‘Clean food’ is a dangerous fad

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Ian Marber, Isabel Hardman and Lara Prendergast discuss the cult of clean eating” startat=40] Listen [/audioplayer] Isabel Hardman and Lara Prendergast explored the unhealthy advice peddled by 2015’s near-ubiquitous ‘wellness’ gurus in The Spectator‘s second most read article of the year: The supermarket aisle has become a confusing place. It used to be full of recognisable items like cheese and butter; now you find yourself bamboozled by all manner of odd alternatives such as ‘raw’ hummus, wheat-free bread and murky juices. You have to stay pretty alert to make sure you pick up a pint of proper milk, rather than a soy-based alternative or one free from lactose.

Socrates and Galen on the Great British Bake Off

As the national girth expands by the second, Auntie, never backward about lecturing us on the topic, continues to glory in the popularity of The Great British Bake Off. What a take-off, ancients would have thought. Philosophers, naturally, had little time for fancy cooking. Socrates argued that cooks had no interest in health, only in thrilling the client. They were mocked for the extremes they went to in perverting nature. The Roman poet Martial tells us that one Caecilius fashioned a complete meal from pumpkins which he turned into cakes, lentils, beans, mushrooms, sausages, tuna fish, sprats and sweetmeats. All very Bake Off. Athenaeus’s lunatic Professors at Dinner in 15

The dangerous food fad

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Ian Marber, Isabel Hardman and Lara Prendergast discuss the cult of clean eating” startat=40] Listen [/audioplayer]The supermarket aisle has become a confusing place. It used to be full of recognisable items like cheese and butter; now you find yourself bamboozled by all manner of odd alternatives such as ‘raw’ hummus, wheat-free bread and murky juices. You have to stay pretty alert to make sure you pick up a pint of proper milk, rather than a soy-based alternative or one free from lactose. Supermarkets have become shrines to ‘clean eating’, a faith that promises happiness, healthiness and energy. Food is to be worshipped — and feared. As with all

Low life | 14 May 2015

I’ve been on two cruises before: one was fun, the other misery. The misery one was a late August cruise from Dover to Iceland via Shetland, Orkney and Faroe. The weather was unseasonably chilly, the North Sea rough. The ship pitched and rolled through fog for days on end. At Shetland we went ashore and looked at rails of knitwear in shops. Ditto Iceland. At Faroe we went ashore and watched two women knitting in a hut. At Orkney we visited a prehistoric circle of standing stones that were remarkably jagged as standing stones go. The average age of the passengers was 79 and the restaurants smelt faintly of a

Ignore the latest fad theory. The ‘secret’ of weight loss is to eat fewer calories than you burn

Before I got sidetracked by bogus obesity predictions, I was discussing the equally bogus controversy about whether physical inactivity is linked to obesity. It’s now fashionable to argue that exercising doesn’t help you lose weight. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, this is the line taken by Dr Jason Fung, a Toronto-based kidney specialist who runs something called Intensive Dietary Management. He reckons that people are exercising more than ever and yet are becoming fatter and fatter. But, as I argued, it’s simply not true that we’re exercising more as a population. Now let’s look at the effect of exercise on individuals. Fung – who coined the term ‘Calorie Reducation as Primary’,

Why are we getting fat while exercising so much? Try reading George Orwell

Last week I mentioned a widely reported article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine which claimed that ‘physical activity does not promote weight loss’. The article was taken down by the journal last week due to ‘an expression of concern’. It remains offline as I write this, but the controversy rumbles on. At the risk of further upsetting the low-carb community (who seem particularly antagonistic to the doctrine of ‘calories in, calories out’), I am returning to it today. Let’s start by looking at a series of blog posts by Jason Fung of Intensive Diet Management that have been doing the rounds on social media. He, too, argues that

Letters | 23 April 2015

Enemies within Sir: I thought Matthew Parris was typically incisive in his last column, but perhaps not quite as much as the person who wrote its online headline, ‘Scotland knows the power of a common enemy. We English don’t’ (18 April). It is true that ‘the wish to be the underdog’ is a defining urge of our age, even in relatively prosperous polities such as Scotland and Catalonia. But Parris is wrong when he claims that the closest the English come to the ‘Braveheart feeling’ is in their collective memory of the second world war. If only that were true. Would any other country make so little of its crucial

How we drive our children mad

Mental health is a slippery concept at best and according to the annual prevalence rates given in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, people in north America and Europe suffer from an average of about two-and-a-half psychiatric conditions a year. This suggests that either we are all mad or the American Psychiatric Association is mad (though with a shrewd eye to the main chance). It is hardly surprising then, since the child is father to the adult, that at least 10 per cent of children in Britain suffer from ‘diagnosable mental disorders’, to use a phrase much favoured in the press. Given the way that

Most doctors seem to time-travel to the 1800s when it comes to nutrition

For over 30 years, dietary fat has been seen as a major cause of heart attacks, strokes and cancer. This has been a health catastrophe. Ancel Keys’s ‘Seven Countries’ study, first published in 1970, brought about the widespread idea that we should all eat a low-fat, high-carb diet for optimal health. Had Keys used the entire data set covering 20 countries, his landmark paper would never have been published. The data did not support the hypothesis. UCL’s Professor John Yudkin valiantly argued against this demonisation of fat based on bad science, citing his own experiments and data that showed excess consumption of refined carbohydrates to be the true culprit; he

