August News Round-Up

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SHOCK REVELATION: NHS hands out Gluten-free Junk Food on prescription

The biggest laugh of the month has to be the widely circulated story that the NHS is providing gluten-free junk food (cakes, doughnuts, pizza) on prescription. According to the Telegraph (August 17th),  “One GP called the measures “irresponsible”, claiming some patients were providing a “shopping list” to feed their whole familes.”

Inevitably, a backlash from irate coeliac sufferers followed almost instantly. “Patient groups defend NHS spending on gluten-free food for sufferers”, The Independent declared (August 17th).

As I’ve always argued, so called gluten-free products are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Although it is essential that coeliacs have access to gluten-free food they would be far better off adopting a truly grain-free diet, based around real foods such as meat, fish, nuts, vegetables and fruit, rather than the highly processed gluten-free simulacra. The NHS deserves ridicule simply for its failure to promote real food.

Call to switch focus from calories to nutrition to cut CVD

On the theme of real food, the Nursing TImes (August 27th) report on a paper by doctors Aseem Malhotra & Simon Capewell who say evidence shows that poor diet is consistently responsible for more disease and death than physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol put together. I like that!

In an editorial piece in BMJ’s Open Heart, they argue that a move away from sugary drinks and towards regular consumption of fish, nuts and olive oil produces cardiovascular benefit in months. In fact, they receive the accolade of…

Quote of the month

“Shifting the focus away from calories and emphasising a dietary pattern that focuses on food quality rather than quantity will help to rapidly reduce obesity, related diseases, and cardiovascular risk,”
Malhotra & Capewell, BMJ Open Heart


Giving the real-food movement a shot of celebrity TV drama, Jamie Oliver is on the war path as he attempts to argue the case for a sugar tax. According to The Independent (August 27th) in his upcoming TV series, Jamie will meet surgeons removing children’s sugar-rotted teeth and performing amputations on diabetes sufferers. The surgeons warn that the NHS will “crumble” due to the accumulating cost of treating sugar-related outcomes.

Sugar as a public health concern is a cause who’s time has come. It’s easy to understand, sufficient scientists have rallied against it, the public is largely on board, and it’s got the ear of politicians. Whilst, of course, I applaud the general direction of this debate I am always wary when an issue becomes a mass media movement. The media wants a simple story, without the subtleties inherent in the science.

An example of this is a study reported in Diabetes in Control (August 20th) that found vegetable oils (corn and soya oil), caused greater obesity and diabetic symptoms in mice than fructose (sugar), whilst highly saturated fats (coconut oil) caused the fewest symptoms. This didn’t make the main news outlets as it’s off-message. You can see the problem, can’t you? Who’s going to break the news to Jamie?

Saturated Fat

The Telegraph (August 11th), in a highly cited article, headlines:

Butter unlikely to harm health, but margarine could be deadly

Although traditionally dieticians have advised people to cut down on animal fats, the biggest ever study has shown that it does not increase the risk of stroke, heart disease or diabetes.

Yes, we know that. But good to see the message is gradually getting out. The ‘margarine could be deadly’ bit refers to trans-fats which were indeed in the original margarine of the 1960s and ’70s. What people casually refer to as margarines now are ‘vegetable spreads’ which don’t contain trans-fats, but instead those vegetable oils we just heard may cause more obesity than sugar does. But hey ho! – ‘deadly margarine’ makes a good headline!

A more scientific review of this study can be found on Medpage Today and includes some interesting comments from researchers.

Best butter recipes

These recipes also c/o the Telegraph make good use of butter, and are grain-free:

Fish oils and mental health

The Guardian (August 11th) reported on a recent small study which showed that Omega 3 fish oils could prevent schizophrenia among at-risk young people. There was a marked reduction in incidence after 7 years among the group that was supplemented for only 3 months. Larger trials are called for to confirm the results.

The authors speculate that the timing of the intervention may be critical ― during adolescence and before conversion to psychosis, when the neurodevelopment in brain regions relevant to schizophrenia occurs.
MedScape Today (August 20th)

Meanwhile, The Telegraph (August 25th) reports on a large study that found that fish oils failed to slow cognitive decline in the elderly.

