The healthcare spin doctors are ‘very good at telling us what we shouldn’t be doing’
- Credit: PA
Even for the most enthusiastic foodie, January is the time of year when the excesses of the festive season force us to resolve to adopt a healthier diet.
The most diehard binger is browbeaten by constant media health scare stories to cut out, or at least cut down on, alcohol, saturated fat, salt, or whatever foodstuff has become the latest to be declared evil.
One look at this week's crop of news releases from healthcare PRs desperate to start the year with a front page splash quickly reveals what 2017's edible no-no is set to be: sugar.
A quick flip through the newspapers from the first three days of the year revealed a story claiming that the average five-year-old devours their own body weight in sugar each year; a book launch by an Oxford-educated professor claiming that 'Breakfast is a dangerous meal'; and a call by the Faculty of Dental Surgery for an end to the 'workplace cake culture'.
While it is unarguable that as a nation we are slowly eating ourselves to an early grave, these kinds of selective and opportunistic scare stories do little to help ordinary people understand what they should be eating.
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Let's take the whole question of breakfast as an example. For years we have been told that this is the 'most important meal of the day', and that children in particular need to start the day nutritionally satisfied if they are to stay alert during the school day.
But Professor Terence Kealey – the man with a book to sell – is claiming that this is nonsense, largely peddled by the cereal manufacturers, who of course have a vested interest in us believing we should breakfast like a king.
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Whatever you think of that argument, it seems certain that those same cereal manufacturers bear considerable responsibility for the transformation of breakfast from what was once a healthy start to the day into a sugar-laden platform for childhood obesity.
The figures are startling: according to Public Health England, the sugary cereals, juices and spreads that we feed our children mean that on average, children are consuming half of their recommended daily intake of sugar before they leave the breakfast table.
Unsurprisingly, the worst offenders are the cereals which are marketed most aggressively at kids. A 100 gram bowl of Frosties, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Coco Pops contains nine teaspoons of sugar – about half as much again as a seven to 10-year-old should consume in their entire day.
All of this makes the Faculty of Dental Surgery's call for an end to office birthdays being celebrated with a cake look a little, well, sweet. That home-baked cupcake that Yvonne from Accounts has put on your desk contains just nine grams of sugar – less than the 100ml thimble of orange juice you had with your toast this morning.
All of these stories have one thing in common: they are very good at telling us what we shouldn't be doing, and light on advice about what we should be eating. So let me try to fill in the gaps, and offer just a couple of tips to help you through the maze of spin. Most important is to avoid processed foods as much as possible, and that includes most cereals. If you make food yourself, you will know what is in it.
We all know that hard-pressed parents don't have the time to spend hours at the stove, and the suggestion of one national newspaper this week that sugary cereals should be replaced with 'overnight chia seed porridge' is simply laughable.
But making proper porridge – from oats, not by adding hot water to a ready-mixed tub – is simple and quick. Boiling or poaching an egg take just four minutes, and this served on wholemeal toast will give children a long-lasting energy boost with no added sugar; they will probably like it as well, which is a bonus.
It just needs a little understanding, and a tiny amount of effort – and avoiding anything which is processed, ready-made or marketed directly at kids.
And if that all seems too exhausting, here is a comforting thought: someone is bound to come round offering you a piece of flapjack half way through the morning, thanks to our 'workplace cake culture'. And, thanks to the Great British Bake Off, chances are it will be homemade, and hence free of nasty additives – and delicious.