It’s all most confusing

The 27 January edition of BBC Radio 4’s The Spark featured an interview with genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector. In his book Spoon-Fed Spector argues that “almost everything we have been told about food is wrong”. That word “almost” is quite important, and must have been inserted as a legal disclaimer. Unfortunately, despite Spector’s belief that everything he proclaims about food must be correct, he doesn’t always practice what he preaches. For example, he says that fish isn’t worth eating because the nutritional claims for it are false and that fishing is very bad for the environment, but he still eats fish, occasionally at home and often in restaurants.

Spector claims that his approach to food is “balanced” and “food choices mustn’t be religious”, but he frequently sounds distinctly unbalanced and elitist.  He was vegan for a time, but gave up as he desperately craved cheese (“my weak point”) and he eats meat once a month to deal with his low levels of B12 (“instead of vitamin shots”). He espouses good gut health via fermented foods including cheese and red wine, and then states: “Foods that are good for your gut microbes and those sorts of diets [that include a diversity of high fibre plant foods] are also good for the planet. There’s a whole new moralistic discussion about food that has only been around for two to three years in the mainstream debate about eating less meat, being vegetarian or vegan. The discussion has moved on from animal welfare to planet welfare, as well as health.” Broadly speaking this is correct, although animal welfare (or the lack of it) is the key issue for most long-term vegetarians and vegans. Health benefits are a bonus, and a diverse plant-based diet will definitely include an abundance of high fibre gut-friendly foods. However, Spector misses the point as he continues to eat foods that are totally unnecessary and bad for the planet. His cheese addiction is a major mismatch; cheese (especially hard varieties loaded with saturated animal fat) isn’t particularly healthy and dairy products have a large carbon footprint. His excuse for drinking “plenty of red wine” is that it’s beneficial for his gut microbes, but all that alcohol can’t be doing him any good.

Spector uses delivered organic vegetarian cooking boxes (providing a complete meal to cook with precise ingredients and step-by-step instructions) despite having once believed that “vegetarian food was a nightmare, the most boring food in the world”. Therefore, he must regard this expensive method of feeding yourself as one of the solutions to Britain’s bad eating habits, although these box kits represent a restrictive style of cooking and are only slightly better than ready meals. Teaching low-income groups how to prepare meals that are cheap and nutritious, using readily available ingredients, should be a priority. However, he does get some things right, such as: eating ultra-processed food is unhealthy; good nutrition is based on consuming whole foods; diet drinks (“loaded with chemicals”) don’t work; the medical profession is poorly educated about nutrition; powerful food lobbies exert too much influence on government food policies. His assertion that “almost everything you have been told about food is wrong” makes a catchy tagline, but almost everything he says about food is either self-evident or inconsistent.

Paul Freestone

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