Not-so-super Times article on Holford and superfoods

We were disappointed to see Peta Bee in the Times with an article on “Anti-ageing superfoods”: giving an article over to the uncritical discussion of some of Holford’s dietary beliefs. It’s worth quickly going through some of the problems with the article here.

The article quotes Holford claiming that

Studies by the US government’s anti-ageing research department have shown that the amount of antioxidants you maintain in your body is directly proportional to how long you will live.

Eating a healthy diet – containing plenty of antioxidants – does correlate with better health outcomes. However, eating a shed load of anti-oxidants seems to be less helpful – in fact, it appears that supplementation may be harmful [PDF]. Eating a healthy diet is a good thing, but focussing just on antioxidants won’t be much help. It’s worth noting that the article defines ‘superfoods’ as foods with a high ORAC rating; however, there is not good evidence that this is the major factor in making foods healthy.

The article advises readers to

Eat one portion of any three of these superfoods to look ten years younger

This is not evidence-based. Lots of factors impact on how old we look – eating a ‘superfood’ like mustard daily will not make one look ten years younger.

The article then offers some “Diet fundamentals”. These seem rather arbitrary: for example, suggestions include

Eat less — using smaller plates is a good way to control portion size

Sensible advice for some, terrible advice if you’re underweight.

Eat game, chicken or meat three times a week at most

People often eat too much meat. However, I’m not sure why – for example – eating 4 portions of lean game in a week would be a bad thing.

I could go on but – to be honest – I’ve found this article rather dull to blog about. I’m not sure why the Times published it: not only does it lack an evidence-base, but the article’s repetition of various nutritional claims is frankly rather tedious. Sorry if the post is also dull reading – there’s nothing particularly novel or interesting in the Times article to write about.

At any rate, all this discussion of ‘superfoods’ and ‘diet fundamentals’ is qute unhelpful. Your gran’s advice to ‘eat your greens’, or Pollan’s call to ‘eat food, most of it from plants, not too much’ are far more useful.

Further reading:
We have gone over ORACs in more detail elsewhere on this blog. It’s worth noting that:

If anybody is contemplating an uptick in their ORAC consumption, you might like to recall that lots of fruit and vegetables have good ORAC values (consult the above resources). However, we feel that we must mention that it is far from clear that high ORAC values in foodstuffs translate to higher plasma (blood) antioxidant capacity (AOC), far less any anti-ageing or chronic disease countering effects. E.g., although plums yield a high antioxidant content upon analysis, plums did not raise plasma AOC levels in volunteers who participated in an experiment where they ate them and then had their blood analysed after consumption. It seems as if “one of the major phytochemicals in plums is chlorogenic acid, a compound not readily absorbed by humans”. Eating fruit and vegetables is A Good Thing and we would encourage that. However, as long as you eat an ample quantity and variety in a day, and select them from various parts of the colour spectrum, you may well be consuming all of the phytonutrients that you need without wondering about where you might obtain more (such as taking specially formulated capsules or especially potent extracts).


Filed under antioxidants, patrick holford, superfoods, The Times

5 responses to “Not-so-super Times article on Holford and superfoods

  1. Markr

    “Eating a healthy diet – containing plenty of antioxidants – does correlate with better health outcomes. However, eating a shed load of anti-oxidants seems to be less helpful – in fact, it appears that supplementation may be harmful [PDF]. ”

    I do think it’s worth mentioning that supplementing these anti-oxidants in isolation may be harmful, but this does not extend to supplementation as part of a ‘complete’ and ‘healthy’ diet. It’s too generalised to say anti-oxidant supplements are detrimental to health, the review also does not claim this, the review can only conclude what it has specifically studied; isolated anti-oxidants.

    Statements such as ’10 years younger’ and advertising for supplements/diets with such health claims are extremely misleading, standard Holford though really. Happens a lot in the media unfortunately and those less educated in nutrition will think buying a tesco antioxidant supp will have supernatural effects!

    • Sure – the review can only review and include the research that has been done, and follows specific inclusion criteria. At least some of the subjects of the trials included in that Cochrane review will have been eating healthy diets, of course. There’s also not good evidence that antioxidant supplementation is useful as part of a healthy diet, nor that ORAC ratings are the best way to determine what are healthy foods – a diet including vast amounts of red wine and dark chocolate could give you loads of antioxidants, but would bring certain problems.

  2. edward

    You probably won’t put this up even so i hope it might make you think, when you consider the number of deaths and deformities attributed to ‘mainstream medicine’

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