Challenging nutrition paradigms

Many of you will have heard of the nutrition professor, Mark Haub from Kansas State University who’s currently undertaking an experiment on himself to see if he can lose weight while eating an energy restricted diet of junk food.  Last I heard he had indeed lost weight (4.5 kilos over three weeks) following a diet of mainly “Little Debbie Pecan Spin Wheels for breakfast, Hostess Twinkies for lunch, birthday cake for supper and Doritos for dessert”. I share the concerns of with respect to how this experiment and its results will be covered in the media.

The main point Haub’s trying to make is that if energy in (no matter what the source) is less than energy out, you will lose weight.

Fair enough point, but he also wants people to question the idea that eating fruits, vegetables, low-fat protein and whole grains is the only way to lose weight, saying:

“It’s unrealistic in some areas of society to expect that you can find fresh broccoli, tomatoes at a price that is affordable.  If somebody can get their nutrients from a supplement and then they get their fuel from whatever is available, does it matter that they’re not getting fruits and vegetables and whole grains?”

Call me old-fashioned but I find this far less easy to accept.  I note the ‘fine print’ of his experimental diet does include some plain vegetables for nutrients and milk for protein.

On the other hand he does have a point; the affordability of healthy food is a key issue.

At the Dietitians NZ conference recently there were numerous discussions and media attention on “food stress”.  That is the stress caused by food insecurity and the affordability of healthy food.  Access to, availability of, and even knowledge around healthy food is not the issue for low income households.  The real issue is the need to spend up to a third of their weekly income on purchasing a basic “healthy food basket” – which is simply not affordable on a low income.  This explains why filling, cheaper, and invariably higher energy, low nutrition density foods are more popular with low income households.

It makes you wonder how ethical current healthy eating messages really are for the very groups who seem to need them most.  Price discounts on healthy food may work in the short term (as seen in the SHOP study), but, even this study indicates that over time, the effect starts to wear off.   A simple solution could be the current call to remove GST from “healthy foods”, but we simply do not know whether this will have the desired long term effect on consumption patterns.  Anecdotal information from Australia would indicate not.

The experts agree that we don’t have enough research to provide answers, but in the meantime what should be done?  Should temporary rolling price discounts on “healthy food basket” items be made mandatory?  How would this work practically? I’d love to hear your views on this.

Categories: Food Trends, Nutrition and Health, Scientific Research

2 replies »

  1. Hi:

    Thanks for the mention — but there’s a typo above: my blog is at (you left out the hyphen).

    It’s hard to imagine enforcing price discounts — though the idea of removing taxes from ‘healthy’ foods may be more plausible. But then you’ll end up in a debate over which foods will qualify. I’d be curious to hear if anyone has any *simple* way — simple enough for any national tax bureaucracy — to identify which foods would or would not be taxed under such a scheme.


  2. Thanks Chris. Apologies for the typo. Now fixed.
    You’ve identified the nub of the problem, surely it will be impossible to get agreement on what defines a healthy food. By taxing “processed” foods and not “fresh” you then get into an arguement of defining what “processing” is. And do we really want to imply that fresh peas are healthier than frozen peas? The latter are “processed” but also far higher in nutrients unless you’re eating the fresh ones straight from the garden.
    Other foods may be helpful for some but not others within the population. Some foods advised for frail elderly folk or athletes are usually quite different from foods we advise for those who are overweight and sedentary.