that there is new advice about what is healthy to eat, and what is not. Some of this advice comes from well-intentioned but unqualified people promoting the latest ‘fad diet’. These fad diets are usually based on the results of a single research study or a random thought bubble. They might provide some short-term gains but are at best unsustainable, and at worst dangerous to your long-term wellbeing because of restrictions or even elimination of essential food groups.
When I think back over the years since I have been writing about health, I can recall literally dozens of these fad diets. Remember these? Atkins, Ketogenic, Israeli Army, Blood Type, Paleo, Raw Food, Cabbage Soup, Alkaline, Zone and South Beach to name a few.
The reason these fad diets have come and gone is they promise miracles but deliver disappointment.
As a GP, I know the value of nutrition in preventing and managing disease. I know it seems as though the research flip-flops all the time, and just when you think you know exactly what to eat, you read yet another report that changes the guidelines again.
So what do GPs want you to eat? Or not eat?
We are guided by two crucial factors: the evidence available at the time, and an assessment of the patient’s individual needs. I have been searching the evidence on the links between nutrition and health for decades. The evidence base grows all the time, and the medical colleges and dieticians are always reviewing new evidence and comparing it with the existing evidence base. As new studies are published, the consensus on what is a healthy diet will shift to incorporate that new information. Yes, new studies sometimes conflict with existing knowledge, and that always sparks a reassessment of previous advice.
It can also be difficult to condense a lot of complicated information into simple rules for living. ‘Diet’ is not a one-size-fits-all. There are some guiding principles that suit more people, but in my experience, there are many people who need to have individualised nutrition plans.
There are people with known or suspected food allergies who have to be extremely cautious to avoid ingredients that might cause an allergic reaction. People with coeliac disease have to avoid all gluten and if you have lactose intolerance, you need to avoid foods containing lactose.
People who choose to be vegetarian have to make a special effort to avoid micronutrient deficiencies, and often need to supplement nutrients such as iron, zinc, magnesium and protein. People with hypertension need to be more careful about avoiding salt than those with lower blood pressure.
Of course, personal taste comes into it too. For example, I may recommend fish several times a week, but if you hate eating fish that is just not going to happen. You have to find your protein and omega-3 essential fatty acids from other food sources.
Will there ever be a definitive ‘healthy diet’? The answer is probably not. Your GP is guided by your individual needs and the best available evidence at the time. As new information emerges, our notion of the healthiest diet will be modified and updated so that you can make informed decisions.
To eat, or not to eat?