Last week, the National Obesity Forum caused a furore by claiming that eating fat, including saturated fat, will help cut rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Public Health England hit back, calling NOF’s advice “irresponsible”.
There’s wide agreement that modern diets have led to a rise in illnesses such as coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Like most research, the recent controversy focuses on whether specific nutrients are the cause.
I’m not qualified to decide whether fat is good for you or will help you lose weight. But as a philosopher, and someone who has studied diet and health-related behaviours, I am curious about the question. What we ask determines what sorts of answer make sense. Does it make sense to focus on nutrients such as fat or carbohydrates, for example, or should we reframe the question?
There are many ways to think about the dietary changes in Western societies over the past century or so. Of course, we can think in terms of nutrients: more sugar, more refined carbohydrates, more animal fats, more oils. Another change is in terms of agriculture and animal husbandry: new fertilisers and pesticides, new ways to feed and breed animals, new ways to hasten their growth. A third sort of change starts with an organisational revolution: large corporations now dominate our food supplies.
These corporations are armed with factories and laboratories, with brands and trademarks and marketing departments. And they have created a new sort of food: the ultra-processed variety.