These results make some sense considering – as explained in our fish talks – that omega-3 oils are critical during brain development. Schizophrenia tends to emerge during late teen years as the brain matures, so more omega-3s at this critical point makes sense. For the elderly, the supplementation started 70 years too late!

Iodine in pregnancy

Linked to fish, is the issue of iodine. Based on earlier studies that identified the UK population as mildly to moderately iodine deficient, a new study has modelled the benefits of iodine supplementation during preganancy suggesting it could be cost effective simply through the national increase in child IQ. BBC News (August 10th) covered it well, whilst NHS Choices gave an in-depth analysis, and, to their credit, recommend good dietary sources of iodine (fish, milk, seaweed) rather than pill popping. So maybe I should be lenient on the NHS after all, as they certainly have this advice correct.

Vitamin D and Multiple Sclerosis

The relationship between low vitamin D status and incidence of multiple sclerosis (MS) is long-standing and has been seen time and again in population studies. Observational associations do not, however, prove causality: it is quite possible that a third factor could be driving both low vitamin D and MS for instance.

A new study, reported in The Science Times (August 28th), however, takes us one step closer to an answer. Researchers looked at genes that limit vitamin D synthesis in people and found they were more common among MS patients. As these genes are inherited randomly and are not influenced by environmental factors, the results suggest that low vitamin D is a causative risk factor. MedPage Today (August 31st) goes into the methodology in a bit more detail.

Paleo News


The Guardian (August 18th) article includes a beautiful image showing a glorious range of paleo diet foods. So where’s the story in this?

A paper published this month has argued that the evolution of the human brain depended on access to tubers (like the sweet potato above) as well as meat. Apparently, this is news, with The Guardian running the headline: “What Paleo diet experts think – and why they’re wrong“.

The problem with the media is that they always want a bite-size story. There has never been any doubt that the original palaeolithic diet included tubers, along with nuts, fruit, leaves, molluscs, shellfish, elephants*, insects… i.e. real foods that can be hunted or gathered. Indeed studies of modern hunter-gatherers have provided evidence for the paleo-diet. Here is some of what these studies say:

  1. The consumption of carbohydrates varies enormously with geographic location
  2. On average carbohydrate consumption is lower than standard western diets whilst protein consumption is higher
  3. Carbohydrate consumption typically comes from tubers, fruit and nuts – but virtually never from grains
  4. Hunter-gatherers almost always prize hunted game above gathered tubers which are very much seen as a second rate, fallback food.

Another thing the newspapers have failed to point out clearly is that this paper includes no new data – it is simply presenting a hypothesis making an argument for tubers as a source of glucose for brain fuel. It’s a useful, if not entirely original, contribution to the discussion, but didn’t warrant the excitable headlines that most news outlets employed.

The paper that provoked these headlines (The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution) deserves a detailed analysis, but that will have to wait for another time.

Humans had a taste for elephants

In the previous section, you may have noticed I cheekily slipped in elephants among the list of paleo foods? Even though we all associate cave men with eating woolly mammoths, we often forget that for much of human evolution African elephant was on the menu.

The Mail Online (July 2nd) had a great article covering recent research about modern tribes who hunted elephants. The researchers studied the taste preferences and hunting behaviour of several ethnographic hunter-gatherer groups. They found:

  • Historically, tribes living in East Kenya, such as the Lingula, hunted elephants for meat and particularly preyed upon juveniles because their meat was said to taste better.
  • The Mbuti Pygmy people of Zaire particularly cherish the bone marrow of elephants.
  • The Nuer people of Southern Sudan hunt elephants illegally as they consider the meat to be a delicacy. They describe the flesh as tasting sweet and fat.
  • Historical texts by Western scientists described the taste of elephant meat as being ‘delicate’, ‘tender’ and ‘sweet’.

Take a look at the rest of the article which covers the archaeological evidence of similar consumption patterns going back 400,000 years!

I bet elephant burgers tasted good with roast yam chips. Wait… there’s a T-shirt for that…


P.S. Before I get complaints from people that don’t recognise a joke… I’m not actually advocating eating elephants! Or yam chips!

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