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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

Calorie counting, a disaster?

For some books, the title tells you everything. How about: Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food is Wrong?

I’ve just finished this disorientating book by Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College, London. You may well remember him from the Zoe app during the pandemic and his weekly YouTube updates. He has credibility.

Basically, he sets out to show that nearly all our basic assumptions about food are wrong – and sometimes even dangerous.

One of the myths he identifies is the idea – which until very recently was medical dogma – that saturated fat is a major cause of heart disease. Spector notes that no study has shown that switching from a normal-fat diet to a low-fat one reduces heart disease.

Take good-old vitamin C. Spector informs me that the idea that vitamin C might boost my immune system is based on a single sixty-year-old hypothesis with no evidence to back it up.

Or the next vitamin in the alphabet. “Overuse of vitamin D supplements has been linked in several trials to weakened bone density, as well as increased falls and fractures,” Spector writes.

And forget calorie counting, human relationship with food is something far too “complex and intricate” to be reduced to calories in and calories out. So calorie counts on menus are flawed for a number of reasons. In his view “the calorie has been a disaster for the average consumer”.

All this is very unnerving to the extent that I have asked my son-in-law, an academic scientist, to read the book for me and give his opinion. Even asking your GP is not an option given their lack of way of nutritional training. However, I will not amplify his view on GPs because we are going out for lunch in a few hours with Alan and Wanda.

So what does Spector say? He begins by explaining the powerful role that the microbes in our guts play in determining our health, so our diet is important. “Our bodies can’t deal with a large dumping of a chemical supplement in our intestines in the way that they can process and absorb them from natural food sources.”

The reality is that we are all very different. What may work for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. “The take-home message is that there is no one right way to eat that works for everyone, whatever the glamorous Instagram gurus and government guidelines tell you.”

A constant theme of the book is that we have been misled by decades of poor science: too small samples, limited peer review and inadequate interpretation of data, such as the old chestnut of confusing causation with correlation. What makes it worse is that so much research is financed by the food industry itself.

The ten biggest food companies control 80 per cent of store-bought products globally and their combined profits were more than $100 billion in 2018. “Little wonder they are keen to spend money on research that doesn’t affect their sales.”

While food is a big theme in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, it is nearly always focused on the laws of what to eat and what to avoid, not so much for physical health but for religious identity. So when Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah thrive on vegetables rather than on the Babylonian court diet, the emphasis is on how to be Jewish in an alien culture.

Essentially the food laws were to delineate the people of Israel from everyone else and in doing so excluded the Gentiles from the people of God.

And this, as Mark tells us, is “why Jesus declared all foods clean.” (Mark 7:19). Not to improve our diet but to welcome all people into the Kingdom of God, irrespective of birth or background. The early church found his teaching a hot potato.

For at the heart of Jesus’ ministry is to upend all our cherished assumptions, how we are to live our lives. In order to have you don’t get: instead you give. He taught: “Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity.” (Luke 6:38)

Take ambition. “So you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

Or forgiveness. “At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21f)

No one likes their basic assumptions to be challenged, the foundations on how we live our everyday lives to be shaken. That’s why the good people of Nazareth, a settler community, tried to kill Jesus by throwing him off the cliff. His teaching on the place of Gentiles in the Kingdom of God challenged their very raison d'être head on.

As Michael Kelley writes: But, when we find a Saviour who won’t bend his will and might disagree with our personal preferences, goals, and aspirations for our lives, we get angry, just as these people did. It seems that Jesus is not only the Saviour who challenges our assumptions; he’s not even the Saviour we wanted.”

So the question comes to us today—what do we do with the Jesus who challenges our assumptions – as he does continually ? Will we realign our heart with his, or will we, too, march him to the edge of a hill? Always difficult to digest.

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