It’s a very British tradition that offers comfort in even the darkest of times – settling down with a cup of tea and a biscuit. It certainly helps in my house – when, after the daily Government briefing, my partner and I head to the kitchen for a cuppa and a chocolate digestive.
So when it was announced last week that food packages being shipped out to vulnerable Britons would include a packet of custard creams, I thought: too right.
But some well-known diet gurus seem to disagree.
One, an NHS doctor no less, writing on Twitter, referred to the decision as ‘utterly disgraceful’ and ‘absolutely shocking’.
When it was announced last week that food packages being shipped out to vulnerable Britons would include a packet of custard creams, pictured, I thought: too right, writes Eve Simmons
‘At a time when vulnerable people need to be eating nutritious food more than ever [we] give them ultra-processed junk instead,’ he tweeted.
He wasn’t the only one. A flurry of tweeters, including one named @dietdoc, added: ‘People should send it back. I’d rather fast than eat that garbage.’
Ministers couldn’t have picked a worse time to ply Britons with ‘junk’, they said. After all, emerging evidence suggests that obesity may increase the risk of Covid-19 complications.
Their suggestion for freeing up vital hospital beds? A national weight-loss regime. One intensive care doctor, working in Iceland, advised: ‘Eat minimally processed food… restrict intake of free sugars and refined starches.’
According to popular cardiologist and diet book author Dr Aseem Malhotra – who made it on to Sky News with his message – ‘What you eat is going to impact your immune system.’
He advises ‘curbing ultra-processed food… cutting snacks, crisps and chocolate to a bare minimum.’
Instead, we should be ‘eating nutritious whole foods.’
Doing so could, he suggests, have an impact within a ‘matter of weeks to months’.
But I’m struggling to accept that now, when millions are struggling to buy any food at all, is an appropriate time to embark on a restrictive diet.
And when I asked experts who have spent their careers studying how people eat, and the effect nutrition has on our health both when we’re well and seriously ill, they agreed.
Chiefs at food banks, such as this one in Cardiff, this week reported an unprecedented number of older adults going without food
MALNUTRITION DAMPS DOWN IMMUNITY
The biscuit-bashers are correct in at least one respect – obesity does seem to be associated with a higher risk of suffering complications if coronavirus strikes.
About 70 per cent of the sickest Covid-19 patients – those in need of intensive care – were overweight or obese, according to one recent study. A similar pattern emerged in Wuhan, China, where obese individuals are classed as a vulnerable group.
Keith Neal, Emeritus Professor of the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases at the University of Nottingham, says: ‘Obese people are more likely to have type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, both of which tamper with the immune response. Even those without associated health conditions may have excess fat in the lung cavities, which increases respiratory complications.’
According to one influential social media commentator, Ivor Cummins, author of Eat Rich, Live Long, rapid weight-loss diets are a viable method of reducing hospital admissions. Cummins, who is an engineer by trade, tweeted to his 49,000 followers: ‘You can drop your diabetic physiology within a shockingly short time with the correct diet and lifestyle interventions. This cannot fail to help mitigate this crisis. #Coronavirus.’
And on Sky News, Dr Malhotra said: ‘We know that type two diabetes can be put into remission in up to 50 per cent of cases within months of changing lifestyle.’
What’s the difference between glucose and glycogen?
Glucose is a type of sugar that acts as fuel for cells in the body. It is produced when carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta, are digested.
Any excess glucose which is not immediately needed is converted and stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen – a bigger and more complex sugar.
When people exercise, glucose is the main source of energy. But if the body starts to run out of glucose, reserve glycogen stores are converted back to glucose to provide a boost.
The only evidence-based diet that can ‘reverse’ diabetes involves living on 800-calorie meal-replacement drinks for a number of weeks.
But what do the medical experts say? Unsurprisingly, there’s a general consensus that now is not the time. Prof Neal says: ‘The malnutrition caused by these diets would cause an increase in severe cases… it would dramatically reduce the immune system’s response.
‘It’s why infectious diseases rip through refugee camps.’
And dietician Katherine Kimber says: ‘Research shows yo-yo dieting can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. You don’t want to increase your risk now when there’s limited access to medical professionals.’
The risks aren’t only physical. Half of all Britons have seen their mental health impacted by the pandemic, according to a nationwide study. Adding restrictive or rigid behaviours seems a recipe for psychological disaster.
Kimber says: ‘It’s at times of instability and anxiety when we are most likely to search for something to control. Sometimes that’s food because it’s the only method of coping we have.
‘But starting a diet at a time of anxiety, exhaustion and excess pressure can easily trigger a host of very complex psychological issues around food.
‘Dieting is one of the leading risk factors for eating disorders – especially in times of stress.’
And any change you make now is unlikely to last for very long.
‘Behaviour changes stick when they fit with your regular, daily routine,’ adds top dietician Luci Daniels. ‘But this is not a normal situation.’
EVE SIMMONS: I’m struggling to accept that now, when millions are struggling to buy any food at all, is an appropriate time to embark on a restrictive diet
OLDER PEOPLE MUST EAT TO STAY HEALTHY
Many experts are more concerned that soon, or even right now, millions of people simply won’t have enough to eat to keep them healthy.
Before coronavirus hit, the number of malnourished, older Britons was already staggering.
NHS figures released last year showed that one in ten over- 65-year-olds were at risk of starving to death. The Government currently advises those who are over 70 – and therefore at increased risk of severe Covid-19 – to be ‘particularly stringent’ in following social distancing guidelines. That means, if possible, ‘speak to others to help you make arrangements for the delivery of food’. But according to Age UK, roughly half of all over-75s live on their own, and 12 per cent have no one to do the shopping for them.
Even if getting an online supermarket delivery slot were possible, half of 75-year-olds never use the internet.
On Wednesday, food bank executive Sonya Johnson reported an unprecedented number of older adults going without food.
She said: ‘We have older people saying to us: ‘I haven’t eaten for a couple of days because I don’t have any food in.’
The most sensible diet for these adults is one that increases food intake – not restricts it.
Lesley Carter, from Age UK’s malnutrition taskforce, says: ‘One of the most important things older people can do to protect their health is to eat enough. In the coming weeks we expect to see hundreds of thousands stop eating. Either they won’t have access to food, their home-help won’t be there to prepare it or they’ll be miserable and lose their appetite.
‘The frailer people are, the more vulnerable they will be to the infection. Our advice to everyone right now is to eat food that makes them satisfied and happy.’
And if that happens to include a couple of custard creams, then so be it.