Everything you thought you knew about food is WRONG

We think we know what to eat: less red meat and more fiber, less saturated fat and more fruit and veg, right? Wrong, according to a controversial new book by obesity researcher and nutritionist Zoe Harcombe.

In The Obesity Epidemic: What Caused It? How Can We Stop It? Harcombe charts her meticulous journey of research into studies that underpin dietary advice – and her myth-busting conclusions are startling.

article_1325453_0BD31166000005Ditch conventional diet advice: Zoe Harcombe says vitamins and minerals in meat are better than those in fruit.

Myth: The rapid rise in obesity is due to modern lifestyles

According to Zoe Harcombe, the obesity epidemic has less to do with our lifestyles than with what we are eating.

‘The key thing that people don’t realize is that throughout history, right until the Seventies, obesity levels never went above 2 per cent of the population in the UK,” she says. Yet by the turn of the millennium, obesity levels were 25 per cent.

What happened? In 1983, the government changed its diet advice. After that, if you look at the graphs, you can see obesity rates taking off like an airplane. You might feel it is coincidence, but to me it is blindingly obvious.

The older dietary advice was simple; foods based on flour and grains were fattening, and sweet foods were most fattening of all.

Mum and Granny told us to eat liver, eggs, sardines and to put butter on our vegetables. The new advice was ‘base your meals on starchy foods’ – the things that we used to know made us fat (rice, pasta, potatoes and bread). That’s a U-turn.

Myth: Starchy carbohydrates should be the main building blocks of our diet

We’ve been told that carbohydrates such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes should form the bulk of what we eat. The trouble with this, says Zoe Harcombe, is that as carbs are digested, they are broken down into glucose.

This process makes your body produce insulin, in order to deal with the extra glucose. One of insulin’s main roles in the body is fat storage, so whenever you eat carbs, you are switching on your body’s fat-storing mechanism. Whatever carbs you don’t use up as energy will be quickly stored away in the body as fat.

We should get back to doing as nature intended and eat real, unprocessed food, starting with meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and salads.

Myth: Losing weight is about calories in versus calories out

“If only it were that simple,” says Harcombe. People think that if they cut out 500 calories a day, they will lose 1lb a week.

They might at first, but then the body will recognize that it is in a state of starvation and turn down its systems to conserve energy.

‘So you may be putting fewer calories in, but at the same time you will be using up fewer calories to get through the day.

Losing weight is more a question of fat storage and fat utilization. You need the body to move into a fat-burning mode and, to do that, you need to cut down your consumption not of calories, but of carbohydrates.’

article_1325453_0BC445BB000005Don’t over do it: Too much exercise could make you hungry so you eat more.

Myth: More exercise is a cure for the obesity epidemic

This is standard wisdom: “exercise, we think, will burn calories, lose fat and speed up our metabolism. Think again,” says Harcombe.

If you push yourself into doing extra exercise, it will be counterproductive because you will get hungry – your body will be craving carbohydrate to replenish its lost stores.

If you are trying to control weight, it is so much easier to control what you put into your mouth. Not how much, but what. Then it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do by way of exercise.

Myth: Fat is bad for us

“Real fat is not bad for us,” says Harcombe. “It’s man-made fats we should be demonizing.” Why do we have this idea that meat is full of saturated fat? In a 100g pork chop, there is 2.3g of unsaturated fat and 1.5g of saturated fat.

Fat is essential for every cell in the body. In Britain [according to the Family Food Survey of 2008], we are deficient in the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E, which are responsible for healthy eyesight, bone strength, mental health, cancer and blood vessel protection and, therefore, heart health. We need to eat real fat in order for these vital vitamins to be absorbed into the body.

Myth: Saturated fat causes heart disease

Over the past 50 years, we have accepted this as one of the basic nutritional truths. But Zoe Harcombe says: “No research has ever properly proved that eating saturated fat is associated with heart disease, let alone that it causes it.”

Myth: Cholesterol is a dietary enemy

Controversially, Harcombe does not consider ‘high’ cholesterol levels a bad thing!

‘To pick a number – 5 (mmol/l) – and to say everyone should have cholesterol levels no higher than this is like declaring the average height should be 5ft 4in and not 5ft 9in and medicating everyone who doesn’t reach this meaningless number to reduce their height. It really is that horrific.

