It’s fair to say that Dr Zoe Harcombe PhD doesn’t always toe the official line where dietary guidelines are concerned. Here are the nutrition beliefs she’d like to bust (they will surprise you)
Dr Zoe Harcombe isn’t exactly known for sitting on the fence. The nutrition expert, researcher and author has a PhD in public health nutrition and a special interest in obesity, and she’s particularly eminent when it comes to debunking fake health news and going under the hood of sensationalist dietary headlines. Her latest book, The Diet Fix , condenses her 20 years of nutritional analysis and research to dissect the diet lies you’ve been told, explore why conventional diets don’t work and present a ten-step plan to help you to maintain a healthy weight without feeling hungry, deprived or stuck in the familiar yo-yo weight gain and loss cycle. Zoe not only has the academic know-how to back up her approach, but she’s also been there and done that where dieting and disordered eating is concerned.
A former calorie counter and serial dieter, at one point Zoe existed almost solely on apples and cups of black coffee, aiming for a 400 calorie daily intake before entering into a period of bingeing and subsequently resuming starvation again. She describes her late teens as “the worst period of my life” due to her eating disorder, but has now been in recovery for over 20 years and “enjoys food in ways that I could never have imagined”. Her turning point came when she got real about the fact that punishing herself with food wasn’t working from either a weight loss or general wellbeing perspective:
“I realised I couldn’t carry on when I sat back and reflected that, after ten years of trying to eat less in order to lose weight, it wasn’t working and it never had. I stopped attempting to lose weight and prioritised my health instead - I shifted my view to seeing food as a friend and appreciating it for the nutrients and energy it gave me rather than the weight loss it could facilitate. I recognised that food was there to nourish me, help to give me great skin and hair and allow me to do the things I love in life. I concentrated on breaking my “addiction” and quitting my constant cravings, removing weight loss as my “goal”. As a result, I felt better and lost a bit of weight naturally anyway without it being the focus.”
As such, Zoe understands the turmoil and fear that can surround food and weight loss from both her extensive research and personal experience and is here to shed some light on some common dietary misconceptions, from why she takes issue with calorie counting to why the ‘eat less, move more’ equation doesn’t quite add up…
MYTH 1. Calorie counting is the key to weight loss
Zoe doesn’t hold much truck with this, despite calorie counting being a long established method of weight maintenance and loss since its popularisation by American physician Lulu Hunt Peters in 1918 in her book Diet and Health with Key to the Calories. Quite aside from the maths induced headache involved with constantly totting up calories (and that’s saying something given that Harcombe has an MA in maths from Cambridge University), concentrating solely on the calorific “value” of food often prevents us from appreciating its real nutritional benefit, not to mention our enjoyment of it:
“A collective obsession with calories has lead to us seeing a plate of food as a number rather than a source of nutrients. For example, if you consider the ‘bang for your buck’ when consuming 400 calories of food, technically you’d get “more” if you had processed snacks or calorie controlled snack bars, but a serving of buttery scrambled eggs with smoked salmon would deliver far more high quality protein and nutrition, even if it looks like you’re getting “less” for your calorie spend.
“Despite this, restaurants, cafés and public health organisations slap calorie counts and limits on almost everything we buy, yet the ‘calorie deficit theory’ (that you need to create a deficit of 3500 calories to lose 1lb of fat) still cannot be proven. We then end up eating ‘fake foods’ when we should instead be choosing food for the nutrients that it contains.”
It’s not just the fact that we’re missing out on valuable vitamins and minerals in a calorie trade off either according to Zoe - attempting to maintain a calorie shortfall sets most of us up for misery in the long-run:
“It’s bad enough that the calorie theory is a myth. It’s bad enough that you won’t lose the amount of weight that you expect. It’s even worse that you will lower your metabolism such that you need to continue to eat substantially less merely to avoid regain.”
Instead of deciding on a day’s food intake according to what the calculator generates, Zoe recommends shifting your view of food so that you can appreciate what it can do for you, rather than what it will ‘allow’ you. For example, “choose food because it will sustain you, strengthen your hair and skin and enhance concentration. The higher calorie plate of buttery eggs and salmon would do just this but the sugary low-cal snacks wouldn’t, and given that the fat-carb combination in many processed foods and refined sugar heavy products is so irresistible and addictive, chances are that you’d be tempted to eat more of these anyway, making the low calorie argument redundant and weight gain more likely.”
MYTH 2. Eat less and move more and you’ll automatically lose weight
Most of us seem pretty sold on this one and it seems like sensible advice on the surface, but Zoe maintains that if we don’t have enough petrol in the tank to start with, we’re unlikely to be able to maintain this rhythm from both a mental and physiological perspective:
“The first time you try this, sure it might work. The second time, however, you’ll probably notice that the results aren’t as good and the third time it might not work at all. Our body is masterful at adjusting - just like a car, you can’t put less fuel in yet expect greater output. The body will do what it can to ‘turn the heating off’ or make economies and this affects everything from your mood to your reproductive health to your weight. Basically, your body isn’t simply a cash machine for fat - it doesn’t count calories as currency or use them in the way you’d think.”
Not to mention the fact that this pattern is even harder to sustain because, as Zoe highlights, as soon as we start to eat less, we’re conversely driven to eat more as we’re hungry. Add in the ‘doing more’ part and we’ll be even hungrier. In Zoe’s view eating three essential protein and fat based meals a day, reducing our dependence on blood sugar rocketing processed carbohydrates (more on that in a moment) and building movement into your routine is far more effective for weight maintenance and loss and overall wellbeing than tipping the scales in the ‘eat less, move more’ direction.
