Not even in moderation. Are there things we really shouldn't be eating?

Not even in moderation. Are there things we really shouldn't be eating?

With yet another study in the news about the health hazards of processed meat, we ask: Are there some foods we shouldn't be eating at all, not even in moderation?

Bacon has been in the news this week. Apparently, it's been linked to fertility problems in men. Well, not just bacon, actually. Other processed meats are just as culpable – think sausages, hamburgers, ham and mince. A study of 156 men conducted by Harvard University found that those who regularly ate processed meat – we're talking more than the equivalent of a rasher of bacon a day – had significantly lower sperm counts than those who didn't.

“Okay, so what?” You may be thinking. Another week, another study. If you're at all scientifically minded, you'll be sighing at the confusion between causation and correlation and the fact that finding an association between the consumption of processed meat and fertility problems doesn't mean that there's a clear causal link there. You'll keep eating your bacon, thank you very much.

But hang on a minute. Think about the accumulation of these sorts of studies. Processed comes up again and again as being associated with all sorts of diseases, particularly heart disease and cancer, and early death. It's not completely clear what it is that is so bad about these meats – traditionally, high fat content has been blamed but these days it is thought that high levels of salt and chemical preservatives might be the culprits. Whatever the reason, processed meat is clearly not a health food. Some researchers – doctors specialising in gastroenterology in particular – have gone so far as to say that none of us should be eating processed meat at all. Not ever. There isn't a safe amount.

So perhaps it's time to face the facts. There may not be a “safe” amount of processed meat consumption. It's always going to mean taking a bit of a risk with your health. You might decide, mouth-watering at the thought of a bacon buttie, that it's a risk worth taking. And that's fine. That's what free will is for. But free will is best exercised in the form of informed decisions, and the information that processed meat is pretty much unequivocally bad for you is important information.

So are there other foods that ideally shouldn't be consumed at all, even in moderation? Things are pretty clear cut with processed meat, but what about all those other foods that are reviled as junk one week and then hailed as the new super food the next? Well, the jury certainly seems to be out on red wine (think chronic liver damage versus precious antioxidants), whole grains (staff of life or yet another source of unnecessary starchy carbohydrates that wreaks havoc with insulin levels?) and oily fish (precious omega-6 fats but risk of mercury poisoning), to name but a few example. But there are a few foods that pretty much everyone agrees really don't do us any favours. Here are the top three offenders:

  • Sugar: It's delicious and evolution has programmed us to seek it out. But it has no dietary value apart from calories. Worse, it messes with insulin levels like nothing else, and that has been linked to chronic inflammation, obesity, diabetes and all sorts of other diseases. Sugar is everywhere, but sweetened drinks and confectionery of all descriptions are particularly bad offenders.
  • Highly processed flour: It's everywhere. Glow-in-the-dark white bread and mass-produced cakes and biscuits are obvious offenders, but these days highly-processed wheat flour of some sort is added to all kinds of foods, from sauces to sausages. Once it's reached this state, there really is no goodness left in wheat (whatever your views about the health status of wheat might have been in the first place). It is little better than sugar in terms of what it does to your body.
  • Highly processed fats: When food manufacturers mess with fat, that's bad news. Whether this involves heating it up to temperatures so high that toxic products are created, or altering the fat's chemical structure to create trans-fats, the end result for our health is the same: It's just not a very good idea. Mass-produced cakes and biscuits, doughnuts, margarine and crisps are the worst offenders.

Have you noticed the common link between these unequivocally bad foods? It's the processing. We've got so good at mass-producing food to feed this overpopulated planet that we've created some real nutritional monsters.

Again, as for processed meat, the fact that sugar, white flour and highly processed fats are really, really, REALLY bad for you does not necessarily mean that you have to choose to avoid them. It's your choice to make. But it might as well be an informed one. In some contexts, you really can't kid yourself that a little won't hurt, everything in moderation, and so on. You need to be honest with yourself and accept that you are taking a risk with your health. It may feel like a risk worth taking for the pleasure of the consumption, but it's still a risk.




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