Public the loser in foolhardy fat fight
Making healthy food choices is hard enough at the best of times such is the onslaught of messaging imploring us to choose one product over another. But when even public health professionals can't agree on the most basic of nutritional guidance you can forgive the public for giving up and going home to phone their local takeaway.
Make no mistake; the big losers from this week’s unseemly row between the newly established Public Health Collaboration and Pubic Health England over the role of fat in the diet are members of the public who have to navigate their way through another bombardment of sensationalist (and in some cases deliberately disingenuous) headlines.
‘Get fat to get fit’ declared the Sun; ‘Eat more fat to stay healthy’ screamed the Daily Express. Even The Telegraph couldn’t resist wading in with an overblown ‘Eat fat to get thin’ headline of its own.
Whatever the validity of the argument that current national dietary guidelines, in their demonisation of fat and promotion of low-fat alternatives, have been fuelling the obesity epidemic for years, the result of the Public Health Collaboration’s controversial report has simply been to add a further barrier to the effective communication of dietary information to the public.
The tabloid press in particular has form for reporting the latest piece of dietary research as fact without putting it in the context of the whole weight of evidence. Bacon, red wine and chocolate are just a handful of products that are regularly subjected to hysterical and contradictory headlines. But public heath professionals who choose to fight their battles through the medium of national newspapers must take their fair share of the blame for the confusion, and apathy, that such headlines engender among the population at large.
While it's legitimate for doctors and academics to disagree, it serves nobody’s interests for their disagreements to be played out in the full media glare, particularly when the research conflicts with dietary advice that has only just been updated and disseminated. To be genuinely acting in the interests of the public, health professionals should do their upmost to publicly present a united front and do their squabbling and horse-trading behind closed doors.
One of the saddest facets of the whole episode is that the row over fat has obscured areas where both the Public Health Collaboration and Public Health England agree, for example that fruit and vegetables should account for the bulk of the diet. In a country that gets nowhere close to hitting its 5-a-day fruit and veg target, we should be shouting such advice from the rooftops. As it is, the public are left scratching their heads wondering whether they can have that second slice of cheese on their burger after all.
One more postscript to the row is that elsewhere in the world, countries such as Sweden, Germany and Brazil are looking ahead to future food system challenges by incorporating sustainability into their dietary guidelines. In the context of such progressive thinking, the UK’s obsessive wrangling over individual nutrients seems even more foolhardy and backward.
* A version of this blog was first published by Footprint Magazine