MYTH 3. You should base meals around the EatWell guide
Zoe has somewhat controversially renamed the EatWell guide the ‘EatBadly guide’, principally owing to the fact that “it advises people to base their diet around starchy carbohydrates, yet the body can’t use carbohydrates for the body maintenance roles, such as building bone density, fighting infection or repairing muscles and cells. Those activities require fat and protein. Hence any carbohydrate that you consume needs to be used up as energy, or it will be stored as fat.” Zoe also impresses that the EatWell guide as it stands is “deficient in fat soluble vitamins such as vitamins A and E while recommending insufficient fat and protein and excess carbohydrates.”
To redress the balance, Harcombe instead suggests basing meals around ‘real food’ that you’d find in nature - think eggs, meat, fish, pulses, grains, plants, dairy products and small amounts of olive oil or coconut oil. She notes that there are no ‘essential carbohydrates’ in nature, only carb proteins and fat proteins - the only 100 per cent carbohydrate based food is sugar (sucrose), that brings no vitamins, minerals, complete proteins or essential fats to the table so should ideally be limited. Zoe’s not a ketogenic or paleo diet follower where carb dodging is concerned, but she does highlight that even ‘real food’ carbs such as oats, brown rice and baked potatoes can cause blood sugar to rise and lead to weight gain when consumed too often - in general she opts for maximum two carbohydrate inclusive meals a day with her third meal based around ‘fat protein’ such as meat, eggs and dairy rather than ‘carb protein’ found in grains, pulses and beans. Throw vegetables into the mix and you’re golden, although bear in mind that simply chasing fruit and vegetables doesn’t make for a healthy diet per se...
MYTH 4. You need to eat ‘5 a day’
Zoe’s keen to point out that you shouldn’t ditch vegetables and fruit from your diet by any means, but ‘5 a day’ is an arbitrary target devised by the food industry without any specific evidence or research behind it. It’s an achievable, easy to remember goal, but Zoe believes that fruit and vegetables shouldn’t be equated in this way as fruit contains fructose which causes blood sugar to rise, particularly when eaten in large quantities. Zoe also reckons that consuming fruit and vegetables coated in pesticides is a growing health issue so recommends that, when getting your fill of fruit and vegetables, that you opt for organic where possible and ideally shop seasonally and locally if you can as plants are likely to have more nutritional value and fewer pollutants and pesticides involved in their production. In a nutshell, Zoe describes vegetables and fruit as a “marker” of health, not a “maker” in themselves. Speaking of which...
MYTH 5. A vegan diet is healthier
From ‘veganuary’ to adopting a vegan diet for personal or ethical reasons, eating a plant-based diet is totally up to the individual, but former vegetarian Zoe began to include animal products in her diet again after extensively studying nutrition and coming to the conclusion that the healthiest foods are often animal derived and that to get all of the macro and micronutrients to enable optimal nutrition, she’d need to eat meat and fish again. She states the example of hitting the 15 mcg of vitamin D target - a small tin of oily fish would do the job but she would have needed to have eaten 39 eggs to achieve the equivalent amount as a vegetarian. She emphasises that it’s still possible to eat a healthy diet as a vegetarian or vegan but it can be tricky to get sufficient micronutrients, ‘fat protein’ and ‘complete protein’ when following a vegan diet especially:
“Supplementation could help, but supplements would need to work in the same way as the nutrients would in the body for maximum benefit and this can be hard to guarantee. Basically, if anyone tried to tell you that a vegan diet is superior from a health point of view, there’s no nutritional basis to support this.”
MYTH 6. Go to the gym and you’ll be slim
A particularly topical subject given the annual January gym membership rush, but Zoe thinks that forcing yourself onto the gym floor could potentially make things worse not better in terms of health and weight:
“Slogging it to the gym is actually more likely to make you more hungry rather than help with weight maintenance or loss initially. It’s far better for your mood, muscles, weight and wellbeing to build activity into daily life rather than punish yourself in an expensive, artificially lit gym for half an hour or so and then spend the rest of day sitting down or ‘rewarding’ yourself for your gym session by way of empty calories.
“A sedentary lifestyle is the second most significant health risk we face after smoking so incorporating as much functional activity as possible into our day is key. There are so many ways to do this - try designing your office to be as inefficient as possible so that you need to get up regularly to fetch paper from the printer or run errands. Do push-ups while you wait for the kettle to boil, walk whenever and wherever you can, carry heavy shopping and tweak your commute so that you’re getting off the bus a stop earlier or climbing the escalator on the tube. Cleaning is really effective too - washing windows and mopping floors delivers an all-body workout that’s more balanced than an isolated exercise machine. That said, where exercise is concerned, just do anything you really enjoy. Dance, walk the dog and snatch moments of movements where you can.”
MYTH 7. You’ll have “good” days and “bad” days
Zoe rejects the idea of attaching value to food, your body and yourself depending on what’s been on your plate that day:
“Look at food only as nourishment. Don’t force yourself to go to bed hungry because you’ve been “bad” - simply reflect on what’s worked and what hasn’t in the past and recognise when you were in a positive space and mindset and when things felt out of control. Taking ownership of the past and focusing on changing lifestyle habits gradually is far more useful than jumping on the latest grapefruit diet because things aren’t going as you’d imagined or you need to “punish” yourself. A healthy lifestyle doesn’t consist of extremes.”
Read more in The Diet Fix by Zoe Harcombe , £7.99 (Short Books Ltd)
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