Health Researcher: Focus on Healthier Diets Instead of ‘Demonizing’ Certain Foods

Decades of demonizing specific foods and macronutrients have not tangibly reduced obesity and cardiovascular disease. One researcher argues for a different approach.
Campo de Fiori, Rome, Italy
By Daniel Dawson
Mar. 20, 2023 13:55 UTC

Health pro­fes­sion­als and gov­ern­ment offi­cials should empha­size what con­sumers should eat instead of warn­ing against eat­ing spe­cific foods, a British health researcher has urged.

Duane Mellor, the asso­ciate dean of pub­lic engage­ment at Aston Medical School’s col­lege of health and life sci­ences, said health offi­cials should make it eas­ier for peo­ple to fol­low a health­ier diet instead of warn­ing them not to eat ultra-processed foods.

The accu­mu­la­tive effects of build­ing a var­ied and healthy dietary pat­tern are pow­er­ful. The power is not in an indi­vid­ual food; it’s across a whole dietary pat­tern.- Duane Mellor, asso­ciate dean of pub­lic engage­ment, Aston Medical School

He argued that the com­bi­na­tion of urban­iza­tion and mod­ern­iza­tion, the over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of the sci­en­tific study results and per­verse incen­tives in pol­i­tics and agribusi­ness had cre­ated a food envi­ron­ment at cross-pur­poses.

As peo­ple get wealthy and move to cities, there tends to be more meat, more pas­tries, more processed high fat, high salt and high sugar food,” he told Olive Oil Times.

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The back­lash to this trend came in the form of fad diets that demo­nized foods rich in car­bo­hy­drates and fats, which have not suc­ceeded in curb­ing rates of obe­sity and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease.

Humans don’t like restric­tions,” Mellor said. We are crea­tures that tend to like mak­ing our own deci­sions and explor­ing our own ideas, so we need an envi­ron­ment that sup­ports and cel­e­brates healthy choices.”

Instead, he urges a more holis­tic vision of diet and food with an empha­sis on help­ing peo­ple make healthy choices instead of chastis­ing them about what not to eat.

For exam­ple, Mellor said peo­ple should fol­low the Mediterranean diet and other eat­ing pat­terns fol­lowed by pop­u­la­tions liv­ing in blue zones.”

Blue Zones

The Blue Zones are regions of the world where peo­ple live sig­nif­i­cantly longer and health­ier lives com­pared to the rest of the world. These regions include Ikaria (Greece), Okinawa (Japan), Ogliastra Region (Sardinia), Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica) and Loma Linda (California, United States). Dan Buettner, a demog­ra­pher, stud­ied the lifestyles and habits of peo­ple in these regions and iden­ti­fied com­mon­al­i­ties such as diet, phys­i­cal activ­ity, social con­nect­ed­ness, and sense of pur­pose that con­tribute to their longevity and well-being.

The Mediterranean diet is char­ac­ter­ized by a high intake of plant-based foods, such as fruits, veg­eta­bles, whole grains, nuts and legumes, with extra vir­gin olive oil as the pri­mary source of fat.

The diet, which is often referred to more as a lifestyle, also encour­ages mod­er­ate con­sump­tion of fish and poul­try and lim­ited con­sump­tion of dairy prod­ucts, red meat and sweets.

However, Mellor believes it is the social aspects of the diet, such as encour­ag­ing exer­cise and eat­ing meals with friends and fam­ily, that make it effec­tive.

The big thing that’s for­got­ten is the con­vivi­al­ity of the approach, so it’s not just based on the chem­i­cals on the plate; it’s the art of the food and the shar­ing of food with oth­ers,” Mellor said.

His plea to change the con­ver­sa­tion about healthy eat­ing comes on the heels of a new study pub­lished in The Lancet.

The research found that replac­ing 10 per­cent of processed foods with an equal amount of min­i­mally processed foods was asso­ci­ated with reduced risk for sev­eral types of can­cer.


