On 17th March Public Health England (PHE), the government agency responsible for public health policy and planning in England, released a new public guide to nutrition.
Called simply the Eatwell Guide it is an attempt by the authorities to update the Eatwell Plate as an illustrative guide to healthy eating.
The Eatwell Plate dates back to September 2007 when it was launched by the Food Standards Authority and it is interesting to see how official thinking has been influenced by nearly a decade of further research and medical practice.
Three things are immediately striking and are all down to focus group sampling.
Firstly the idea of a plate with a knife and fork has been abandoned, apparently this was seen as confusing by the focus groups who thought people might consider it only applied to the main meal of the day because that was the only time knives and forks would probably be used.
What about things you eat with a spoon? Or sandwiches?
So out goes the cutlery.
Secondly the food products are shown as drawn illustrations and not photographs. It seems from the available research that those who are already engaged in selective and measured dietary practice like to see photographs, but the rest prefer to see an illustration.
Since the message of this guide is aimed at convincing those who don’t think much about their nutritional needs at the moment, it was decided that illustrations were the way to go.
Thirdly, the new guide carries much more information including recommended total calorie intake, how to read a food label, hydration advice etc.
It tries to achieve that difficult balance between being both simple and comprehensive. I think it does quite well on both counts (though I hate the child like illustrations of food).
What has the dairy industry's collective knickers in a twist, however is one of the two substantive changes to the actual content of the guide.
Keen-eyed observers will notice that high fat/high sugar products like chocolate, ice cream, crisps and cakes have been taken out of the ‘plate’ altogether and moved into a group in the corner labelled simply “eat less and in small amounts”.
What remains of that group as a tiny slither within the circle is oils and spreads.
More controversially the ‘dairy and alternatives’ segment has been virtually halved (actually it has been reduced from 11% to 8% of the recommended daily calorie intake; this has the dairy lobby screaming foul. And they do have a point.
The new PHE recommendations translate into a recommended limit of dairy products to 200 calories per day for men and 160 for women. To put that in perspective a pint of semi-skimmed milk contains about 260 calories, 100g of cheddar cheese (about 3.5 ounces) contains over 400 calories and a 150ml pot of low fat fruit yoghurt is around 140 calories.
Needless to say, one large milky coffee would take a woman way over this notional limit.
It’s a huge departure from my own youth where milk was provided every day in schools and the whole population was exhorted to ‘drinka pinta milka day’.
Against this the dairy supporters point out that dairy is a long recognised and rich source of calcium, iodine and vitamin B12 as well as protein, particularly important when the other recommendations include reducing meat intake.
Certainly a report from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, an ongoing research project funded jointly by PHE and the FSA, found that 46% of 11-18 year olds were consuming less than the recommended daily intake of calcium and one in five teenage girls were at risk of developing health problems like osteoporosis later in life.
In response PHE said it would never advise people against eating any dairy products, but the priority had to be to get the population to eat more fruit and vegetables.
My concern is that in an effort to nudge us all in the right direction the authorities are falling foul of temptation to give increased prominence to the most recent ‘discoveries’ and loudest voices in formulating their advice and forgetting the whole nature of a ‘balanced’ diet.
They seem to think that carbohydrates come only from bread, cereals and pasta for example, when many fruits and vegetables are crammed with carbs.
And where are the nuts?
Nuts and seeds have always been a rich source of minerals and protein and are included in many nutritionally balanced diets but seem to be totally absent from this guide.
In fairness, a guide is just a guide and should not be held to account as a blueprint for every individual. According to PHE computer modelling was used to try and achieve an advisory message that required the least amount of change from the most common dietary habits.
It does do an excellent of job of highlighting what is generally ‘good’ nutritionally and what is not so good, but the real message should be that each of us has to take more responsibility for considering what we include in our diets and making positive changes to improve it where we can.
Your daily food intake has to suit you and your needs.
If that means milk on your whole grain cereal at breakfast, yoghurt with lunch and some cheese on your baked potato in the evening, I don’t think anyone could accuse you of being reckless.
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