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what are we eating?

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a rummage through the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey the other day.  It records the eating habits of over 1,000 people in the UK, so it paints a good picture of most people’s nutritional composition.

I thought it would be interesting to compare what the ‘average’ person eats to government guidelines for nutrition.  The chart below is that comparison.  I’ve highlighted the areas were people are not meeting guidelines in red, the areas where they are meeting guidelines in green and left the areas with no min/max guidelines white.  How do you match up?


A lot more red than green in there.  Conclusions about what the average person is eating:
•    Too much saturated fat – mostly from meat and dairy (cheese)
•    Not enough good fats – poly and monounsaturates (e.g. from oily fish and nuts)
•    Too much sugar – especially from processed carbs
•    Not enough fibre – e.g. from wholegrain carbs, beans, etc.

The average person’s current carbohydrates/fat/protein ratio is 47:35:18.  It should be more like 40:30:30.  People are getting too much of their energy from fat and carbohydrates.  Not only that, but they’re getting the wrong type of fat (saturated rather than poly- and monounsaturates) and wrong type of carbs (processed rather than wholegrain).

Interestingly, people are very close to meeting their 5 a day fruit and vegetables.  The average is 4.4.  Still not ideal, but I would have guessed it to be a lot lower.

If you’re curious, there’s lot more interesting information here, including specific foods consumed, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, break-down by age, rates of obesity, number of vegetarians, etc.

the caveman diet

April 14, 2010 1 comment

It seems appropriate to start this blog by going back to the beginning.  Back over 2 million years in fact.  In those good ol’ days people didn’t worry about saturated fat, antioxidants, five a day, calorie intake, etc.  They just ate what they could find or kill: nuts, meat, fish, vegetables, roots and fruits.  That’s what proponents of the Palaeolithic (aka caveman, stone-age) diet are proposing – not hunting and gathering our own food but going back to our ancestors’ ways of eating.  Sound like another ridiculous fad diet? Maybe, but read on.  

The thinking behind this diet is that human lifestyle and food preparation changes in the last 10,000 years (since the beginning of agriculture) have far outpaced the development of human genes.  This means that our bodies are still designed to function on a Palaeolithic diet, rather than on the processed grains, sugars and dairy found in modern foods.  These processed foods are supposedly bad for us because they are inedible in their raw format. So eating them means we are ingesting toxins, lacking essential vitamins and spiking blood sugar levels.  Basically, the evolution of our food is not on par with the evolution of our bodies.  There’s lots of research to support this.

Advocates of the Palaeolithic diet also claim that people who eat in this way are stronger, faster, slimmer and healthier than us mortals.  They have far fewer ‘diseases of affluence’, like heart diseases, diabetes and obesity.  This is backed-up by a study in on the island of Kitava in Papua New Guinea, whose inhabitants still maintain a Palaeo diet.  Its author, Staffan Lindeberg (the cheerleader of the Palaeo diet), found that strokes and heart disease were virtually absent among the Kitava population. 

‘Fine’, you may say, ‘but what does this diet actually consist of?  What specifically am I supposed to eat?’  Well, it depends on how strict you want to be – almost like vegetarian vs vegan.  Here’s a condensed version of most guides:

Don’t eat:

  • Grains
  • Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Sugar
  • Processed oils
  • Alcohol, fizzy drinks, fruit juice; (depends on your interpretation of the diet)

Eat:

  • Meat (chicken, beef, fish – lean meats)
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Eggs

There are plenty of sites with Palaeo diet recipes, but they make for depressing reading.  You’d have to be a pretty creative cook to make exciting caveman food.  Even if you were to ‘go caveman’ (or cavewoman) the food in supermarkets is not an accurate representation of what people ate a couple million years ago. 

Some critics, like the UK’s National Health Service, have officially labelled this a ‘fad diet’.  They claim that studies of this diet have had small numbers of participants, high drop-out rates and no control groups.  Also, participants ate 900 fewer calories everyday, meaning their weight loss is not just from the types of food they ate but also the amount of food they ate. (A noticeable drop in calcium levels was also present in participants).

As you may have noticed by now, the caveman diet is not radically different from most good diets – more fruits, vegetables and lean meats; less sugars, grains and processed food.  This doesn’t mean that you should try to sick to it religiously though.  Actually, the fact that studies have 30% drop-out rates means that trying to be a strict Palaeo dieter is likely to fail. 

Add to that the pressure from friends, colleagues and family to eat ‘modern’ processed foods and you’ll no doubt find your self falling off the wagon in no time.  Could you imagine turning down dinner parties and nights out because the food is not Palaeo?

So, the caveman diet may be a good guide for what to eat more and less of, but trying to stick to it 100% of the time is bound to fail or ruin your social life.