Martin Hutchison believes the root of the recent decline in Scottish and UK life expectancy is our poor diet, and that official government guidelines may deserve some of the blame.

Scots are dying younger. That is the essence of the recently reported decline in Scottish life expectancy. This is not the outcome, to put it gently, that was anticipated after 20 years of devolved Scottish government.

This disaster points to the fact that one of the biggest policy failures in Scotland is in public health and now there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that one of the key authors of this disaster is the dietary advice given by the Scottish and UK governments to the people of Scotland.

Of course Labourites will suspect that austerity might also be a factor in declining life expectancy, but it is worth noting that that in the US life expectancy has also started to decline, without the US experiencing the huge cuts to public spending experienced in the UK.

It’s also worth noting that the brutish austerity and intense social distress experienced by Spain and Greece do not as of yet seem to have made their way into an absolute increase in mortality.

One common factor between the US and the UK is that we adopted the same dietary guidelines in the early 1980s. Here’s what happened in the US:

The UK and Scotland have followed this curve almost exactly after we copied these dietary guidelines in 1983. Eventually the tidal wave of obesity and associated illness caused US life expectancy to start to decline from 2013, and in Scotland this looks to have kicked in from 2018. The UK adopted the guidelines six years after the US.

Two thirds of Scots are overweight, and third of us are obese, and these figures are rising relentlessly.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson has recently lost weight and reversed his diabetes by following a diet plan which rejected the central tenets of the advice that the Scottish and UK governments issue. Think about that for moment.

Public Health is not a mainstream concern in Scottish Labour politics, but if Tom Watson did the right thing for his health by ignoring the official advice then a possible implication of that is that our policies aimed at improving social conditions may instead be making us sick.

It’s possible that all our efforts will be confounded by the burden of diseases that are associated with poor diet, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, stroke, atherosclerosis and some cancers. It is critical that we get the dietary advice correct and here the Scottish Government has that responsibility so the next Labour led Scottish government has to get this right.

Now to be clear the nutritional advice offered by the Scottish Government is the same as the UK government’s and is supplied to them by the nutritional scientists at Public Health England. And this advice is broadly the same as that issued by governments across the world; the Scottish version can be found here.

You would assume that the advice is all salads, small plates, no sugars, no chips, no frying and base all your meals on green vegetables. But wait. This is not what this advice tells us sickening Scots.

Here is the advice: you should “base your meals around starchy carbohydrate foods” and that they should be cooked in “fats that are usually from plant sources” such as vegetable oil.

In other words: chips. It tells us to eat chips.

And if you’re in the chippy already, how about a deep fried Mars Bar? The formal advice fits – firstly they are fried in vegetable oil which is recommended as healthy, secondly they are coated in a flour based batter and the guidelines say that grains are good and a foundation of your diet, and finally a Mars Bar contains 30.4 grams of sugar but the good news is that you are allowed an astonishing 30g per day, so we are good.

Scots can have chips and deep fried Mars Bars every day as long as they have some fish, fruit and vegetables on the same day. Guidelines complied with!

And that advice to cook in vegetables oils is questionable too. These oils were developed in the 1930s to go in car engines, and now there is great concern that they cause inflammation (which causes diabetes, heart disease and stroke). However, knock yourself out on veggie oil says Public Health England.

And that advice “base your meals around starchy carbohydrate foods” is staggering when you consider that starch is a combination of sugars, and a large baked potato is the equivalent of 19 teaspoonfuls of sugar as far as your body is concerned.

This advice is on starchy foods is complemented by the advice that foods based on grains, particularly whole grains, which we are told are healthy, should form the basis of one or two of your daily meals. But farmers know that to fatten an animal for market you feed it grains. Why do Public Health England think grains will keep you in the trim?

Interestingly when we started to add grains to cat and dog food they started to become obese for the first time in history. Grains like starches are collections of sugars at the molecular level and when ingested they flood your bloodstream with glucose. A small bread roll is the equivalent of a lump of sugar.

We need to look again at dietary advice, and we need to ensure that guidelines are not produced by scientists working with corporate interests. Chemical companies, food companies, farmers and the large supermarkets all have an interest in ensuring their bottom line isn’t damaged by government advice. We cannot sacrifice people’s health on the altar of corporate profits.

Indeed it may not be sufficient in itself to remove corporate interests from the existing process, as old habits die hard. Scottish Labour should set up a new dietary advice panel using untainted Scottish scientific expertise, nutritional, medical, and biological with the process chaired by physicist or a chemist. It could also utilise the best international scientific expertise available. There must be absolutely no use of private interests or public bodies which are controlled or influenced by private interests. Our lives depend on it.

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8 thoughts on “Dying younger

  1. Type 2 Diabetes, not just Diabetes please! It’s important to specify – Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes are very different conditions – Type 1 is not reversible through diet, though there is growing evidence that low carb is very beneficial for Type 1 Diabetes too.

  2. Good for you Martin. All makes sense. If we ever stop talking about Brexit then we can get on to talking about all other important things such a dietary advice.

  3. Interesting article but does not focus on the real issue – lifestyle choices.

    It is not poverty that leads people to eat too much. It is not the government’s fault if young people prefer to play computer games than play sport. Ultimately, people make choices. Some choices shorten life expectancy and some choice lengthen life expectancy.

  4. Definitely thought provoking I have asked the kids from my local academy why they form long ques at lunchtime for fast food at the shop rather than stay in school answer those healthy school dinners are tasteless .
    Also pound land were asking at the till for donations for the food bank I gave them a donation money went in the till chocolates went in the foodbank basket .
    Also CH 5 ran a programme the nations favourite crisps don’t know what won did not watch .
    Then fast food vans near schools. I see them every day that’s just some of what you are up against

  5. It’s useful to highlight the slowness of Government to respond to new info on diet but we still need to have a wider focus on this. Firstly it’s not clear that Government sponsored health education is effective at all even when accurate. Also, people are probably more exposed to health messaging from elsewhere some of which will be up to date and some of which will be simply selling highly modified expensive food/exercise products. Secondly, an important question is why people continue to eat unhealthy food when they do have access to information about healthy diets. The answer to that often reflects political positions, for example, the patronising view that people are just feckless as opposed to highlighting poverty or the political power of the food industry. In fact there is a lot of research evidence on this which suggests stressful lifestyles for example shift work, sleep deprivation, time poverty and many more aspects of poverty drive people to consume cheap carbohydrates and fats. Poverty also reduces access to exercise. I’m afraid I dont think that updating Government advice, though important, can tackle this. It is a problem that demands broad solutions and policies.

    1. I agree Brenda when working I had to nip into the shop for something to eat cola roast chicken crisps etc sometimes chip shop on the way home and the icecream van parked next to me .

  6. Martin
    I was at my Surgery on Monday plenty of dietary advice available and at the Pharmacy next door

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