Dave Shaw 's Opinion

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave Shaw: Did we get diet advice all wrong?

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Have New Zealand health experts got our dietary advice all wrong? Or have we not put good advice to best use? Dave Shaw explores more.
All the different diet advice being dished up has caused confusion and bad health choices.
Photo / Thinkstock
All the different diet advice being dished up has caused confusion and bad health choices. Photo / Thinkstock

It's incredibly difficult to recommend how everyone should eat, especially when we are lucky enough to live in a country as diverse as New Zealand.

In our attempt to keep up with the rest of the world, we instated the healthy food pyramid to help guide what we eat. This was combined with a notion that everything should be relatively low in fat, especially saturated fat.

Read more: The death of the food pyramid

But is it wise to extend this guideline to all cultures?

There's been a lot of debate about the consequences of following this kind of diet.

I'm sure many people reading this are aware of the history of how the food pyramid rose to fame in the 70s from the work of Ancel Keys, the McGovern Committee and the surrounding politics.

Many would argue that these very guidelines are causing the rampant rise in chronic diseases. But that's not quite true.

What is true is that we know more about nutrition now than we did 40 years ago. But, for every question answered, two more have taken its place. But before we ignore all the dietary advice we've ever been told, let's consider our current situation and how we got here.

Read more: The big fat debate bungle

Let's see the forest through the trees.

We can start by ignoring the headlines boasting the benefits of one nutrient over another. Many nutrition related dogmas have changed, faded and re-emerged over the last few decades, but some advice has stood the test of time - eat a diet full of fruit, vegetables, legumes, beans and drink plenty of water.

The low fat advice may not have necessarily been completely right - or wrong, but it was definitely imperfect. We now know not all dietary fat is created equal and demonising saturated fat seems unfair when it has some health benefits. When we eat less fat, we tend to eat more carbohydrates, often in the form of refined grain and sugar, which is slowly being considered just as harmful as eating a tub of lard.

Unfortunately, we are now confronted by conflicting beliefs wherever we go, when we really should be overwhelmed by simplicity. For some people it may seem like there's nothing left to eat, but I assure you, that is not the case. We are simply in a situation where dietary advice has been taken to extremes.

By who?

Arguably, the food industry. They saw an opportunity in the low fat message and recreated it to fuel their profit driven business - now they're selling highly refined, sugary, starchy, salty, low-fat products. In their defense, they may have done this to help improve our health, but no one ever said we should be eating more low fat cookies or sugar sweetened, fat-free yoghurts.

The low-fat message, although it's flawed, does hold some importance. It guides people away from fast food and deep fried treats and can encourage a healthy weight.

Low fat foods are great, as long as they aren't filled with refined grain and sugar. Vegetables, fruit, legumes, some wholegrain breads and lean meat are all low fat, yet packed full of nutrients.

But any new guidelines need to be explicit. Kiwis need to know whether replacing calories from processed carbs with fat will boost their health. If it will, what type of fat should we be eating and from what foods? I have my opinion, just like every other health nut. But for those who simply need to be told, guidelines must be easy to follow and not be exploited by the food industry as a marketing tool.

Let's learn from the follies of history and avoid a case of fool me once, fool me twice. A healthy diet cannot be broken down one nutrient at a time. We must look at everything we eat in totality and figure out how the all the nutrients interact with one another to decide our future. From there, we can reclaim our health.

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Dave Shaw

NZ dietitian, performance nutritionist and health expert. Dave does his best to make sense of what we eat.

Dave works in public health and alongside some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Whether it's for vitality, performance, identity or spirituality, Dave loves the way food brings people together. He believes that no one diet is the cure for our growing rates of chronic disease, but a diet based on wholefoods is the perfect start. Always keeping up-to-date with current evidence and food trends, Dave is a relentless researcher for how we should eat and likes to challenge what we may think about nutrition.

Read more by Dave Shaw

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