Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Government starts to get heavy on diet

'Official: Atkins diet can be deadly.' So said a headline in Sunday's Observer, as the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published advice on its website suggesting that low-carbohydrate diets may be missing important nutrients. The FSA also suggests that high-fat diets tend to lead to obesity, which in turn increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Moreover, they say, fruit and vegetables may have a protective effect against heart disease and cancer.

It is striking that such a statement, buried on the FSA's 'Ask the expert' page, should provoke such a high level of comment. Standard government advice on diet has been the same for years: meals should be based on starchy foods with plenty of fruit and veg, and high-fat foods should be avoided.

Clearly, the popularity of the Atkins diet, which seems to contradict this long-standing advice, has caused consternation. But many of the criticisms levelled at low-carbohydrate diets in this particular piece of advice do not apply to Atkins. Atkins encourages the eating of green vegetables after an initial two-week period almost devoid of carbohydrates. As for obesity, surely the point of the Atkins diet is that people lose weight, thus avoiding such potential risks?

As it happens, you need to be very overweight in order to significantly increase your risk of ill-health, and our understanding of the links between the kinds of food we eat and health are still tenuous. For example, a recent study suggests that the government's advice to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables every day may be over-the-top. One thing we can be sure of is that we seem to be living longer, with a greater variety of food readily available, than ever before.

Ironically, the government's lecturing about how we are all too fat is one of the main reasons why people have turned to Atkins - in a desperate attempt to fit into the official notion of acceptable weight. The government wants to eat its cake, and have it - one thing that is definitely not possible on the Atkins diet.

Official: Atkins diet can be deadly, Observer, 22 September 2003


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