Dietary recommendations often don’t make sense
Dietary recommendations often don’t make sense
Image: 123RF / Roman Stetsyk

Nothing takes the joy out of eating quite like reading the RDA – Recommended Dietary (or Daily) Allowance – on a food packet or a nutrition site or wherever you fall over it. It’s depressing because reminds you food is not just about enjoyment; that there are rules to stick to and that you’re always just a few grams away from having a deficiency or surplus of something. 

Alzheimer’s, diabetes, obesity, thyroid problems – these all await you if you don’t follow the RDA.  And you tend to believe the numbers they throw out. Because, surely, They – yes, with a capital T - must know (through research one assumes), that these numbers speak the truth, because they’re pretty specific.

Sadly, or perhaps happily, this is mostly not the case. Not only is it an educated guess but the recommendations often don’t make sense. Check out the current guidelines for Canada as an example. Why are males advised to drink more water than females but eat the same amount of protein?  Why more fibre but the same carbs? Bonkers. And why genderise it? Why not do it in kilograms of person?  

The South African Food Based Dietary Guideline focuses more sensibly on foods, food groups and eating patterns, rather than individual nutrients, but is still minimally based on hard science. Make starchy foods part of most meals (hugely outdated). Use fats sparingly (why? And why not differentiate between good and bad fats?). Eat soy regularly (that’s a very bad idea, actually). Eat plenty of fruit every day. But, later on, eat foods high in sugar sparingly. Well that would be fruit, right? The Canadian site is special for adding the advice that arsenic should not be consumed. Thanks, guys. Because otherwise I was definitely drizzling that over my risotto tonight.  

A couple of countries have the “added sugar” recommendation set at no more than 25% of calories! Well, even my cat would know better than that.  If you’re aiming for overnight diabetes, that sounds about right.

Salt is listed as sodium, almost worldwide, but table salt is sodium chloride, which is actually less than 50% sodium. Why not give a chloride RDA, then?  

Even if all the information was absolutely “accurate”, in that one could estimate these matters to the gram, how would one stick to it? Is anyone mad or bored enough to do all that maths throughout the day? Baselines might be useful, but the industrial food machine is miles away from giving us anything like correct nutrition, on a big-picture scale, that talking about grams of fat or milligrams of salt is laughable.  

What would make much more sense than numbers on packets is a real change in the availability of free from chemicals, antibiotics and other undesirables, unprocessed foods for all communities.

What’s the takeaway?  Perhaps just that thing your fave high school teacher and Timothy Leary liked to say: “Question authority.”         

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