There’s something symbolic about new year which conceals the awkward fact that it is an entirely arbitrary date, determined not by science, but by convention. There’s no rational reason January 1 should signify anything important, nor that 2017 is a meaningful number, being based on a dating system that was established 525 years after the birth of the founder of Christianity occurs in inaccurate and disputed histories.
Jews celebrate what passes for new year, Rosh Hashanah, on some date between September 5 and October 5, ostensibly commemorating the creation of Adam and Eve but more likely coinciding with the beginning of the harvest season in ancient times.
The Chinese new year falls on the first new moon of the lunar year, between January 21 and February 21. In Iran, the new year starts on March 20 or 21, coinciding with the spring equinox. Muslims follow a lunar calendar amounting to 354 days, so their new year, Muharram, doesn’t even synchronise with our 365-day calendar. Elsewhere, different cultures and religions have chosen different, and often movable, dates to celebrate the beginning of a new year.
The sober fact is that January 1 is an arbitrary date that means nothing unless you’re an accountant or an astrologer. Yet it remains symbolic of new beginnings for many people.
The illusion is that you can leave the failures and disappointments of the previous year behind you, and turn over a new leaf. This isn’t true, of course. The consequences of last year’s actions and events are still very much with us – witness Donald Trump’s imminent inauguration and my personal debt.
So I’m not a big fan of the fashion of making new year’s resolutions. If you’re determined to do something, there is no reason to wait for an arbitrary date. And if it’s just a vague feeling that you could do better, well, you probably could, so the same is true.
But if you enjoy the optimism and positivity that comes from new beginnings, I found a much better resolution to make for this new year. It’s a meaningful resolution, in that it will relieve stress and improve your health, and it’s easy to keep, to boot. Here it is: don’t bother with diets. Just eat a wide variety of foods, in moderate amounts. I can do that.
My favourite read of 2016 was The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat, by Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London. Drawing on his own long-term research of thousands of twins, as well as published scientific research, he debunks a wide array of misconceptions about food and nutrition.
For decades, we’ve been inundated with dietary advice based on what was supposed to be the best available science. In addition, we have an array of monthly magazines and tens of thousands of books, all touting the latest and greatest diet, which this time is guaranteed to work (unlike all the others).
The problem is that the best available science in nutrition has always been pretty dodgy. It is notoriously hard to conduct statistically sound dietary research. You can’t really experiment much on humans in laboratory conditions. Research subjects often misremember or lie about what they really eat. And even if you get good diet data, many confounding factors affect individual health outcomes.
Most of the diets we read about aren’t even based on science. They’re based on untested hypotheses, weak studies, or cherry-picked testimonials. Someone’s pet theory doesn’t become solid science just because some celebrity endorses it.
Spector’s research is based on long-term studies of thousands of pairs of twins who differ in no respect other than their diet and exercise regimes – excluding many confounding factors. He has published over 700 papers himself. Combined with the latest research from other scientists, he concluded that there is no credible evidence that any diet – with the sole exception of some fasting diets – have any long-term benefits at all, and many are actually bad for you.
The reason smart people with medical problems go to doctors instead of reading Wikipedia is that everyone is different. We differ genetically, of course, and we differ in the environments to which we have been exposed. When our complicated bodies present with symptoms of illness, we each have to be assessed individually, to determine what is wrong and to treat it effectively.
That alone would be enough to surmise that the same might be true for diet: the latest one-size-fits-all diet is highly unlikely to work for everyone, or even for a majority of us. But Spector explains that there is a third factor in which we differ from each other even more than we differ in our genetics: our gut microbes. These critters do most of the heavy lifting of digesting our food and producing the substances our bodies absorb. The more diverse our gut microbiome, the healthier we tend to be.
Throughout his book, he provides scientific evidence that the number and diversity of our gut microbes determines our health, from obesity and diabetes, to heart disease and cancer, to food intolerance and allergies. It used to be thought that calorie consumption logically ought to equal calorie expenditure. But it turns out that gut health even trumps exercise as a determinant of body weight and general health.
Gut bacteria explain why people who switch to a Banting diet soon find that they can no longer tolerate bread and other carbohydrates. This is not because carbs are inherently bad for you, but because they’ve lost the bacteria that ordinarily process these nutrients. The same is true about any other diet that instructs people to avoid certain foods, or load up on others. Exclusion diets are nonsense. Today’s low-carb diets are just as badly supported in science as low-fat diets were 40 years ago.
The same is true for “detox” diets. Detoxification is a medical term that applies to treating acute toxicity. It works for drug addiction or alcohol poisoning. There’s no such thing as detoxing after eating too much over the festive season. If you drink only, say, orange juice for 10 days, you’ll get lots of vitamin C in your pee, and nothing else your body needs. Other than that you’re unlikely to get scurvy. The idea that this is good for you is absurd.
Spector’s book is a fascinating read, full of interesting facts and actual case histories backed up by statistical studies. In the end, it comes to a conclusion of which your grandma would have approved: eat a wide variety of food, to sustain a wide variety of gut microbes, and don’t eat anything to excess.
Use antibiotics only as a last resort, because they kill a lot more than just the bacteria that make you sick. It takes time to regenerate a healthy gut after a course of antibiotics has decimated its microbiome. That said, probiotics are over-rated, because it is hard for microbes to survive the acidic stomach environment. Many probiotic foods do have noticeable benefits, but the current state of science does not support hard and fast rules.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with processed foods, but they have a very limited set of ingredients, so in general one should prefer natural, fresh food. Eat a wide variety of different vegetables and some fruit. Eat meat, because some essential nutrients cannot be obtained from plant sources (like vitamin B12) or are less easily absorbed from vegetables (like iron), but you don’t need a steak every other day. Don’t forget to add fish to your diet. Vitamins and other boosters are generally useless unless you’re treating a specific deficiency diagnosed by a doctor. If your diet is varied, you’ll get all the vitamins and minerals you need, so you can stop giving your money to multinational hawkers of supplements and herbal concoctions.
Avoid hydrogenated vegetable oils – which were introduced in response to mistaken advice about low-fat diets – and prefer butter or olive oil. A little sugar on occasion won’t kill you, but avoid binging on sweets and don’t add too much sugar to your coffee or tea.
Exercise is not a panacea for weight loss, and hard exercise has limited benefits, but a regular walk, run or bike ride is really good for you. As with food, moderation seems to be the keyword in exercise, according to Spector’s research.
Some foods that are often derided as unhealthy turn out to be healthy for you, he found. A cup or two of coffee a day will do your gut good. So will a glass of wine or beer – especially Belgian beer. Stinky cheese, dark chocolate, full-fat yoghurt, fermented foods and assorted nuts are all great for the bacteria in your gut.
It turns out that the best-tasting meals are often also best for your health. As long as you mix things up, and don’t eat anything to excess, your gut bacteria will thrive, and you’ll feel fine.
Other than Spector’s anti-diet book, which is worth every penny, you can stop giving money to quacks and charlatans who get stinking rich exploiting desperate people by flogging the latest diet fad. But the biggest benefit of not bothering with diets will be that you can set aside your anxiety about what you eat. Don’t stress. Just don’t overdo anything.
Food neuroses are not good for mental health, and they’re not very interesting to other people. You might no longer be able to evangelise about your latest diet when chit-chat about the weather has been exhausted, but that can only make casual conversation more interesting in 2017. DM