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.
So how should the average carnivore respond to the latest report? The warning on red and processed meat is worth heeding because of the place animal flesh occupies in the typical Western diet. You do not need to eat steak three times a day to notch up a surprising tally in grams of red meat. The simplest advice, therefore, is not to abandon meat but to think more like a vegetarian – not a lentil-chomping obsessive but one who cheats with an occasional burger or bacon butty.
In many parts of the world, and in some Mediterranean countries, meat is regarded as a relish or a treat, with the bulk of the meal coming from carbohydrates or vegetables A Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, fruit, vegetables and fish has been proved repeatedly to be good for people's health (though the WCRF report questions whether the evidence on the benefits of fruit and vegetables is as strong as has been thought).
Man has been eating red meat for millennia and is not about to stop now. It is true that we probably eat more than our ancestors – and we live longer so have more time to develop cancer. Red meat is also high in fat, which increases the risk of heart disease, providing an added reason to cut down.
But it would be a poorer world in which we only ate to preserve our health. Eating should be a pleasure, enjoyed in company and good food should be lingered over, not bolted on the run. If we did more of that, it would have a bigger impact on our collective well-being.
Answer these questions to win an organic hamper
How well do you know your onions? Take our healthy food quiz and you could win one of 10 organic food hampers from Healthy Pulses (01392 250 552, healthypulses.co.uk)*. Each hamper is worth £100 and contains adelicious combination of wholesome goodies. All you have to do is answer the following:
TRUE OR FALSE?
1 The average person eats a third less dietary fibre (oats, bread and cereals) than is recommended for health
2 Eating fruit and vegetables is the best way to prevent cancer
3 Stomach cancer in the UK has risen over the past 50 years
4 A nutraceutical is a food which has been adapted to have a medicinal effect
5 Folic acid, found in broccoli, marmite and brown rice helps prevent birth defects
6 Meat is a good source of Vitamin C
7 A Body Mass Index of 26 is overweight
8 Breastfeeding protects the health of mothers as well as babies
9 Beer is more effective in moderate amounts than wine in preventing heart disease
10 It is possible to lose weight without eating less or exercising more
Send your answers with your name and contact details to: Food Hamper Competition, PO Box 55705, London E14 1AQ. Please state your name and address on the back of the envelope. Or, email your answers and details, to email@example.com Entries must be received by Friday 9 November. Winners will be selected at random from the correct entries and notified in writing by 14 November.Reuse content