Is Diet Advice from the Government Big Fat Lies?
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Is the government really responsible for making us fat? Is the diet and healthy eating advice they give us stopping our weight loss?
Dietitian Juliette Kellow delves deeper into Hannah Sutter’s Big Fat Lies: Is Your Government Making You Fat?
According to Sutter, author of Big Fat Lies: us Brits are the victims of some of the worst diet advice in history. Quite simply, she says, current healthy eating advice recommended by the government is actually making us fatter.
She believes the obesity epidemic has nothing to do with the explosion of takeaways on the high street, our love of convenience foods, the ever-increasing size of our portions, or our sedentary lifestyles.
The key areas she has issue with are at the very heart of the diet advice given by most health professionals to help us lose weight, that is:
- take in fewer calories
- eat more starchy foods
- cut down on saturates
- do more exercise.
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Hannah Sutter's statements on diet advice are certainly controversial in light of the fact that around six out of 10 of us are currently overweight or obese and therefore putting our health at risk. But Sutter argues that the nation’s weight problem really only began when the government started promoting it’s current healthy eating guidelines.
The result, according to Sutter: the government has actually made us fat! So with such strong accusations, we take a look at Sutter’s main beliefs and see whether we should be concerned.
Big Fat Lie 1 – Eat Less
One of Sutter’s points is that advice to eat less – especially to eat less calories – is wrong. She claims that as a nation, we are already taking in fewer calories now than we were in the 1970’s, yet we are fatter.
She believes it’s the role of insulin rather than calories that’s crucial in determining a fat tummy.
In simple terms, when carbs are constantly eaten, the body responds by pumping out insulin, which encourages us to store any excess glucose as fat, especially around our stomach.
She says that knowing the calorie value of a food doesn’t tell us whether a food will release insulin, which is ultimately responsible for making us fat.
It’s one thing to say we are eating less calories than we did in the 70’s but the validity of this is questionable.
Whilst studies of what we eat in the home environment reveal our calorie intake has indeed dropped a little over the years, there’s been an explosion in the amount of food we now eat outside of the home.
Swap a cup of tea and two digestives at home (around 200 calories) for a latte and a chocolate muffin at a coffee shop (around 600 calories) and you can see how the notion that we’re consuming fewer calories now than in the 70’s and 80’s is possibly flawed when eating outside of the home isn't included in survey data.
Reduce Calories, Not Just Carbs!
As for the idea that insulin is responsible for making us fat rather than an excess of calories, well, it’s certainly true that insulin increases fat storage – but this is only when glucose is in excess.
When we reduce our calories – whether that’s by reducing fat, carbs or protein – our bodies burn glucose before it has a chance to be stored as fat. So in other words, a calorie reduction will not lead to fat storage.
Paying more attention to the calories in food and drink simply provides an easy and direct way to achieve this – plus helps to teach people about higher calorie foods that are the most likely to result in weight gain.
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Big Fat Lie 2 – Eat a diet according to the Eatwell plate
Sutter is not a fan of the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) Healthy Eating Plate – a visual image that shows a plate divided into various food groups, indicating the types of food we should be eating the most (and least) of in a healthy well balanced diet.
In particular, Sutter is very against government advice to ‘base our meals on more starchy food’ and says this is at the heart of what’s making us fat.
She questions the wisdom of the healthy eating plate which recommends we eat more starchy food when, by the admission of the FSA, starchy food is a main provider of energy.
As too much energy is linked to weight gain, Sutter believes that advice on the healthy eating plate to eat more of an energy-providing food isn’t right for a well balanced diet.
Sutter again argues the case that it’s starchy food that causes the release of insulin, which encourages fat storage.
Finally, she outlines that starchy foods are low in nutrients.
But it’s not just starchy food that comes into the firing line. She also doesn’t believe there’s sufficient evidence to recommend ‘cutting down on saturated fat’.
WLR’s Opinion On the Healthy Eating Plate…
Let’s start with the arguments against the healthy eating plate and starchy food. Starch is certainly a provider of energy and yes, too much energy is linked to weight gain. But let’s look at the facts:
- Per gram, fat actually has more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates
- Fat provides nine calories per gram compared to carbohydrate’s four calories per gram
In other words fat is far more likely to provide us with an excess of calories when we eat it in large amounts – and it’s an excess of calories that cause a weight problem.
In particular, it’s a combination of fats and carbs that are likely to provide us with the most calories – think croissants, crisps, chips, cakes, biscuits and chocolate.
But, it’s worth pointing out that for a well balanced diet, the FSA healthy eating plate doesn’t recommend we fill up on these or indeed any starchy white, processed food – the advice is to swap:
- White bread
For fibre-rich varieties such as:
- Wholegrain bread and cereals
- Wholewheat pasta
- Brown rice
From a nutritional point of view, high fibre foods can help to fill us up, especially when they are combined with protein. Fibre-rich diets, and especially diets rich in wholegrains, have been linked to a reduction in a number of health conditions such as certain cancers and heart disease.
Can Starchy Food Be Healthy?