Mellor believes politi­cians, health offi­cials and the pri­vate sec­tor can work together to help peo­ple achieve this replace­ment through a pos­i­tivist approach.

There are a lot of things that could be done through agri­cul­tural pol­icy, through health pol­icy,” he said.

For exam­ple, gov­ern­ments could stop sub­si­diz­ing low-qual­ity crops des­tined for ani­mal feed, such as corn, and encour­age farm­ers to grow more whole grains and legumes instead.

Supermarkets could eas­ily mod­ify their lay­outs to group foods for healthy and easy-to-pre­pare five-item recipes together while sep­a­rat­ing com­mon processed food com­bi­na­tions, such as hot dogs and buns or frozen processed meat and fries.

You could change your envi­ron­ment, so mak­ing healthy choices is eas­ier, and you are guided in mak­ing these choices,” Mellor said.

He added that some ultra-processed foods might even be used as a gate­way to health­ier meals, such as adding fresh veg­eta­bles, lentils or whole grain pasta to a jar of tomato sauce.

Some peo­ple would hate me for say­ing this, but you could make ramen using the instant noo­dles, which are processed, but veg­eta­bles that are not, and make a healthy meal out of it,” Mellor said.

It’s a quick, easy and con­ve­nient way to get lots of healthy food with a small amount of processed food at the start,” he added.

Along with health pol­icy offi­cials and pri­vate com­pa­nies, Mellor believes researchers and jour­nal­ists also have an essen­tial role in pro­mot­ing healthy eat­ing habits instead of spe­cific food rec­om­men­da­tions and rejec­tions.

We need to be more hum­ble in claim­ing the effects of indi­vid­ual items,” he said. We also need to be hon­est with what data we’ve got.”

Measuring the impact of a sin­gle food, macronu­tri­ent or micronu­tri­ent on over­all health is com­pli­cated, and Mellor warned that some researchers writ­ing press releases and jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing those releases over-sim­plify and dis­tort the mes­sage of the actual peer-reviewed research.

In a crit­i­cal review arti­cle pub­lished in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, Mellor detailed exam­ples of where mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions around study results and the actual data occurred in the media.

The research demon­strated cases where ani­mal results were incor­rectly cor­re­lated with poten­tial effects in humans and cases where asso­ci­a­tions were mis­re­ported as cau­sa­tions. One word makes a whole dif­fer­ence,” he said.

He added that there is a ten­dency among some jour­nal­ists and the wider pub­lic to mis­take the find­ing of a sin­gle paper for a broader sci­en­tific con­clu­sion.

His find­ings echo those of a 2013 study pub­lished in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which selected 50 ran­dom food items from a cook­book and inves­ti­gated the sci­en­tific lit­er­a­ture around the links to can­cer of each item.

The researchers found that 80 per­cent of the food items were linked with an increased or decreased risk of can­cer, albeit many of the stud­ies had weak sta­tis­ti­cal evi­dence.

Many sin­gle stud­ies high­light implau­si­bly large effects, even though the evi­dence is weak,” the authors wrote.

A pub­lished paper is not equiv­a­lent to truth,” Mellor added. It is an opin­ion sup­ported by data, which at least two peo­ple think is wor­thy of being read by oth­ers.”

According to Mellor, these sci­en­tific papers are hypothe­ses actively being tested. He urged that con­clu­sions should be based on a body of work built up around test­ing these hypothe­ses with indi­vid­u­ally-gath­ered sets of data from a range of sources.

We need to use our data objec­tively and be hon­est that the power of a sin­gle food is small,” Mellor said. Even with the best extra vir­gin olive oil, the health impact of includ­ing it in our diet is tiny.”

But the accu­mu­la­tive effects of build­ing a var­ied and healthy dietary pat­tern are pow­er­ful,” he con­cluded. The power is not in an indi­vid­ual food; it’s across a whole dietary pat­tern.”


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