Ancel Keys, who studied cholesterol extensively in the Fifties, said categorically that cholesterol in food does not have any impact on cholesterol in the blood.

What is abnormal is the amount of carbohydrate we eat, especially refined carbohydrate, and this has been shown to determine triglyceride levels – the part of the cholesterol reading your GP may be most concerned about.

It’s the ultimate irony. We only told people to eat carbs because we demonized fat and, having picked the wrong villain, we are making things worse.

Myth: We should eat more fiber

For three decades, we have crammed fiber into our bodies to help us feel full and keep our digestive systems moving. This is not a good idea, says Harcombe.

The advice to eat more fiber is put forward along with the theory that we need to flush out our digestive systems. But essential minerals are absorbed from food while it is in the intestines, so why do we want to flush everything out? Concentrate on not putting bad foods in.

article_1325453_0622DB64000005Avoid fruit to lose weight: The sugar in them will be stored as fat.

Myth: You need to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day

“Five-a-day is the most well-known piece of nutritional advice,” says Harcombe.” You’d think it was based on firm evidence of health benefit. Think again!

Five-a-day started as a marketing campaign by 25 fruit and veg companies and the American National Cancer Institute in 1991. There was no evidence for any cancer benefit.

Myth: Fruit and veg are the most nutritious things to eat

Apparently not. Harcombe allows that vegetables are a great addition to the diet – if served in butter to deliver the fat-soluble vitamins they contain – but ­fructose, the fruit sugar in fruit, goes straight to the liver and is stored as fat.

Fruit is best avoided by those trying to lose weight, says Harcombe, who adds: ‘Vitamins and minerals in animal foods – meat, fish, eggs and dairy products – beat those in fruit hands down.”

Myth: Food advisory bodies give us sound, impartial advice

the organizations we turn to for advice on food are sponsored by the food industry. The British Dietetic Association (BDA), whose members have a monopoly on delivering Department of Health and NHS dietary advice, is sponsored by Danone, the yogurt people, and Abbott Nutrition, which manufactures infant formula and energy bars.

The British Nutrition Foundation, founded in 1967 to ‘deliver authoritative, evidence-based information on food and nutrition in the context of health and lifestyle’, has among its ‘sustaining members’ British Sugar plc, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, J Sainsbury PLC and Kraft Foods.

‘When the food and drink industry is so actively embracing public health advice, isn’t it time to wonder how healthy that advice can be?’ says Harcombe.

Alice Hart-davis, The Daily Mail, UK, Sun, 31 Oct 2010 22:06 CDT

Is science on the brink of creating the elixir of life?

Once I had a very odd dinner with an elderly and distinguished scientist who told me how he planned to live for ever – or at least for a very long time indeed.

We ate in his beautiful house by the sea in California. Our meal consisted of one bowl of rice each and a glass of water.

With this extreme diet, my host said – limiting himself to 800-1,000 calories a day (the average male is recommended to consume 2,500) – he hoped to stave off death for many more decades.

article-1319011-0B7DF3F7000005DC-816_468x663Eternally youthful: Cliff Richard, 69, appears toned and bare chested in his 2011 calendar

Such a regime was based on the well-established theory that by reducing calorie intake, people can dramatically increase their lifespans. This had been shown, after numerous scientific investigations, to work in animals from fruit flies to mice.

Professor Roy Walford, a biologist at UCLA, was 74 years of age when I met him. He had no doubt that extreme calorie restriction would work in people, too. However, despite his punishing diet, he was to die five years later from the auto-immune disorder Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Seventy-nine years was a little better than the three score years and ten which have been approximated as the human lot since Biblical times – but his innings only matched the average lifespan for an educated, middle-class white California male of his generation.

It is tempting, then, in the light of this story, to write off the theory that by eating the bare minimum we can slow the aging process.

But it seems Professor Walford was probably on to something, even if the fates conspired to ensure that he personally did not benefit from his diet thesis. For there is a growing scientific consensus that aging – against which humanity has been battling for millennia – might not be inevitable.

Of course, the quest for eternal youth has been led by charlatans, frauds and snake-oil salesmen through the ages. There is money to be made by promising the Holy Grail – as the questionable claims on the labels of countless anti-aging beauty products will attest.