Unprocessed starchy food is not as nutritionally deficient as Sutter would have us believe. It can provide a range of important nutrients including:
Plus, wholegrains contain naturally occurring plant chemicals (phytochemicals) that act as antioxidants).
Regarding the insulin debate, to recap, insulin only causes fat storage when there’s an excess of glucose in the blood – and one of the best ways to control this is by eating fibre-rich, wholegrain carbs that release glucose into the blood at a slow and steady pace, rather than in a massive dose (as is more likely with processed carbs).
So What Is a Well Balanced Diet?
When it comes to starchy food, as with any food: eating too much can contribute to a weight problem.
Most health professionals encourage controlling portion sizes of foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes - along with cereals
Indeed, the government’s Change 4 Life campaign recently encouraged eating ‘me size’ portions.
The issue of fat is an interesting one.
There are always supporters of the idea that there’s no link between saturated fat and heart disease. However, you have to question the validity of Sutter’s argument for this when all governments of the Western World, together with non-government funded organisations such as the British Heart Foundation, wholeheartedly recommend cutting down on saturated fat to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Also, let’s not forget that fat contains twice as many calories as carbs or protein – so it really is more likely to make you gain weight.
Being overweight or obese is one of the key risk factors for heart disease.
Big Fat Lie 3 – Get active and exercise more
Sutter strongly argues that we are exercising more than ever yet are still getting fatter so concludes that there is no relationship between exercise and obesity (although she recognises other health benefits of exercise and says it’s an excellent tool for weight maintenance).
Sutter also argues that most people in the UK will struggle to fit in the government’s recommended 60-90 minutes of exercise every day to achieve weight loss.
WLR’s Opinion on Exercise and Obesity . . .
At a time when we spend more hours than ever watching TV, surfing the internet, playing computer games and being employed in sedentary jobs, it’s hard to see just how we can be taking more exercise.
Sutter herself points out in her book the following statistics:
- Manual jobs have dropped from 72 percent of the workforce in 1951 to less than 45 percent in 2006
- Desk jobs have increased from 28 percent of the working population in 1951 to almost 57 percent in 2006.
Sure, most of the big changes in employment took place before the turn of the century but it’s clear that more of us have sedentary careers than ever and even an hour of exercise a day doesn’t make up for seven hours of constant activity in a job.
As for exercise not resulting in weight loss, most health experts agree that it is possible to diet without exercise. But a diet with exercise certainly helps to speed up the process.
Of course, it takes a lot more effort to burn up 300 calories by exercising than it does to eat them, but exercise and physical activity has double benefits on obesity – firstly, it burns fat and secondly it increases muscle, which helps to increase our metabolism.
Exercise and Losing Weight . . .
Exercise has many other benefits for weight loss and obesity for example:
- Aerobic activities help to improve the condition of our heart, circulation and lungs
- Weight-bearing activities help to keep bones strong
- Exercise can help to lift our mood as endorphins are released
As Sutter points out, “exercise is an excellent tool for weight maintenance”. But it’s ludicrous to imply that people should diet without exercise and only start introducing exercise once they’ve lost weight.
If your diet has included no exercise so far, chances are you won’t suddenly start once you’ve reached your goal.
Interestingly, statistics from the National Weight Control Registry – a programme that tracks more than 5,000 slimmers who have succeeded at maintaining their weight loss in the long-term – show that:
- 98 percent of participants modified their intake of food in some way to lose weight
- 94 percent also increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of exercise being walking
- 90 percent said they kept the weight off by exercising for about an hour a day
So Does Exercise Hold The Key?
When it comes to the comment that most people would struggle to do 60-90 minutes of exercise a day to help them slim, it’s time to put things in perspective.
Sutter ignores the fact that official statistics suggest us Brits watch around three hours of television a day – and we certainly don’t struggle to find time for that.
Rather than dismissing exercise as an aid to reduce obesity, surely it would be better to promote the idea of swapping some of those viewing hours for activity hours.
Bottom line: we should be encouraging people to stop watching Strictly Come Dancing and instead join a class to learn how to dance!
Should Sutter be giving diet advice?
Well let’s start with the facts. Hannah Sutter is not a nutritionist or a scientist or a doctor. She is, in fact, an ex-lawyer. This, if nothing else, means she’s very good at putting forward a compelling argument and bringing people around to her way of thinking.
Interestingly, Sutter comes across as having sufficient dietary knowledge to single-handedly dismiss decades of scientific research and healthy eating advice recommended by government’s throughout the Western World. It therefore seems strange that she needed a nutritionist to help her write the nutrition section of her book as outlined in her acknowledgments.
Whilst Sutter does a very good job at pulling to pieces the credentials of the scientists who work on putting together healthy eating advice for the nation, she conveniently gives little acknowledgment to the fact that she runs a ‘diet’ company called Go Lower (Now called The Natural Ketosis Company.).
This company offers a weight loss programme based on a home-delivery keto diet. Sign up to the plan, which costs between £9.82-£12.14 a day, and you get low-carb ready meals delivered to your door.
For someone who argues that cutting calories won’t help you lose weight, it’s interesting to see that the meals advertised on her website are incredibly low in calories – of the five lunches on the website the calories range from 110-237 calories, whilst the 16 dinners range from just 225-438 calories.
