Stop Counting Calories and Start Counting Nutrients – Part 1

It was during the 1980s that food nutrition labelling became compulsory and specific. I don’t remember exactly but it was probably at the same time that the government launched their nutritional guidelines – depicted now by the Eatwell Plate.

Most people will be familiar with it but as a rough guide – the plate is divided into three sections. In the first is for fruit and vegetables, the second for bread, cereals, potatoes and pasta and the third is again divided. It is divided into three segments, one smaller than the other two. The two larger are for dairy and protein foods and the smaller section for fatty/sugary foods.

There is no doubt that this way of eating is better than many diets – limiting “fatty/sugary” for one. (I agree with this as these foods generally contain highly processed seed oils rather than natural fats.) However, it falls short of advice for robust health.

This Eatwell Plate shows only the major food groups – proteins, fats carbohydrates and of course, as there isn’t a specific food group for fruit and veg, one has been created. What it fails in, is guiding us towards a nutrient dense diet – in fact it does just the opposite. The two largest sections on the plate are not (in general) nutrient dense. Let’s take each separately.

Carbohydrates: There are no essential carbohydrates but we are told we must base all our meals on these foods. That means potentially, you could be eating grains – usually wheat – three times daily and then there are the snacks on top. Carbohydrate foods are filling – temporarily, but they are not satisfying. Imagine the toast, potatoes and crumpets without butter… or the pasta or rice without their sauces.


Some years ago I attended an eating disorders conference. One of the speakers – a doctor specialising in these disorders – told us of a very unscientific experiment that he and some of his colleagues had performed. The inserted naso-gastric tubes into each other and tested the effects of two foods on their ability to satiate hunger. Firstly, they filled each other’s stomachs with liquidised carbohydrate foods. The result – fullness without satiety even after some time. In other words, even though they felt stuffed – they still felt they wanted something else. Some time after the first experiment, they inserted the tubes into their duodenums – just past the stomach – and introduced a tablespoon of fat. It is the duodenum that communicates with the brain that we have eaten and as it takes about twenty minutes for the stomach to start emptying, it is wise not to eat too quickly! What they found was that the feeling of satiety was almost instant. As I said this is not real science but I think it does demonstrate that eating lots of carbs is not a good idea and eating some fats, is.

There are many problems with the over-indulgence of carbohydrate foods. Here are a few:
1) They fill us up temporarily but we feel the need to eat again soon after which encourages snacking. This effect also leaves less room for nutrient-dense foods.
2) They increase our need for vitamin C.
3) Carbs are broken down to their simplest form for absorption – glucose. Glucose is sugar.
4) They contain anti-nutrients. These can stop absorption of some minerals and play havoc with digestion.

Fruit and Vegetables: On the Eatwell plate, these look so healthy – depicted in lovely bright colours, typifying what we believe to be healthy and to some degree, they are. There are of course plusses as many of the foods in this group, do contain usable nutrients including fibre. Also, they can prevent snacking on worse choices. In my view, this group of foods has become more important as we now don’t eat the parts of an animal that at one time, was the main source of our nutrition. I’ll say more about this when I talk about protein.


So here are some of the draw-backs to this group of foods:
1) Historically, fruit and vegetables in the northern hemisphere were largely available from Spring to Autumn only. What we consumed outside this time may have been fermented and thus we extended the season and also the nutrition! This is an unlikely scenario in pre-history.
2) Much fruit and vegetables on the shelves in our supermarkets comes from abroad. This means that most produce is picked before it is ready and has to travel miles. “Fresh fruit and vegetables” are usually anything but – including organic.
3) In order to preserve freshness, producers use a variety of methods; washing salad with a chlorinated solution, spraying citrus and other fruit with wax and irradiating. All these methods are good for the shelf-life of the product but not for us.
4) Most of our greengrocery has undergone enhancements! Bigger, sweeter, improved keepability – what we think of as natural just isn’t. We have played around with genetic modification for years. Most products have been subjected to this over time but the more recent genetic modifications are exceptionally harmful to us and wild animals.
5) Pesticides. If you are not eating organic produce, you will be ingesting hundreds of toxic chemicals. It is not just a matter of washing the produce – the chemicals will be found throughout in many of these foods. The idea to increase the current recommendation of “five-a-day” to eight will just tax your liver even more to get rid of these poisons.
6) Many of the nutrients in fruit and veg are not bio-available to us.
7) Some fruit and veg will contain antinutrients – see above.
8) It is a fact that some people will just eat fruit rather than vegetables. This provides far too much of the sugar “fructose” which can be damaging to health in quantity.

I will conclude this blog next time as it is rather lengthy!

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