For centuries, lotions and potions have been touted as elixirs of longevity. These have ranged from products containing monkey glands to injections of minced dog testicles.

Unsurprisingly, all have failed.

Still, the search continues. We have been told that exercise, red wine, chocolate, Vitamin C and various cocktails of antioxidants are the answers.

The latest elixir claim comes from scientists in Italy, who announced this week that mice given dietary supplements rich in three amino acids (similar to the concoctions favored by human bodybuilders) lived on average 12 per cent longer than mice fed on ordinary food. For humans, this would mean about an extra ten years of life.

And yet the world still awaits its first 125-year-old. The record stands at 122 years – achieved by Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997.

But the truth is, charlatans apart, the aging process may be more amenable to change than was thought.


The search for the elixir of youth continues: Lotions, potions and cosmetic surgery are all used to keep us looking young (left). Within decades pills may be available which will delay the onset of aging and illness (right)

For a start, life expectancy (the number of years a newborn is predicted to live) is increasing by five hours a day in Britain. This means a baby born in five years time should live a year longer than a baby born today.

This is, for the most part, simply a result of better healthcare.

For evidence we need only look at the first big jump in life expectancy, which took place in the 19th century when infant mortality rates dropped because of improved diets, better medicine and proper sanitation.

We haven’t conquered age, it’s just that more and more of us are living to our full potential. But we may now be nearing a surprising breakthrough.

According to a new book, The Youth Pill, by health journalist David Stipp, in a few decades a number of pills may be available, which will help delay the onset of most serious illnesses by up to ten years.

This would give us at least five extra years of healthy old age and allow the 122-year barrier to be breached.

Until recently, those scientists working on increasing the longevity of fruit flies or mice have shied away from making claims that humans could benefit from their work on genetics.

But now, as Stipp points out, this attitude seems to be changing; more and more experts now say that human lifespan can be increased – and what’s more, they agree that it would be a good idea.

How we grew old, and why, was a mystery until recently. It was commonly supposed that our bodies simply wore out, like machines. But this wasn’t a good analogy.

Unlike most machines, our bodies are equipped with efficient repair systems that keep our cells healthy for decades.

In fact, we do not really start to ‘age’ at all until we are into our 20s. So, discovering why these mechanisms stop working as we enter middle and old-age is the key to understanding the aging process.

Aging is, after all, not entirely inevitable. Several organisms appear to hardly age at all and live for centuries.


World’s oldest humans: Walter Breuning (left) is believed to be the world’s oldest man at 114 and celebrated his birthday last month. Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment (right) is considered the oldest person who ever lived, and has a birth certificate dated February 21, 1875. She died in 1997 aged 122

Humans are among the longest-lived of all species, but our longevity is exceeded by some giant tortoises which can live for nearly 200 years.

Bowhead whales have recently been found, alive and well, with antique harpoons embedded in their skulls which can be dated back to the 1790s. Some of these animals may be more than 300 years old.

There is a pattern in all this. Big creatures tend to live longer than small ones. Anything that can fly or swim tends to live longer than animals stuck on the ground.

Understanding these differences gives us our first clue as to how aging works – and to what might be done to delay it.

The evolutionary theory of aging states that animals age at a rate commensurate to their likely survival time in the wild. Mice age quickly because – being small and feeble – they are likely to be eaten, starve or perish due to cold before too long.

Evolution has given the mouse a body that literally lives fast and dies young. It’s full of sex hormones turbocharging its chances of reproducing before it is eaten by predators.

It makes little sense for a mouse to be equipped with, say, anti-cancer mechanisms, if the chances are that it will be an owl or cat’s dinner within a year or two.

Big creatures tend to live longer than small ones. Anything that can fly or swim tends to live longer than animals on the ground.

On the other hand, elephants age slowly because, being big, they are hard to kill. It takes a long time for them to die of starvation and they cope well when times get tough.

So elephant bodies have evolved complex DNA repair systems which can keep them going for half a century or more.

Birds also live a long time because, although small, they can fly and thus avoid predators.

Bats live longer than mice for the same reason, and porcupines and tortoises are long-lived simply because they make a difficult meal. In each case, their bodies age slowly to make the most of their potential life spans.