If you follow the advice in her book, to lose weight each day you should eat just meat, fish, eggs or other protein with one handful of berries, one handful of green veg (except peas), two handfuls of nuts or seeds, and one glass of full-fat milk. It’s unlikely that such a diet would include more than 1,200 calories!
In reality, lawyers are experts at creating a case to suit their client. In this case, the lawyer and the client are one and the same: the client is promoting a range of keto meals and the lawyer is providing a case for them by suggesting that carbs are the enemy, and calorie counting and exercising are a waste of time.
Should the client have decided to launch a range of high-carb, fibre-rich foods, it’s likely that the lawyer would have dug deep and provided just as compelling an argument to defend them – although it wouldn’t have had quite the same impact on the public.
Is the government’s advice wrong?
One question that remains unanswered – and indeed isn’t even touched upon – is what benefit is there to be had by the government recommending a diet that will actually make us obese and therefore at risk of numerous health problems?
There seems to be no logical reason for the government to issue guidelines that put additional pressure on an already overworked healthcare system by encouraging us to eat a diet that results in illness and effectively pushes us into hospital beds!
Also, surely we have to ask ourselves, are major healthcare organisations such as Diabetes UK, the Food Standards Agency, the British Dietetic Association and the NHS all wrong in the advice they give for eating a healthy diet?
As Sutter points out, you, as members of the public, are the jury – the accused is the government for promoting what decades of research suggests is a healthy balanced diet.
In our opinion the verdict is not guilty. But ultimately, it’s up to you to pass your verdict by choosing what you put into your shopping trolley.
Here’s what the experts say:
Chief Scientist for the Food Standards Agency
“Despite the absurdity of Hannah Sutter’s proclamation in Saturday’s Daily Mail, that government advice to ‘exercise more and eat fewer calories’ is making people fat, I felt I had to respond. She claims that our advice to base meals on carbohydrates isn’t right for the sedentary lifestyles we lead today. She explains exactly how the white rice, pasta and bread we are filling up on is converted into fat around our middles, whilst providing very little in the way of nutrients. Well yes, if we stuff ourselves with pasta and don’t take any exercise, then of course we’ll put on weight. Any energy that we take in – not just that from carbohydrates – will be stored as fat if we don’t burn it off. That’s why we recommend people eat less and move more. The problem is that people aren’t eating the right amount of food for how active they are. However, I should also point out that we advise people to choose wholegrain over refined carbohydrates, because they contain more nutrients and provide a slower energy release,”
He added, “Interestingly, the Mail failed to point out that Hannah Sutter, a lawyer and not a scientist by trade, has a vested interest in this subject – she has her own website selling a weight loss programme based on the theory of ketosis. This is yet another example of a fad diet that won’t lead to established healthy eating habits because it’s unrealistic and difficult to stick to for any length of time. Government advice to eat a healthy balanced diet based on a range of foods, in roughly the right proportions, is however realistic for the long-term. I’m surprised that Ms Sutter didn’t consider that perhaps it’s the people who aren’t following government advice are ones who are getting fatter.”
for the Department of Health
“Obesity is one of the biggest health challenges we face and it is wrong to suggest Government advice on healthy eating and exercise is misleading the public. The Government recommends that in order to maintain a healthy weight, adults should eat a healthy, balanced diet and do at least 30 minutes of physical activity, five times a week. As part of the Government's strategy to reduce obesity, we are promoting healthier food choices and helping to raise public awareness of the importance of maintaining an appropriate energy balance – including energy in and energy out. The Government's Change4Life campaign is an internationally recognised strategy that has kick-started a lifestyle revolution to help every family eat well, move more and live longer. The latest evidence suggests childhood obesity rates may be levelling off.”
Spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association
“The Mediterranean-style of eating has proved over the last 50 years or so to be the nutritional blueprint to keep us in good health and also protect us from chronic disease. Of all the foods recommended to eat as part of a healthy Med-style diet, fruits, vegetables, and cereals – all carbohydrate-based – make up the largest proportion. Whilst its right to highlight that an excess of calories – from carbs or not – will lead to weight gain, it is wrong to suggest that the metabolic rate of carbs means that weight gain is inevitable. This is simply not true as many research articles focussing on carb-rich, fat-rich or protein-rich weight-reducing diets have shown. Some carbs will release their energy slowly to curb appetites and their contribution to the dinner plate can offset other calorie-dense foods such as meat, cheese and other fat-containing foods. They also provide the main source of dietary fibre in the diet, both the roughage type, and the gel-type that’s associated with cholesterol lowering. It may well be that some of us enjoy too many carbs and so gain weight – that extra slice of French bread, a toasted panini instead of a 2-slice sandwich, etc. But it’s not the fault of carb-rich foods – it’s our interpretation of what an average serving is, or how many portions we should have each day,”
She continued, “Whenever we review dietary opinion it needs to be put into context, which this book has failed to do. It’s right to suggest that perhaps we enjoy our carbs too much, but wrong to imply that they are the main cause of increasing obesity levels in the UK.”
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