The Big Food Trial, the online trial that engages viewers to compare the effects of particular foods on various disorders, is a lost opportunity as it tests inappropriate foods like chocolate.
We must congratulate the makers of The Food Hospital on UK TV’s Channel 4, an eight-part series that, “Examines the science behind using food as medicine”. Normally, this concept receives very little mainstream airtime. That being said, there have been some anomalies and inconsistencies in the first two episodes, as well as a huge opportunity lost in the programme’s Big Food Trial. We wonder if the programme makers fully appreciated just how much this trial plays into the hands of Big Food, even in its name? But more on this below.
The programme feature’s three main experts, a general practitioner, Dr Giovanni Miletto, a consultant gastrointestinal surgeon, Mr Shaw Somers and a dietician, Lucy Jones. In order to evaluate the effect of the nutritional regimes prescribed by the trio, the patients followed during the course of the programme are asked to remain on any drugs already prescribed, so that improvements in their health can be attributed to the dietary changes, and not to any effects from them coming off their drugs (a concept that warms our hearts in its own right).
The state of the debate around ‘food as medicine’
It’s ironic, given Hippocrates’ status as the ‘father of modern medicine’ and even more famous quote attributed to him, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”, that orthodox medics receive so little formal training in the nutritional sciences. It generally represents just a day’s learning in some 6 years of medical training. The related professionals, dieticians and nutritionists, by contrast, are immersed in the science of nutrition throughout their training, albeit each discipline having a somewhat different emphasis. Dieticians tend to work alongside the mainstream, allopathic (drug-based) medical profession, while nutritional therapists tend more often to work independently, often with a sense that nutrition and lifestyle changes can avoid the need for drugs. There are very real concerns that dietetic science, as practiced by dieticians in Europe, the USA and in other parts of the western world, has become distorted by its close association with Big Food. In the USA, this has stimulated our sister organisation, ANH-USA to release — just yesterday — a new campaign, Really Eat Right, targeting the American Dietetics Association.
Unsurprisingly, governments listen to the medics and dieticians when developing nutritional recommendations. This situation results in inadequate and even incorrect guidance like the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food plate or the UK National Health Service (NHS) ‘eatwell plate’ (Figure 1). These guidelines reveal the footprint of Big Food, over-emphasise the importance of grains and (processed) dairy, while recommending all foods in moderation – even the harmful ones. In our view, diets based wholly on this advice do little to stem the tide towards insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and obesity, that have together emerged as among the biggest challenges in healthcare in the West, and increasingly in other parts of the world.
Figure 1. The USDA food plate (left) and the NHS ‘eatwell’ plate (right)
The Food Hospital episode 1 (1st November 2011): grains are good, superfoods aren’t super
Firstly, a lady with severe polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) was given a hormone-balancing programme that included plenty of vegetables, pulses and whole grains. We question the inclusion of whole grains to treat this patient, who was essentially pre-diabetic, because many PCOS patients have gluten sensitivity and even whole grains trigger an insulin response.
It was a pleasure however to witness a wonderful success in a 7-year-old boy, who was cured of recurrent migraines by an additive-eliminating diet. Isn’t it interesting that so many dieticians and government authorities continue to claim that synthetic additives in processed foods are safe? This is of course the result of more manipulation by Big Food.
Next was the case of a man with rampant type 2 diabetes (T2D). The Channel 4 ‘experts’ immediately put him on an 800 kCal/day diet, directly from 5000 kCal/day! The new diet replaced all three daily meals with protein shakes plus some non-starchy vegetables. This is basically a crash diet, and there is a risk that any benefits in terms of fasting glucose and weight loss may be reversed after the patient resumes normal eating. This is the very process that can lead to the much-publicised yo-yo dieting effect that not only doesn’t deliver the long-term results desired, it is also known to be harmful.
Finally, there was a superficial investigation into ‘superfoods’. The programme proposed that new potatoes are as much a superfood as blueberries, and the term ‘superfood’ is a marketing term that should be banned as it is unhelpful to consumers. As it happens — to our dismay and that of millions of EU citizens — this is exactly what the new European Union health claims regime is planning to do next year! A test carried out under the eye of the camera revealed that two puréed punnets of blueberries reduced the presenter’s blood pressure. This begs the facetious question: if blueberries are not a superfood yet have this effect, can all foods do this? [Answer: NO!] But how often are blueberries and other antioxidant foods used in the manner of a drug?
The Food Hospital episode 2 (8th November 2011): foods and supplements work better than drugs
It’s not often we see the mainstream media, in this case the UK’s Channel 4, telling us that food and supplements can be used to treat disease. Well, this is what was beamed into the living room of hundreds of thousands last night.
This episode tracked the progress of a mother and son suffering from severe psoriasis, a singer with acid reflux, an obese man with an enlarged, fatty liver and a teenage girl with alopecia and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after they were administered foods as medicines. Each patient was put on a case specific diet, these being, in principle, anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and calorie-restricted, respectively. Interestingly, two of these diets included supplements; anti-inflammatory Omega 3s for the mother and son with psoriasis, and probiotics (Bifidobacterium infantis 35624) for the teenager with IBS and alopecia.
Before and after pictures of man with 16 months nutrition and exercise changes and losing 180 lbs.
The improvements in all cases were vast, and had they been the result of drug use, we no doubt would have to endure the pharmaceutical industry shouting from the rooftops for days to come!
Dr Pixie McKenna was later tasked with looking at the science behind food supplements and her conclusions appeared to be a little misplaced, to say the least, in light of what was happening in the four cases aired in the same episode. Her overarching conclusion was that people were better off not wasting their money on supplements and should buy more fruit and vegetables instead. Does that mean that the Omega 3 and probiotic supplements that were declared invaluable in two out of four cases aired in the same episode were unnecessary? Of course not! What Dr McKenna’s comments revealed instead was the deeply ingrained distaste of supplements by a large sector (but not all) of the medical and dietician professions. It’s worth pondering that most of the negative studies associated with use of vitamin and mineral supplements have been undertaken directly or indirectly by Big Pharma, using usually synthetic forms of isolated forms, often inappropriately.
The Big Food Trial: a trial for Big Food
Again, hats of to The Food Hospital for engaging directly with the public with a view to testing the effects of particular food choices on common disorders. But sadly, in our view, the experiments themselves are deeply disappointing. They aim to test whether foods can alleviate particular conditions, namely high blood pressure, high cholesterol, memory loss and insomnia, but the foods being tested are wholly inappropriate and it seems they may have been selected more to help promote various products of Big Food, rather than to deliver the most effective results.
For example, white and dark chocolate are being compared for their effects on blood pressure. Cadbury and others will love this one, they won’t mind which way the experiment goes, even if it fails – they have a foot in all camps! If this wasn’t bad enough, dark and white chocolate are again the foods being tested for memory skills. For cholesterol lowering, 30 almonds will be compared with 5 crackers.
Apart from suggesting that the experimental designers may have themselves gone crackers, we do feel this is an exceptional lost opportunity. It also treats foods as drugs, comparing only a single food type, following the same general protocol as used in conventional randomised controlled trials where only one or very limited numbers of variables are altered. This approach is wholly inappropriate for comparisons of diet and lifestyle.
Don’t miss next week’s programme
Episode 3 airs again next Tuesday night (Channel 4, 8.00 pm). Given that Episode 2 outshone the first episode, we have high expectations for next week. Watch it if you’re able!
So far the programme’s experts have remained mute on any comparison of the foods and supplements they have prescribed with the concomitant use of drugs already being taken by their patients. Will they ever dare air the startling comparison?