Healthy Eating: The Big Mistake by Dr Verner Wheelock with Marika Sboros (Columbus Publishing £12.99)

By Jerome Burne

‘I wish they’d make up their minds,’ you may find yourself muttering if you don’t follow healthy eating debates all that closely. ‘One moment they tell us to stop eating butter and eggs on pain of having a heart attack and to have marge and no more than an egg a week.

‘Next moment marge is really bad and eggs are actually OK but bread and potatoes, which were part of a healthy balanced diet, have become a sure way to pile on the pounds and develop diabetes. You’d think the scientists would have sorted out something as basic as a healthy diet by now.’

Well quite. And if you really want to know what is going on, Dr Wheelock’s book is a good, if firmly partisan, place to start. You might also expect nutrition to be a relatively calm and stable profession, perhaps even a little dull.

But you’d be very wrong. Behind the scenes disputes about carbs and fats rage; not only are scientists caught up in twitter storms, hurling accusations of fake results and bad science at one another, but looming behind them are billion dollar food corporations who have large strong commercial interests in an approach devoted to cutting back on fats and increasing carbohydrates.

Objectivity and money don’t mix

It’s a battle that has been bubbling away for at least twenty years. As well as leaving ordinary shoppers confused, it has raised serious doubts about scientific objectivity when large sums of money are at stake.

Wheelock’s tale is about an increasingly bitter dispute between an entrenched establishment and loosely connected group of independent researchers, who are growing in confidence and developing a sophisticated critique of the official position.

Wheelock describes how back in in 1950’s and 60’s an earlier group had overturned the prevailing dogmas and identified animal fat, and saturated fat in particular, as the cause of the clogged arteries that were blamed for driving up the number of heart attacks. They were full of optimism that cutting out the likes of butter and full fat milk and raising the intake of carbohydrates to compensate could reverse the epidemic.

Wheelock is a firmly committed member of the independent researchers trying to overthrow this low fat high carbs hypothesis. A food scientist who headed the Food Policy Research Unit at Bradford University in the 1980’s he was steeped in the dangers of fat and the wisdom of the Healthy Eating advice that came with it. But in the early 2000s he began to have doubts. Buoyed up by his scientific training he plunged into a mound of research. This book is the result.

Low-fat evidence deficit

One chapter explains that the government had performed a U-turn to demonise fat without actually having the required evidence that it would protect the heart and help to maintain a healthy weight. He details many large expensive studies designed to find the evidence but, along with a number of other academic critiques, concludes that almost none provided the missing evidence.

Remarkably and, critics would argue, unscientifically, the failures were repeatedly glossed over and millions more poured into a continuing search while millions of consumers continued to eat a diet that, it became increasingly clear, couldn’t deliver what it promised.

Another chapter tells the story of the most dramatic example of the failure of low fat. The official claim is that eating a high carbohydrate diet is the best way to handle diabetes. Critics point out that the last thing people with a problem keeping their blood glucose levels stable need is lots of carbohydrates.

In fact it is accepted that the patients will gradually become resistant to the insulin, released to clear increasing amounts of glucose out of the blood stream, and then have to go on drugs to keep it down.

Putting these patients on a high fat low carb diet has allowed many to lose weight and bring down their blood glucose so effectively that they either had to cut their drug dosage or stop them altogether.

Insulin levels: the new health warning sign

But the diabetes part of the story, complete with a heroic GP who had the imagination and courage to break ranks and try the low carb approach when patients told him worked for them, also highlights the real health breakthrough that this switch in diet promises.

Everyone knows that diabetes involves excessive amounts of blood sugar which raises insulin. Less familiar is that most of the other chronic diseases currently threatening to bankrupt the NHS – cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s – also involve damagingly high levels of either glucose or insulin. This opens the possibility that using the low carb diet to keep them both at a healthy level could have a wide range of therapeutic benefits.

Tumour cells, for instance, rely on glucose for energy and there is ongoing research to show that reducing your intake can help with cancer. Alzheimer’s patients have been found to have insulin resistance (a sign of long-term raised levels of glucose) which is linked with inflammation, which in turn promotes cell death. Not understanding this is what is described in the title as: ‘modern medicine’s biggest mistake’

The amount of evidence Wheelock has compiled showing low fat failures raises questions such as: when does evidence reach a tipping point for change? Is an objective assessment possible in an area so directly involved with commercial interests?

Dietary heresy trial in S. Africa

These questions became inescapable during the remarkable “trial” of senior nutritionist Professor Tim Noakes in South Africa that ran for three years. Wheelock’s co-author Marika Sboros provided reports that publicised the trial around the world.

Noakes had followed one of the cardinal principles of science; try to disprove a theory and if you succeed, abandon it. Having advocated the low-fat hypothesis, as everyone did at one time, he concluded it was flawed. His peers, rather than wanting to understand why, attacked him personally: ‘outrageous and unproven claims’; socially irresponsible’.

A hearing alleging unprofessional conduct dragged on for three years; this April he was found not guilty of all ten charges. Subsequent investigations found that many of the expert witnesses who gave evidence against him were linked to a US-based institute, shown to be a front for several Big Food companies.

Wheelock lucidly marshals the facts of a tangled and complex story involving unreliable science and the determination of a profession to defend its position to the bitter end. Having to decide between whole and semi-skimmed milk may seem frivolous but Wheelock persuades us that behind is: ‘a disaster of enormous proportions. The government in effect is killing people.’

Cut price offers on both paperback and kindle available till February at http://thebighealthyeatingmistake.co.uk/

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne

Jerome Burne is the editor of HealthInsightUK. He is an award-winning journalist who has been specialising in medicine and health for the last 10 years and now works mainly for the Daily Mail. His most recent book “10 Secrets of Healthy Ageing” was written with nutritionist Patrick Holford. He blogs at “Body of Evidence” – jeromeburne.com. 2015: Finalist for 'Blogger of the Year' award from Medical Journalists' Association.

1 Comment

  • “…looming behind them are billion dollar food corporations who have large strong commercial interests…”

    Sadly, that hits the nail right on the head. Apparently, in the 21st century, supposedly impartial scientific research is almost entirely enslaved by the money interest.

    As Dr John Ioannidis explained some time ago.

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182327/

Leave a Reply


WP-Backgrounds by InoPlugs Web Design and Juwelier Schönmann