Contradictory food advice is everywhere, but by choosing to listen only to the most credible organisations, the picture becomes clear.
Much of what is written is produced by outfits close to the food industry. For example, the Swiss Society for Nutrition (SSN) is funded by companies which include Coca Cola, Swiss Meat, McDonald’s and Danone. Despite clear conflicts of interest the SSN is allowed to provide national dietary advice.
There are however some organisations that sit outside the industry. One is the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2003, the sugar lobby went to US Congress demanding an end to WHO funding unless its sugar guidelines were withdrawn. The WHO didn’t back down. Incidents like this demonstrate the organisation’s independence.
Ignoring organisations with conflicts of interest and following nutritional advice from the WHO is a short cut to clarity.
The world according to WHO
Current diets are slowly making many of us sick. The WHO says non-communicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer, are largely brought on by prevailing lifestyles, pollution and diet. These illnesses account for an estimated 68% of all deaths worldwide1.
Full speed ahead on fruits and vegetables
The WHO recommends at least 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per day2. This is a minimum. Fruit and veg are an important source of, not only fibre, but nutrients and antioxidants. An apple, an orange, a carrot, a few strawberries, and some brocoli a day, can keep the doctor away.
Health tip: Snack on fruits and vegetables.
Earth impact: Vegetables require a tiny fraction of the land and water needed to make meat and dairy. Earth lovers should eat lots of them.
Fill up on whole grains and pulses (AKA legumes)
The WHO is a big fan of lentils, beans, nuts and whole grains, such as unprocessed maize, millet, oats, wheat, brown rice2. Sadly the extra jaw exercise from chewing all of this doesn’t count towards WHO’s exercise recommendations6. It might add some muscle to your smile though.
Health tip: Go whole, the browner the better.
Earth impact: Grains are plants. They need only a tiny fraction of the land and water needed to make meat and dairy. Environment nuts should fill up on these.
Whole grains in our products
Say farewell to fat
Saturated fat makes us sick. The WHO recommends a diet containing as little of it as possible, up to a maximum of 10% of calories2.
Found in meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, and cheese, saturated fat loves cuddling up to your artery walls, forcing your ticker to pump harder. Two slices of cheese or a beef burger is enough to get the WHO warning light flashing red.
Industrial trans fat, which finds its way into processed food, should be eliminated says the WHO2. Made by men and women in white coats, trans fat is a solidified vegetable oil with a long shelf life. The problem is that it reduces your shelf life.
Health tip: Cut down on meat, butter, cream, and cheese. Avoid processed foods containing palm oil, coconut oil, and trans fat.
Earth impact: Foods high in saturated fat are fast destroying forests and pumping out greenhouse gas. Those who care should cut these not trees.
Fat in our products
Identifying trans fat
Unless you’re an ocean-going fish, the WHO recommends consuming less than 5 grams of salt a day3. The sodium in salt messes with your kidneys by upsetting the balance of sodium and potassium, causing water retention, which gets your heart racing, pushing up your blood pressure. A few rashers of bacon for breakfast could be enough to pop this WHO pressure dial4.
Health tip: Avoid processed food. Salt lurks hidden in much of it. When combined with sugar it loses its saltiness making it hard to taste.
Earth impact: Salt isn’t killing the planet but it could be killing you.
Salt in our products
Salt in common processed foods
A can of sugary drink can have as many calories as a sandwich. Even worse, drinks and fruit juices, don’t satisfy hunger, leaving us hunting for more calories, and a longer belt! It has been estimated that a can or glass of sugar-sweetened drink consumed a day increases the risk of becoming obese by 60%5. Gulp.
WHO distinguishes between “free sugar” and sugar still in nature’s wrapper. Free sugars are: “all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, and fruit juices.2” Translation: sweet stuff that isn’t fruit.
The WHO recommends a diet containing as little free sugar as possible and ideally less than 6 teaspoons2. That’s half of a small bottle of cola.
Health tip: Kick sweet drinks and fruit juices. Drink plenty of water.
Earth impact: Tap water produces no plastic or transport emissions. Sugar grows on land that could grow nutritious food or trees.
Sugar in our products
Power up with plant protein
Some have been led to believe that a lack of meat will turn you into a wobbly amoeba. In the US nearly all vegetarians, meat eaters and vegans get way more protein than they need. The recommended daily protein intake is around 60 grams a day. The average American vegetarian or vegan gets roughly 50% more than this8.
