Most people know that proper nutrition is essential for living a healthy life. Unfortunately, many of us are less clear on what a good diet looks like in practice, and may feel intimidated by the ever-expanding list of options available.
Atkins, Paleo, Mediterranean, South Beach, Carnivore – there’s certainly no shortage of popular ‘fad’ diets to choose from. This avalanche of dietary advice can be overwhelming, especially when different sources offer competing and contradictory information. Navigating all this can be tricky, which is why having an official set of guidelines can be such an invaluable tool.
Indeed, this is the thinking behind the current dietary guidelines review process in the US, which takes place every five years. Over the next 18 months, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) committee will sit in Washington and pour over all the latest developments in nutrition science. It will then publish its updated guidelines for Americans, which will remain in force for 2025-2030.
This attempt to offer well-researched and up to date nutritional advice to the public is laudable – and British policymakers should be taking note. Sadly, this an area where the UK is clearly lagging behind our American colleagues.
Our equivalent healthy eating model – the Eatwell Guide – hasn’t been updated since 2016, making it woefully outdated by the standards of nutrition science. The advice it offers is also barebones compared to the DGA’s guidance, with many crucial topics being excluded entirely.
To fix this, the government might consider a review process along similar lines to the US, with the aim of expanding both the scope and the quality of the information on offer to the public.
Take oral health as an example. Currently, the Guide makes no mention of the importance of dental care, despite years of research connecting oral health with a range of whole-body health issues. Problems in the mouth have been linked with a range of serious disease, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even depression and anxiety. A correlation has also been found between periodontitis (gum disease) and obesity, with the chief culprit likely being sugar.
Studies show that children and adolescents who consume too much sugar are 2.33 times more likely to be overweight or obese. Over time, sugar can also damage the teeth by acting as a food source for acid-producing bacteria in the mouth. This increases the risk of tooth decay, and has been known to cause caries and other dental problems.
Whilst it may be tempting to treat oral and dietary health as separate concerns, the reality is these issues are deeply entwined. Indeed, it is a well-known phrase in dentistry that the mouth is the ‘gateway to the body’; meaning it can be an early warning system for poor dietary habits.
An updated Eatwell Guide could acknowledge this fact by providing clear, practical advice for how to protect the teeth and gums. It could also promote healthful alternatives to sugary foods, such as fruit, certain brands of protein bar, or sugar-free yogurts. These kinds of easy dietary ‘swaps’ can make all the difference in limiting sugar consumption.
A new guide could also advocate for sugar-free chewing gum (SFG), which research shows has benefits for both oral and dietary health. By stimulating the production of saliva, SFG serves to lower oral acidity levels and ‘remineralise’ the teeth, thus counteracting the negative effects of sugar. It also may have an impact on regulating appetite. One study found that gum can reduce cravings and increase feelings of fullness – making it a potentially valuable dietary aid.
These kinds of small, simple preventive health tools are critical for people to know about, and should be front and centre of any new set of official guidelines.
Of course, the government shouldn’t be the only ones making this case. Clinicians of all stripes (doctors, nutritionists, dentists) have a role to play in helping patients develop the dietary plans they need to live better lives. Too often, we assume that simply giving people quality information is enough to encourage meaningful behaviour change. Yet the reality is that without also providing the tools people need to apply this knowledge, such advice risks falling on deaf ears.
In my work as a dental practitioner, I meet patients every day who desperately want to live healthier lives. Unfortunately, a lifetime of bad dental habits and a limited dietary knowledge has left them without the skills they need to achieve this. The government should be proactive in addressing this gap by offering sound dietary advice which is accessible, well-researched, and extensive in scope.
As everyone knows: eating well is a vital first step to living well. The role of policymakers and health professionals is to illuminate for the public precisely how to do this in practice.