Everyone tires, sooner or later, of being told what to do, especially when the advice is confusing, conflicting or plain contradictory. Nowhere is that more evident than in the area of diet.
The response to this week's report from the World Cancer Research Fund, the largest review of the link between diet and cancer which distilled the findings of more than 7,000 studies, was predictable. It concluded that a third of cancers were attributable to diet – something scientists have been saying for the past 25 years – and warned of the dangers of being overweight, where evidence of its role in at least six cancers is stronger than ever.
But what really stirred the passions of red-blooded Englishmen was its verdict on meat.
Consumption of red meat – beef, lamb, pork – should be cut to 500g a week and processed meats – bacon, sausage, salami, ham and other staples from the delicatessen – should be avoided altogether, it ruled.
"Save our bacon" trumpeted one front page the next day while others asked querulously "So what is safe to eat?" It was an understandable response. We have come to accept the idea that smoking causes lung cancer and that cigarettes kill. But who has ever suggested that a favourite uncle died because of his love of roast beef?
This is the crux of the problem. The link between smoking and lung cancer is crystal clear – cigarettes account for almost 90 per cent of deaths from lung cancer. If there were no smoking there would be almost no lung cancer.
Nothing in our diets has anywhere near this impact on our health. With lesser causes such as red and processed meats, other mitigating factors play a greater role – genetic inheritance, exercise, other elements in the diet. And while cigarettes have only negative effects, most foods have a mix of positive and negative effects – sugar, for example, is good for energy but rots the teeth. The message on diet is therefore necessarily complex – there is no magic bullet as there is with lung cancer (stop smoking).
Take the world's most widely used superfood, tea. It is drunk by millions, not because it is healthy but because it is soothing, thirst quenching and delicious.Recent research has shown that it is high in antioxidants and may protect against heart disease and cancer.
But adding milk and, worse, sugar, may negate its health-giving benefits. For people who drink a lot of tea the dash of milk in each cup adds up and can contribute significantly to the amount of fat in the diet, increasing the risk of heart disease and cancelling the protective effect of the antioxidants. Tea can be good or bad for you, depending on how it is drunk.
Source - Independent