Still, knowing why we age tells us little about how we age – and even less about what we might be able to do about it.

There is growing evidence, however, that the very hormones that enable us to reproduce – those which produce eggs and sperm – may in themselves contribute to the aging process.

“Death,” said one biologist, “is the price we pay for sex.”

Advances in DNA analysis – reading the entire genetic codes of organisms – have opened up exciting new areas in aging research, allowing scientists to pinpoint individual genes which may be be responsible for the breakdown in our bodies over time.

Yet the reality is that many of the resulting “breakthroughs” have proved to be dead ends.

For decades, “free radicals” (waste chemicals produced by our bodies as by-products of respiration, digestion and the action of muscles) have been suggested as possible drivers of the aging process.


Elephants age very slowly and cope well when times get tough. They have evolved complex DNA repair systems which can keep them going for half a century or more, while smaller animals like the mouse (right) live fast and die young

Some scientists have claimed that we should take large quantities of free-radical neutralizers called antioxidants (which include Vitamin C and are best found in fruit and vegetables).

Yet Vitamin C, it turns out, may actually increase free-radical damage and very large doses can interfere with the body’s natural repair mechanisms.

It is such contradictions that have led researchers to focus, instead, on calorific restriction.

Mice placed on near-starvation diets have seen their life expectancies increase 20-35 per cent. If such results were achievable in humans, the average Briton’s life expectancy would rise to almost 100 – with the potential to carry on to 150.

This is precisely what Professor Roy Walford was trying to achieve with his grimly tedious rice and water diet in California.

And the truth is that research into whether calorie restriction will greatly extend our lifespans would take decades to reach firm conclusions – simply because we are so much larger than mice.

Even so, research on rodents has uncovered how extreme calorie restriction appears to switch on a genetic mechanism called a stress response. This has evolved to allow animals to survive tough conditions (such as a very hard winter when little food is available).

It seems the bodies of mice – and possibly those of humans, too – react to starvation by boosting their repair mechanisms, triggering anti-inflammatory responses which slow the damage done to vital organs as they age.

The problem for humans is that near-starvation is unlikely to catch on. What people are much more likely to turn to are drugs which mimic the effects of extreme calorie restriction, without having to live on lettuce.

And such drugs may soon be available. One could be based on the chemical resveratrol which is a plant compound found in red wine.

In 2006, Harvard scientist David Sinclair found that this could activate a stress-response gene called SIR2 in mice which extended their lives.

Vast fortunes are being spent by the big drug firms on anti-aging drugs.

The happy fact that the elixir of youth is found in wine was suggested as the possible reason why the French, who eat a lot of supposedly unhealthy meat and cheese, smoke too much and drink a lot of alcohol, have one of the world’s highest life expectancies.

Then, last year, three teams of researchers in the U.S. reported that another chemical which mimics the effects of starvation, called rapamycin, makes mice live longer by suppressing the onset of cancer. The chemical was isolated from a fungus found on Easter Island in the Pacific.

Unsurprisingly, the big drug firms are trying to exploit these discoveries. Vast fortunes are being spent on anti-aging drugs which mimic calorie restriction.

The problem, skeptics point out, is that the aging mechanism in rodents may be quite different to the one in humans.

Cliff_2011_A3_calendar.inddThe Official 2011 Cliff Richard calendar is on sale in stationery stores or online at www.danilo.com

Therefore, resveratrol and similar chemicals may not prove to be the answer (the same may be true of the Mr Universe protein supplements trumpeted this week).

But the likelihood is that, in a few years, pills will be developed that will be able chemically to copy the effects of a near-starvation diet and that may well increase lifespan in humans.

If this happens, what would a world of 130-year-olds be like? Of course, there is a big difference between being a healthy 130-year-old and someone who has spent the last 40 years of their life suffering from dementia.

So what about the anti-aging pioneer Roy Walford? Ironically, his death was caused by a rare disease that is exacerbated, not ameliorated, by a low-calorie diet.

But if he was right, then by helping publicize what was once an obscure field of scientific research, his last, hungry years by the Pacific may not have been in vain.

www.dailymail.co.uk, Oct 14,2010, by By Michael Hanlon