Erik Hemmingsson

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Onward and Upward with the Diet Debate Now, Please?

As a researcher, it is not uncommon to receive comments when a new study is published in the likes of: “But didn’t we already know this?”. An example, this happened last autumn when a survey I was involved in was published, which showed that Swedes fitness has worsened over the last 20 or so years.

We have most certainly had a lot to say on the matter of our increasingly sophisticated lifestyle which creates a challenge to stay in form, but we have not had any good scientific documentation on the matter. And because we live in an evidence and information society, we are quite dependent on proof of what we believe we know.

Evidence requirements are, of course, both good and bad. As far as the work on improving human health is concerned, research is absolutely necessary, that part is obvious. But research also takes a very long time to perform, it is rarely as perfect as we would like, and it often has difficulty reaching out to the public.

In addition, the lack of solid evidence easily becomes an excuse for not doing anything, for example when it comes to food. It is easy to see how authorities and other decision-making bodies have postponed measures to help people improve their food intake with regard to a lack of research situation. We have also had dietary debates that have not always been constructive, such as with carbohydrates and fats and what causes obesity and type-2 diabetes.

At the same time, we have seen an enormous influx of processed and ultra-processed junk food, such as soft drinks, sweets and chips. These are products that are extremely nutrient-poor, but are packed with refined carbohydrates, fats, salt, additives, and other things that our body absolutely does not need. At the same time, we miss opportunities to consume nutritious food, which our body is absolutely dependent on.

It goes without saying that if we eat junk food, we can expect health consequences later. But I still like to argue that an important piece of the puzzle was recently added with the publication of a study that convincingly showed that the ultra-processed junk food leads to excessive calorie intake and obesity (Hall et al., Cell Metabolism, May 16). Earlier this year, research also showed that individuals who eat a lot of junk food have shorter lives. At the same time, we are more or less surrounded by the lure of junk food. This is obviously not how it should be.

What if we moved the discussions towards being more all encompassing and talked more about what’s happening in terms of the quality of what we eat, instead of getting stuck in old discussions about fat and carbohydrates, and how the processed junk food affects our health? Not only does this matter for out immediate, it’s equally important that we are building a healthy future, and a sustainable society. I think we owe it to our children, and to all future generations.

For those of you who want to read more in depth on the matter:

Hall KD, Ayuketah A, Brychta R, et al. Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake. Cell Metab. 2019 May 16.

Kim H, Hu EA, Rebholz CM. Ultra-processed food intake and mortality in the

USA: results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III, 1988-1994). Public Health Nutr. 2019 Feb 21:1-9.

Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González MA, Alvarez-Alvarez I, Mendonça RD, de la Fuente-Arrillaga C, Gómez-Donoso C, Bes-Rastrollo M. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2019 May 29;365:l1949.

Erik Hemmingsson is an obesity researcher at GIH in Stockholm. The views in the chronicle are the writer’s own.

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