The idiot diet – nonsense vs common sense in ‘Paleo’ nutrition

Looking for real power? Get a jump-start on the future of global fuel at The Spectator’s energy conference on 1 December. Tickets are still available here. There’s a great New Yorker cartoon – two cavemen, sitting in a cave, looking suitably homo habilis or something, all sloping foreheads and protruding jaw. The caption reads: ‘Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty.’ I think of it whenever someone trots out a living-close-to-the-soil, modern-lives-are-killing-us mantra about how we should stop eating cooked food or only wear natural fibres or whatever. Humans

Calorie-counting six sweets at a time

Anyone who is trying vaguely to control their weight and still eats tasty, nasty processed foods — me, for instance — gets used to playing the game of ‘guess how many calories there are in the packet’. Today I bought the bag of sweets pictured above, and discovered a new difficulty level. The rules of the guessing game go like this: Manufacturers print two calorie counts on the front of a typical packet – one for 100g, in small type, and one for ‘one typical serving’, in bigger type. The typical serving size, as far as I can tell, is determined by how large a fraction of the packet you

Sod the diet and lose weight anyway – here’s how

Who enjoys all that calorie counting? If you hate diets but love the idea of losing a bit of weight, these quick fixes might just help you shift a few pounds – or prevent you from putting on any more. Get enough shut-eye. Research has shown that people who are sleep-deprived eat a lot more the next day than those who are well rested. In one study it was an average 600 calories more. Why? Quite simply, if you stay awake for longer, you’re more likely to have the munchies. Down the dairy. A few studies have suggested that people who eat more dairy products when they’re trying to lose

‘Unhealthy’ foods that are surprisingly healthy

Thank you, oh thank you, dear scientists, for rehabilitating these dietary dangers: Chocolate Previously dismissed as full of sugar and fat, chocolate is now claimed to have all sorts of health benefits. Researchers have found that it helps guard against heart disease and stroke by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It may also stave off type 2 diabetes, as well as improving mood and enhancing cognitive skills. The secret of its success appears to be the presence of flavonoids, an antioxidant which prevents cell damage. Opt for dark chocolate which has a cocoa content of 60 per cent or more, as this has the most flavonoids. And eat it in moderation

Why lobbying against sugar misses the point

Everybody knows that obesity is a massive problem. According to the World Health Organisation, it is now linked to more deaths than malnutrition and starvation. And thanks to a remarkable lobbying effort in recent years, we all know the culprit – sugar. The science against sugar stacks up pretty well. The American endocrinologist Dr Robert Lustig has written and lectured extensively on how fructose (one half of table sugar) contributes to obesity and poor metabolic health, likening it to an addictive drug which should be restricted for sale. His YouTube lecture has been viewed over 4.8 million times. The UK lobby group Action on Sugar have been working hard to

Red wine… with a hint of Diet Coke

A mixed case arrives from Corney & Barrow. My orders are to improvise so I pull out a bottle at random. Here it is. El Campesino, a 2013 Chardonnay (£7.13), from Chile, which has a full, direct flavour and a slightly bitter tang that cuts against the sweetness. The Dionysian experts who scour the earth on Corney & Barrow’s behalf describe it as ‘fresh’ and ‘modern’ but not ‘overly oaked’. That, I presume, is a reference to cheapskate vintners who chuck oak shavings into the barrel to enhance the flavour. No crime there, I’d say, if it produces results. Customising wine is as old as wine itself. The Romans used

The Wiki Man: If you want to diet, I’m afraid you really do need one weird rule

‘Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. And never sleep with a woman whose -troubles are worse than your own.’ These were Nelson Algren’s Three Rules of Life. You may have noticed a few more ‘rules of life’ appearing recently. After years of our being advised to drink some forgettable number of units of alcohol every week, a new rule seems to have emerged: ‘Don’t worry much about how much you drink but do abstain from alcohol completely for at least two days in seven.’ The hottest diet of the moment, sometimes called the 5:2 Diet, lets you eat freely except for two

A waist of shame

Britain has the worst obesity rates in Europe, with one in four adults now clinically obese. A friend who works in orthopaedic surgery tells me that at least 80 per cent of knee replacements are, effectively, self-induced: caused by patients being overweight. Same with hips. Another friend, a consultant, had a complaint lodged against him for describing a 17-year-old girl who weighed almost 20 stone as morbidly obese, on the grounds that it hurt her feelings. Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease are burgeoning. What can be done? According to Calories and Corsets, dieting is not the answer. ‘If you wish to grow thinner diminish your dinner’, announced Punch in

The racehorse diet

Being married to Rose, one of the greatest cooks in the country, is an especially pleasurable thing. No meal is ever dull. Breakfast can be a variety of treats from toast to scrambled eggs to a fried venison liver. Lunch is usually a sausage, perhaps some lentils or something leftover from the evening before. Dinner kicks off around 6 p.m. with a cocktail or two followed by wine. In winter we are great consumers of game, partridge, hare and pheasant. Thick creamy curries, poached fish, beef dripping with red blood. Great hunks of homemade bread lashed with butter and topped with a piece of artisan cheese. There are always leftovers. Rose