Could healthy eating actually be destroying your health?

Is society becoming too fixated on what to eat? (ES composite)
Is society becoming too fixated on what to eat? (ES composite)

I met a girl recently who declared that she no longer eats fruit because of its “high sugar content”. She’d implemented the ban after watching a video on Instagram about “blood sugar spikes” and the dangers they pose for one’s health. Though the clip was no more than a minute long, it was enough to persuade her to ditch strawberries, bananas and peaches. These kinds of reactions when it comes to diet are scarily common, especially in our age of social media.

Shortly after this encounter, I spoke to another person who, as we quite literally broke-bread at a restaurant, told me that she’d become nervous to eat it. She too was worried about her blood sugar and although she never before felt bad after eating bread, videos had convinced her that the mini baguettes in front of her weren’t worth the risk.

She’d read that spikes equal inflammation and inflammation can cause disease. But is it that simple? An excessive sugar intake over many years could contribute to health problems such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But this is a piece of bread we’re talking about, not a pint of syrup. Had what she’d seen online contained the right level of nuance? It’s time to question: is it fact or is it fear-mongering?

The current fixation on blood sugar speaks to our wider collective anxiety about what to eat. And it’s no wonder we’re concerned about it — our food environment is broken. Two-thirds of adults in the UK are overweight or living with obesity, with 26 per cent in the latter category. In 1980, less than eight per cent of the population were obese. New Global Burden of Disease data published by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation revealed in May that obesity and dietary risks are now the leading causes of death and disability in the UK.

In times of crisis, extreme views flourish — and sensationalist takes attract attention and followers. Wherever you look online there is somebody espousing a quick, shiny path to fitness, beauty and moral superiority via food. Take blood sugar, for example. When we eat, food is broken down into glucose which enters into our bloodstream and acts as our primary source of energy — a vital bodily function. The hormone insulin is triggered which helps us use and store glucose for energy and brings our blood sugar back down. This repeats every time we eat and if it didn’t our muscles, organs and brain would not work.

However, some popular influencers fixate on the effects of glucose at the expense of the many other — and important — elements of nutrition.

The problem with such influencers is that their theories nearly always contain a kernel of truth which they extrapolate out to become an entire belief system. It’s what makes their messages so powerful. We know that eating too much sugar is bad for our metabolic health so, if you eat a lot of it on a regular basis, eating less is a good idea. Even if fruit does raise your blood sugar, does that mean it’s a problem? No. Should you miss out on its nutritious properties because of it? Of course not.

When it comes to bread there are such variations in the product that it’s hard to make sweeping generalisations about it. Is it wise to eat less ultra-processed bread? It appears so, but that doesn’t mean you can never eat it. Should you be wary of bread in general? No.

The problem with influencers is that their theories nearly always contain a kernel of truth which they extrapolate out to become an entire belief system

As with many things in life, what actually matters is how you eat most of the time; overall balance is key. Amid the fear-mongering influencers, the over-complicated and exclusive solutions and a food industry that’s poised to profit off of our panic, all of the fun has been taken out of eating. Elsewhere in the chaotic sphere of nutrition, healthy eating is made to seem complex or like something you can only access if you have the money to. Companies sell expensive tests that promise personalised paths to good health but ultimately offer the same common sense advice to everyone: eat more plant-foods and eat less junk. It’s an intuitive message that your gran could have told you for free.Good health is something most of us care about. But do we need to do all this to obtain it?

It’s a question I set out to answer in my book, The Happiest Diet in the World, which is not actually a diet book. It’s an examination of how the longest-living, healthiest communities eat, what they have in common and how their collective dietary patterns and attitude towards food compare to ours in the UK. Five areas around the world, the blue zones, are home to extraordinarily high numbers of centenarians who reach their 100th birthday sharp, mobile and full of joie de vivre. Scientists agree that their diet is a crucial factor in this.

Do they obsess about eating in the way that we do? No!

No one there wears blood sugar monitors, counts their calories or calculates their “macros”. No one buys protein bars or low-fat yoghurt or spends a fortune on supplements. No one cuts out carbs or worries about eating fruit or bread or any other everyday food. Why? Because these things are not necessary in order to have a healthy diet. That is the simple truth.

The Happiest Diet in the World by Giulia Crouch (New River Books)
The Happiest Diet in the World by Giulia Crouch (New River Books)

These communities thrive on uncomplicated, home-cooked, plant-rich diets with a little dairy, and the occasional meat and sweets. They enjoy an intuitive, straightforward and joyful approach towards eating, one in which healthy food and pleasure are not mutually exclusive.

From researching these places and interviewing many world leading experts on the topic I conclude that there are a few sensible tenets to healthy eating. Eat real food (instead of ultra-processed foods) as often as possible, enjoy plant-foods (vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, seeds, spices, grains, herbs, olive oil), make flavour a priority (you’ll never resent tasty food), ignore anyone pedalling extreme or restrictive ways of eating, and whenever you can, relish the opportunity to cook and share meals with the people you love. That is a healthy, happy diet.

The Happiest Diet in the World by Giulia Crouch (New River Books Ltd £16.99)