Talking about diets

19/12/2011 § 4 Comments

A set of nutritional guidelines was issued in Australia last week. In a lot of ways, the advice was unremarkable. Key recommendations:

  • People should eat a variety of nutritious food; advice that has not changed over many years, but is now reinforced with stronger scientific evidence.
  • Most Australians need to increase our intake of vegetables, fruit, whole grain cereal foods, and milk products- particularly reduced fat varieties.
  • Some population groups need to eat more of some food groups and less of others. For example, some women who consume an omnivore diet may benefit from eating more red meat, while some adult males may need to reduce their consumption.
  • Most Australians may benefit from reducing excessive intake of energy-dense nutrient-poor foods and drinks which are high in saturated fat, salt and added sugar, particularly sugar sweetened drinks, if we are to tackle obesity and diet-related chronic disease.

Or, as Michael Pollan puts it more succintly: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’

There wasn’t really much ‘news’ to the announcement. But the Dom Post saw it a bit differently:

Based on the average diet, the council recommended eating 40 per cent less starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and kumara, half the amount of high-fat dairy products and – except for people who exercise vigorously – cutting out all “discretionary choice” foods such as cakes, burgers, soft drinks and alcohol.

To me, those two bits of communication are entirely different. The first is a generally moderate, not altogether surprising summary of things we already know but don’t do. Eating more vegetables makes us healthier. Too many calories make us fat. Energy-dense foods are essential if you are in a physical occupation and unnecessary if you sit at a desk all day. The last quote is frightenly prescriptive: cutting out all cakes, fizzy drinks, and alcohol?

I don’t know where the disconnect was inserted. It may have been the reporter looking to jazz up an otherwise unremarkable story. That’s not much of a worry — papers try to sell the sizzle. Or, it may have been that the Council created a veneer of moderation to hide a more radical food agenda. That’s more worrying, particularly because it’s so daft.

Why is it daft? Let me count the ways.

  • It doesn’t work. How long has the government been telling people what to eat? What has happened to our waistbands in the meanwhile? Just yesterday, the NZ Herald said that 63% of NZers were overweight or obese. I have a hard time believing that only 37% of us know we should eat more vegetables.
  • It doesn’t understand food. If you think of food as fuel, as the substance that keeps our physical bodies maintaining and moving, then getting the perfect mix of vitamins and energy is the focus. If, on the other hand, food is about taste and sharing and culture and memories and emotions and all the rest, then the question of what to eat is more fascinating and harder. I certainly don’t need to eat mushrooms newburg, but it’s gosh darn delicious and reminds me of my mother’s Julia Child style of cooking.
  • It doesn’t understand people. Just telling people what to do won’t get them to do it. People react in all sorts of ways to instructions. Some will follow the rules (with the appropriate amount of anxiety). Others will ignore it. Others will explicitly flout the guidelines as a way of supporting their anti-elitist identity: ‘Nobody can tell me not to have my steak!’

We’ll see what happens with the guidelines. It will likely go the way of 4-4-3-2 and the rest.

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§ 4 Responses to Talking about diets

  • Michael Reddell says:

    The whole thing sounds like a good opportunity for some (minor) government expenditure cuts. What role of government is it to try to tell people what to eat? And where is the gap in the market? Newspaper, scientists, publications like Consumer will no doubt continue to publish advice anyway, and people will follow or ignore (or attempt to reconcile) that advice as they find fit.

    • Bill says:

      I can see a role for some social production of dietary information. It’s the same problem as any scientific information. It is difficult to profit privately from producing dietary information, so society would tend to under-produce it.
      That said, I think we are way beyond the point where producing more information is valuable. I think we get the idea — less fat, salt, and sugar; more veggies.
      Also, the number of and spending on private dietary information and products suggest that there is a vibrant market operating. Is it a lemons market?

  • Andrew says:

    Late… but the topic is so close to me that I must reply!

    One word in your article got my attention Bill… being ‘anxiety’, specifically “some will follow the rules (with the appropriate amount of anxiety)”. Perhaps we can see a trace of the rationale here, it is the ‘appropriate amount’ that the healthy industry key into – they tell us how much to be anxious and we diligently follow: regardless of actual healthy behaviour. Perhaps if we want to see change (and do we? does the capitalist really want change in diet?) we should stop talking about guidance altogether…?

    Just the musings of a post-christmas weight-anxious individual quietly waiting for PhD examinations to finish…

    Andrew.

    • Bill says:

      Yeah, that anxiety is curious, isn’t it? Even when you follow the rules about diet, you’re still supposed to worry about it. It doesn’t create satisfaction, exactly, which is what consumption is supposed to do in economics.
      Good luck with the exams.

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