We’re learning more and more about what we should be eating, yet many people’s diets remain an absolute mess. So how come life expectancy is lengthening?
What does a balanced diet mean? The right amount of carbs and protein? Less sugar and salt, more healthy veg? Organic rather than processed?
If you listen to researchers, it’s quite easy to become confused. This is because the whole area of nutrition, health and diet is in a state of upheaval, with contemporary studies ripping up the old script, providing us with more and more answers but, unfortunately, more and more questions, too.
For example, it’s not uncommon to be told that the Mediterranean diet is king. It is also not uncommon to hear contrasting reasons for why this is so.
Furthermore, it’s widely accepted that we’re eating far too much sugar, which leads to serious health problems in later life. However, we’re also living longer. How can both things be true?
If you ask scientists working in this field, it becomes clear that the latter is a false flag. We’re living longer but, through medicine and treatments, we are often merely adding very unhealthy years onto the end of our lives.
The time to fight against the unhealthy swansong of your life was yesterday, five years ago, when you first left home. But, given that time travel isn’t an option, today will have to do.
“There can be decades of lag time leading up to cardiovascular disease,” said Dr Ronan Murphy, from the Department of Health and Human Performance at Dublin City University.
Murphy is investigating the causes of heart disease and, most pressingly, honing in on the window between when we’re healthy and when we’re unhealthy, to help us fight against what could ultimately kill us.
“Food is medicine,” he said, but some medicines might be losing their effects.
“You can be eating the right food, but you might not be getting what you need from it. Carrots today, for example, provide less nutrition than carrots from the 1950s.”
The solution to this would be examining why carrots are good for us, what ingredients we need, and how we can get them.
One of the main elements to help fight against heart disease, and a bulging number of other ailments, is magnesium.
“Thousands of genes in a human are binding sites for magnesium. Up to 30pc of human genes, just for binding. Magnesium is one of the big three of life,” he said, with taurine and potassium rounding out the podium.
However, a major restriction in the study of how all these ingredients work in the human body is specialism, with too much focus on one thing, and not enough looking at the bigger picture.
“Looking at one area, or one marker is too isolated. Everything is interlinked,” said Murphy.
In an era when healthy eating is once again in fashion, and scientists are pushing forward with projects to deliver drugs or foods to tomorrow’s world, it could be surprising to find out that the answer to what ‘health’ means might lie in the past. It might even lie in your own past.
For example, a study from north of the Arctic circle a few years ago helped to explain just how important diet is to people’s lives. Actually, Lars Olov Bygren’s research did more, highlighting the role that diet plays from father to son, or even grandfather to grandson.
In Överkalix, a harsh environment to survive in even at the best of times, there are wonderful village archives, detailing population numbers, deaths, causes of deaths and, thanks to particularly fastidious parish records, crop details going back centuries.
Good and bad harvests are logged, along with drought and famine. It’s all there, written in ink. What Bygren, a professor at Umeå University in Sweden, was faced with was a nice social experiment.
Should someone give birth during a famine, for example, he could track that family tree and see if health issues were the same as those experienced by descendants of someone who gave birth during a feast.
More acutely, if a boy survived famine between the ages of 9 and 12, his grandchildren were, on average, healthier than the grandchildren of someone who didn’t suffer such hardship.
“It was a very interesting discovery,” said Bygren, whose research was the basis for a Radiolab documentary a few years ago.
When we aren’t gifted with generations of datasets, though, sometimes we just need to look into our own guts.
That’s the mantra that APC Microbiome Institute in Cork is built on, with gastrointestinal investigation the crux of what its scientists believe is the true answer sheet for human health.
“A balanced diet is the most important thing, giving you all the essential nutrients to maintain health,” said Prof Catherine Stanton, leader of the research at APC Microbiome and Teagasc Food Research Centre.
“A mix of dairy, meat, vegetables, fruit and, of course, fish is very important on an ongoing basis.”
However, beyond that, there are some interesting elements that help the body function. In March this year, Stanton and her team released research that showed porridge’s importance to our physical wellbeing.
The study, published in BioMed Central, found that consumption of oat beta glucan not only lowered blood cholesterol, but it also helped to keep body weight down and benefited the microbes living in the intestines (gut microbiota).
“Beta glucan stimulates the composition of microbes in the human gut and they produce the relevant beneficial metabolites to promote a healthy gut,” Stanton explained.
“Beta glucan has an FDA-approved claim of promotion of heart health. There is a lot of human data available to confirm that beta glucan has benefits.”
Other studies in the gut have directly led to changes in what we consume at a younger age. For example, APC and other institutes have looked at breast milk, and the role it plays in infant health.
The sugars in human milk are what keep bifidobacteria in a newborn baby’s gut. These bacteria “do an awful lot of good for developing the gut”, according to Fergus Shanahan, director at APC.
Through learning more and more about the role the milk plays with the bacteria, and that bacteria plays with the development of an infant’s physiology, tangible changes are being made.
“Infant formula used to be designed along the grounds of providing adequate nutrients and calories for babies,” said Shanahan.
“Now, infant formula products being generated to try and mimic human milk and its influence on the microbiome. Someday, we might even influence what bugs babies should be colonised with, but we’re a bit further away from that yet.”
Research into babies’ diets, cardiovascular disease biomarkers, generational patterns in remote Swedish villages, and a historic Irish diet of porridge doesn’t play its part in helping us live longer – it plays its part in helping us to live healthier, for longer.
And if all that is too much of a headache, just eat more yoghurt.