The government’s latest Eatwell Guide does not offer healthy diet recommendations and has been formulated by too many people with industry ties, a leading expert has claimed.
In an editorial published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr Zoe Harcombe also says the continuing advice to follow a high-carb, low-fat diet has contributed to the rise in obesity and diabetes across the UK.
The new Eatwell Guide was released in March by Public Health England (PHE) to replace the old Eatwell Plate.
In response to Dr Harcombe’s comments, PHE has insisted the guide was created with the nation’s best interests at heart.
The Eatwell Guide visually represents the government’s recommendations on diet, but Dr Harcomb, of the Institute of Clinical Exercise and Health Science, University of West of Scotland, has said its contents are “not evidence-based”.
In the latest guide, the segment proportions have changed, with starchy foods rising from 33% to 38% and fruit and veg up from 33% to 40%, while milk and dairy have almost halved from 15% to 8%.
The previous segment of foods high in fat and sugars has morphed into unsaturated oils and spreads, which prompted one of the UK’s largest food manufacturers to take out ads in national newspapers celebrating their “dedicated section,” Dr Harcombe claims.
She adds: “The Eatwell Guide was formulated by a group appointed by Public Health England, consisting primarily of members of the food and drink industry rather than independent experts.”
But according to Dr Harcombe, the primary flaw of the Eatwell Guide “as with its predecessors, is that it is not evidence based”.
“There has been no randomised controlled trial of a diet based on the Eatwell Plate or Guide, let alone one large enough, long enough, with whole population generalisability,” she writes.
The emphasis on carbs is the result of dietary advice to restrict fat, but this was not based on the evidence, while the advice on carbs has never been tested, she says.
Dr Harcombe adds that in private correspondence with the Food Standards Agency in 2009, the Agency confirmed that the food group percentages for the Eatwell Plate were based on weight.
But food weight doesn’t matter to the human body; what counts are calories, macro and micronutrients, she says.
“Given the vastly different calorie content of 100g of fruit and vegetables vs 100g of oils, the plate proportions change substantially when calories are counted,” she writes.
According to Dr Harcombe, it could be said that the high-carb, low-fat diet has been tested on the UK population, but with negative impact, as the rates of obesity and diabetes have soared since the 70s and 80s.
“The association between the introduction of the dietary guidelines, and concomitant increases in obesity and diabetes, deserves examination,” she suggests, pointing out that several recent reviews have suggested a causal relationship between the two.
“The greatest flaw of the latest public health dietary advice might be the missed opportunity to deliver a simple and powerful message to return people to the diets we enjoyed before carbohydrate conditions convened. But when the who’s who of the food industry were represented on the group, ‘Eat Real Food!’ was never a likely outcome,” she concludes.
In response to Dr Harcombe’s report, Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said official dietary recommendations are “based on reviews of all available evidence, including randomised control trials”.
“The Eatwell Guide is a tool, underpinned by this advice, to help people understand what a healthy balanced diet might look like,” she added.
“PHE commissioned the University of Oxford, who used the official dietary recommendations and high-quality nutrition data, to develop the Eatwell Guide.
“Prior to this, PHE established a reference group with the limited remit to gather views on potential methods but it had no influence on the final product.
“PHE engage with a broad range of stakeholders when we make changes to advice, and this includes representatives of the food and drink industry. As the organisation that advises the government on dietary guidelines, it would be irresponsible for us to not engage with those who produce and market the food we all eat.”
Dr Harcombe is not the first to question the reliability of the Eatwell Guide.
Last month the National Obesity Forum (NOF) and the Public Health Collaboration released a damning report urging the public to ignore the guide, claiming that the “demonisation” of saturated fat was actually fuelling the UK’s obesity crisis.
Earlier this week the government announced it would be launching a review into the impact saturated fats have on health.