HEALTH

There is every reason to believe that the way we eat contributes to our health. At one extreme this simply means having enough food.

Once the food supply is sufficient and affordable, people can begin to seek the most healthy diet for their lifestyle and circumstances. This has been happening for several decades in the more affluent Western societies. As more societies gain access to a wider range of foods, it is important that research in the area of food and nutrition is equal to the challenge, that the findings are available, and that they are interpreted in a scientifically sound way.

Nutrition researchers should also take into account the diet of earlier and contemporary hunter-gatherer populations, because this is the longest food experience that humans have had. For example, the food culture of Aboriginal Australians was characterised by considerable variety of both plant and animal foods and the use of lean meat or fish. The diet was low in salt sodium) and in added sugar, contained little or no alcohol, was combined with physical activity, and was associated with good life expectancy. Current national dietary guidelines embody many of the characteristics of the hunter-gatherer diet, modified for twentieth century life. When in doubt, or when radical dietary proposals are made, it is worth referring to the longest human experience!

When considering food and health, food patterns that may help to prevent particular health problems need to be distinguished from foods that may help in the treatment of various diseases. The two are not necessarily the same. For example, a diet that helps to prevent cancer developing may be useless in treating cancer. As another example, dietary patterns that may contribute to the development of age-related diseases, such as coronary heart disease or mature-onset diabetes, do not necessarily have any connection with the ageing process which is still poorly understood. It is wise to be sceptical about claims that a nutritional technique prolongs life, especially if it distorts an established way of eating or tradition. At the same time, we continue to need sound research in this difficult area of human nutrition.