15 June 2017

Dr Stacey Lockyer
Nutrition Scientist

Data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that as a nation we aren’t meeting the vast majority of dietary guidelines. Our intake of saturated fat, free sugars and salt are too high and we are not getting enough fibre, fruit and vegetables and oily fish. Two thirds of adults are overweight and obese and there is also evidence of inadequate micronutrient intake. So do consumers have an accurate understanding of what a healthy diet is, and where are they getting their information from?  

In a national survey, equal proportions of consumers believed that food labels and the internet were the most reliable sources of information about food. While information on food labels must be accurate by law, health information on the web isn’t always correct, which is a concern. However, there is an easy way to check. The Information Standard accreditation scheme, supported by NHS England, is a quality mark which identifies reliable and trustworthy health and social care information so is useful to look out for when looking for nutrition information. The NHS Choices website and around 220 other health organisations including BNF (nutrition.org.uk) are members of the scheme, with the Information Standard logo being displayed on pages providing information for consumers.  

Nutritionists, dietitians and health professionals were believed to be the most reliable source by the largest proportion of consumers in the survey. Registered dietitians are qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems at an individual and wider public health level. But perhaps surprisingly, the title ‘nutritionist’ is not protected by law and so anyone (qualified or unqualified) can call themselves a nutritionist and provide dietary advice which may not be evidence-based. The Association for Nutrition are attempting to tackle this issue with the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists. Registrants must demonstrate knowledge and understanding of core competencies in nutrition science and consumers can search for individuals on the register before deciding whether or not to engage with them.

The sudden popularity (or unpopularity) of particular products demonstrates the influence of food bloggers on consumer food choice, and the inclusion or exclusion of these foods may not actually be healthy. For example, coconut oil, heralded as a cure-all product, has a very high saturated fat content, raises blood cholesterol in human studies and there is very little evidence it confers any health benefits. Similarly honeys, syrups (such as agave and date) and nectars (such as coconut blossom nectar), are often portrayed as healthier choices than table sugar but in fact all count as free sugars, the type of sugars that PHE advise we should minimise in our diets to reduce the risk of both dental caries and weight gain. Fruit juice is a good source of vitamins and smoothies also provide fibre. These count as up to 1 of your 5 A DAY but portions should be limited to 150 ml per day due to their free sugars content, so hold off juicing everything in the fridge!

The concept of ‘superfoods’ is also misleading. For example, all fruits and vegetables are good for us and eating plenty and a variety is key, not choosing those with the most marketed health halos and a matching high price tag - because a healthy, balanced diet can comprise inexpensive, everyday foods. Finally, avoiding entire food groups such as dairy products or starchy carbohydrates when there is no medical reason to do so is not advisable as this can result in nutritional imbalance and even deficiencies.

UK dietary guidelines are based on the best scientific evidence available so to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need and reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases, consume a diet that’s in line with the Eatwell Guide and importantly, seek dietary information from reputable sources.

We would like to encourage registered nutritionists to make their voices heard! If you would like to communicate an evidence-based message, please volunteer to write a BNF blog or give a BNF talk on a topic of your choice by emailing us at postbox@nutrition.org.uk.