Belief that single nutrients such as omega-3s, sugar or salt can cure or cause all ills is folly, says a leading health scientist.
The key, Professor Stephen Simpson says, is for people to think about food as food and to seek a healthy balance between protein, carbohydrates and fat.
Too much of one for too long can make you fat and unhealthy, or even thin and unhealthy, says Prof Simpson, academic director of the new $500 million Charles Perkins centre set up at the University of Sydney to fight obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“The balance really matters,” he told colleagues at an Australian Society for Medical Research conference in Victoria.
His team conducted a study in which 1000 mice were fed 30 different diets with different ratios of protein, carbohydrates and fat.
“If you want to lose weight as a mouse, you go onto a high-protein diet. But if you stay on that too long you will have poor circulating insulin and glucose tolerance.
“If you go too low on protein, you will drive over-consumption and be prone to obesity.”
A good balance for a mouse is about 20 per cent protein, about 60 per cent carbohydrates and about 20 per cent fat.
“And mice are not that different from humans,” he said.
An interesting finding was that a low-protein diet coupled with high carbohydrates led to obesity. But these mice lived longest and had a healthy balance in their gut.
Prof Simpson said he was concerned about the emphasis on micronutrients such as vitamins, sugar and salt.
“It is unhelpful when people argue everything is the fault of sugar or fat or salt or whatever when what we are dealing with is a balancing problem.”
The best type of carbohydrates and fat is limited amounts of sugar and complex, low GI, hard-to-digest foods.
Prof Simpson said healthy fats such as omega-3 were also important.