Oscar Wilde


The Importance of Being Earnest.


Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve been told About Food Is Wrong by Tim Spector (Jonathan Cape)

I’m a huge fan of chef Andrea Burgener and when I read that she recommended this book, I was onto it immediately.

She’s smart about food (and many other things, I suspect) and we need to listen to someone who knows what they’re talking about.

Food is probably one of the faddiest things around. If you’ve lived as long as I have, you would also have gone through periods in time where the goodness of avocado pears and bananas, for example, was completely forbidden. I was so thrilled when sitting in on an interview with Juliet Prowse, who amongst other things, was known for her fantastic figure, and she said that she had an avo a day! Yippee, that was the best thumbs up for me and ever since it has been one of my favourite superfoods!

But it is that dithering about what is good and what isn’t, which seemingly changes with the times, that drives those of us who are keen on good nutrition, dilly. As soon as I am told, have as much coffee as you want, someone else says NO!

So to cipher through the mountains of info and what to believe, I was delighted to find a new voice of reason with all of his facts based on science, something we now know isn’t common sense anymore.

What Tim Spector discovered in researching certain food beliefs is how shockingly little good evidence there is for many of our strongest and most deeply rooted beliefs about food. In the introduction he states that we learn most of our food myths as children.

He explains that he was told certain foods would make him grow more quickly (milk and cereal), make him more brainy (fish), give him acne (chocolate) or give him big muscles (eggs and meat). But he wasn’t told about the benefits of lentils, broccoli or beans, and was told nuts are an unhealthy snack because of the cholesterol.

He was told to eat breakfast religiously, that there was nothing wrong with mouldy food and leaving food on your plate was unacceptable. Sound familiar?

Other unquestioned advice included never swimming within an hour of eating, never eating just before bedtime and the importance of exercise to lose weight. All of these were common “facts” growing up for me too.

But, says Spector, none of these is backed up by science; in fact, many of them are categorically wrong. With all these rules around, we should all be healthy specimens, he believes, and yet since 1980, rates of obesity, food allergies and diabetes in most countries have rocketed, along with unexplained rises in dementia.

His own scientific research has focused increasingly, he writes, on nutrition and food-related questions in recent years. “I have been astonished how much of what we were told about food is misleading, and at worst, downright wrong and dangerous to our health.” And that alone should encourage reading of this wise man’s findings.

He asks insightful questions, like how did we get into this mess where unqualified people dictate the best ways for us to eat? He points the finger at three culprits: bad science, misunderstanding of the results, and the food industry. And I can see all of us nodding our heads…

Reading about his findings, I am reminded of hearing from an ophthalmologist that GPs really know little about eyes, and how a specialist recently pointed out that everyone is specialised in very specific areas. What that means is that those who know how little they know, are reluctant to give advice in areas outside of their expertise.

But if you think about it, that’s not the case with nutrition.  And Spector underlines that the study of food and health nutrition is one of the newest sciences, which appeared in many countries from the 1970s in response to the growth in the processed food industry.

He follows that with a detailed analysis of why we should be suspicious around food-related studies, the cost of comparing one diet with another, for example, and then he says something that we should all pay attention to: the assumption that we are all identical machines who respond to food in the same way, is the most prevalent and dangerous myth about food. It is, he warns, the basis of all diet advice.

We all respond differently to the same food, so the idea that we can all follow the same advice and calorie limits no longer makes sense. And he warns sharply about paying attention to the greatest obstacle when it comes to dangerously inaccurate food information: the food industry.

It’s fascinating stuff and whether you take him at his word, or in this case, scientific research, depends on your interests. I certainly did, because I found his explanations both credible and often just common sense.

Once the introduction is done, he gets into myths under headings like breaking the fast; calorie counting doesn’t add up; the big fat debate; the supplements really don’t work; the bittersweet hidden agenda; not on the label; fast-food phobia; bringing back the bacon; fishy business; veganmania; more than a pinch of salt; coffee can save your life and on and on…

But just to explain some: The subheading in breaking the fast is: Myth: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While explaining that even when skipping what many would consider a real breakfast, many of us would have a cappuccino with milk and perhaps sugar and this would contain all three macronutrients  ̶  carbs, fats and protein – and will have the same effect on our metabolism as a bigger meal in ‘breaking’ the fast.

He then goes on to explore all the different studies, most of which sadly lack the scientific data to back their claims, and finally reaches the conclusion that it depends on the individual to decide what suits you best – and what would do you and your body the most good.

And just the fact that many of the studies are supported by breakfast food or cereal companies should already have you twitching … and thus he moves on.

I found the book as entertaining as it is informative, and being interested in food from all kinds of vantage points, I discovered enough to tweak my interest and get me thinking.