Novak Djokovic runs almost entirely on plants and he is at the top of global tennis9. And he’s not alone.
Another myth is that plant proteins are incomplete or inferior to animal ones. They are not. Straightforward scientific analysis of plant proteins shows they are complete 10. It is a very old idea that stubbornly refuses to die.
Health tip: When you think of protein think of plants first. Plant protein doesn’t come loaded with saturated fat.
Earth impact: Plant protein needs only a tiny fraction of the land and water that meat and dairy protein need. Think of it as planet protein.
Protein in our products
Essential amino acid comparison
Watch out for vitamin B12
Some people don’t get enough of this crucial vitamin which is made by the bacteria and algae in the river water we used to drink. Now chlorine removes it. Most meat and dairy eaters get enough indirectly via animals, which get it from the environment the way we used to.
The recommended daily intake is between 2μg and 3μg per day11. The easiest way to make sure you get enough is to eat fortified foods or supplements. This should not be left to chance and it is difficult to take too much.
Vitamin B12 in our products
Balance Omega 6 and 3 oils
Research associates too much Omega 6 relative to Omega 3 with cardiovascular disease and some cancers12. Many people get way too much Omega 6 from processed foods full of sunflower, cotton seed, safflower and corn oil.
Consuming more foods rich in Omega 3, such as oily fish, walnuts, dark leafy greens, flax and chia seeds and algae oil, boosts Omega 3. Cutting processed food such as bought cakes, muffins and some mass-produced breads helps bring down Omega 6 levels.
There are three kinds of Omega 3: ALA, EPA and DHA. The WHO says 0.5% of calories should come from ALA. Our bodies use some ALA to make EPA and DHA, but there is still scientific debate on whether it can make enough. Algae oils are a great way to boost EPA and DHA if you can’t enough from plants and are concerned about toxin concentrations in oily fish.
Omega 3 in our products
Hidden Omega 6 in foods
Shine on zinc
Recommended zinc intake is between 2μg and 11μg depending on age and gender13. Oysters (74μg) have by far the highest level of zinc. Well behind oysters are meats (0.3 to 7μg). Vegetables with high levels of zinc are brazil nuts (4.1μg), baked beans (2.9μg), cashews (1.6μg), chickpeas (1.6μg), and oatmeal (1.3μg) – per serving13.
Bioavailability of zinc in plants is lower. Soaking beans and grains in water helps.
Zinc in our products
Iron out iron deficiency
Recommended daily iron intake ranges from 7μg to 18μg depending on age and gender14. The best foods for iron are fortified breakfast cereals (18μg), oysters (8μg), white beans (8μg) and dark chocolate (7μg). A serving of beef has only 2μg, no more than chick peas, tomatoes, potatoes and cashew nuts, and less than spinach (3μg), tofu (3μg) and lentils (3μg) – per serving13.
Iron in our products
Some grains, beans, nuts and vegetables contain phytates. Phytates are healthy and protect against heart disease and some forms of cancer, but they also reduce the absorption of some minerals like zinc and iron15. To solve this problem, big veggie eaters should eat more mineral rich vegetables, or as one study shows, add onions and garlic and boost the bioavailability of vegetable zinc and iron by up to 50%16.
Phytates in our products
Get on your bike
Running away from bad food is great, but actually running, swimming or riding your uni-cycle to work, is also important. The WHO suggests 2.5 hours of exercise a week, around 20 minutes a day6.
1Health in 2015 – World Health Organisation
2Healthy diet factsheet – World Health Organisation
3Salt reduction – World Health Organisation
4Health warning on salt levels in bacon – The Guardian
5Population nutrient intake goals for preventing diet-related chronic diseases – WHO
5Obesity factsheet – World Health Organisation
6Physical activity factsheet – World Health Organisation
7Sugar industry threatens to scupper WHO – The Guardian
8Nutrient profiles of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dietary patterns
9Plant-powered Novak Djokovic wins French Open – Huffington Post
10Plant foods have a complete amino acid composition
11Vitamin B12 Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet – US department of health
12The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases
13Zinc Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet – US department of health
14Iron Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet – US department of health
15Phytate in foods and significance for humans: food sources, intake, processing, bioavailability, protective role and analysis
16Higher bioaccessibility of iron and zinc from food grains in the presence of garlic and onion