Did you know sugar’s good for you? Yes, you read that correctly. And so is fat. Fat’s good for you as well. And salt. Salt’s essential.

I’m not aiming for controversy here, by saying this – or even setting out the basis for debate. The above three assertions are plain fact.

It’s all about where we get these things from, though and in what amounts. Onions have plenty of sugar in them – just stick some in a heated non-stick pan until they caramelise for an idea of how sugary they are. Sweet, tasty – and healthy.  Milk’s got natural sugars in it too – in fact a pint of the stuff contains around 25g of sugars.

And salt – that much-maligned baddy of the nutrition world? Without salt, we’d all be dead. So let’s not be too harsh on sodium chloride – that ubiquitous, taste-enhancing and very cheap condiment.

A diet that contained zero salt, zero fat and zero sugar wouldn’t be a diet at all – it would be a death sentence. It would also be so restrictive that killing yourself would actually be pretty hard work. And you’d also have to steer clear of just about every food group!

Now, I’m not saying for a second that this means we can just eat whatever we like (although as it happens I do – we’ll get on to that in a bit). What I am saying (in emphatic italics) is that it’s all about balance.

The 16th Century German-Swiss doctor and founding father of toxicology Paracelsus – a man who almost certainly knew his stuff – is famed for the following piece of wisdom:

All substances are poison, and nothing is without poison; the dose is what differentiates between a remedy and a poison.

This is something I wish I’d known, aged 5, when – for reasons long forgotten – I climbed up on a chair to the sink, filled a glass of water, downed it, and did the same thing repeatedly until my stomach said ‘no more’. I over-hydrated, and pretty soon I felt like my entire body was just a water-filled balloon. I remember then lying down, feeling light-headed, dizzy, and nauseous in a way that I’ve never felt since. Luckily my case of over-hydration was mild.

Why did I drink all that water? Maybe I’d heard on the television that water was ‘good for you’ and taken it literally – downing glass after glass in the hope that it would somehow make me into a better kid.

But there’s the thing – while of course water’s good for us, the human body doesn’t operate like a savings account. It can’t make a virtue of being overloaded and then reward you for it with interest. The human body works more on a system based around sufficiency. If you don’t have a sufficient amount of water, you’ll experience thirst, dehydration and so on. But if you have enough, that’s that. No gold star for any more.

And it’s the same with nutrients. When was the last time you ever checked, say, the amount of iodine on the side of a food packet? I’m guessing never. You probably get all the iodine you need without giving it a second thought, if you were brought up in the first world, and consume fish and dairy products.

Iodine deficiency is very serious – and can cause serious health problems. This is beyond any doubt. But in areas of the world where the diet is rich in it and deficiency is uncommon, nobody ever says ahh, get some more iodine – it’s good for you! We have enough, and in having enough there are (generally) no resultant health problems.

So, sufficiency. And what I believe is this – that rather than thinking of diet as being eating things that are ‘good for us’ it’s really a balance between getting enough of the stuff we need – whether it’s fat or salt or iodine or water – and avoiding too much of anything. Not enough vitamin C and you’ll get scurvy. Too much and you’ll probably get diarrhoea.

Remember the (pardon the pun) hugely entertaining film Super Size Me, in which the intrepid Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s for a month? Undoubtedly it was a brave thing to do – and unsurprisingly Spurlock’s health suffered. What would happen, though, if you confined yourself to, say, grapes for a month? My guess is that your body would go into some kind of ‘under attack’ mode and you’d lose weight – with a percentage ‘weight’ being muscle mass.

Spurlock’s premise is sound – that too much of one thing to the exclusion of all else is likely to have adverse consequences. What the film doesn’t do is look at occasional fast food consumption within the context of a balanced diet.

What’s in a well-known (some might even say ‘iconic’ fast food burger? This, according to MyFitnessPal:
490 calories, containing
24g fat
28g protein
8g sugars

… as well as 25% of your calcium, 11% of your iron and 3% of your vitamin C RDAs.

NHS Choices says I should eat ‘no more than 30g of saturated fat a day’. So that one iconic burger isn’t taking me above the limits, so long as I stay away from pies and fry-ups for the rest of the day. The sugars in the burger – 8g – amount to well under the daily NHS recommendation of 70g.

Now, imagine if you had a handy app that comprised of a series of bars going from zero to 100% for all the things we need to stay healthy. Protein, sugars, salt, and so on. Yes, iodine too. Imagine also the app going into degrees of warning territory for overconsumption.

It’s easy to see that the burger – packed with energy, also has a decent amount of protein, and is no stranger to fat – would, if consumed to the exclusion of all else, have the dial for fat pretty quickly nudging into ‘too much’ territory.

The ‘eat grapes for a month’ alternative? You’d be missing a shedload of protein, for a start. And getting trace amounts of fat. The net health result would be just as askew as Spurlock’s after a month.

I mentioned above that I eat what I like. And this is true. I’m about half a stone heavier than I’d like to be, so I watch what I eat – and the extra half stone never disappears – but, at the same time it doesn’t grow into more than that. What I do in terms of diet is fairly simple, really – nothing is ‘bad’ or off-limits. Even that burger – I’ll happily have one of them for lunch, once every two or three months. Maybe my being a half stone overweight has acted as a motivator for balanced eating, even if I’ve never quite found a way to shed the surplus seven pounds.

As Paracelsus said, it’s all about the dose. What harm is the occasional fry-up going to do? My guess is none – none at all. But the keyword here is ‘dose’. The rest of the time I’m making sure that my diet is balanced.

The title of this post mentions the good, the bad and the ugly. Good and bad are largely misused in common discussions about food in terms of what’s good or bad for us, as I’ve at least attempted to argue here. Ugly is the result when balance is lost. As Morgan Spurlock could no doubt tell you.



Ian McCartney

Hi, I'm blogging here to share my thoughts on health and wellbeing. My aim is to look beyond the hype of the headlines and hopefully talk some health sense. My main interests are nutrition, fitness and mental health - and how they are all closely linked to each other

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