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“It is all about the size of the portion”

Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy. Or are they?

Red wine, chocolate, coffee, blueberries, garlic, omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy or not? Say if you know. Headlines in newspapers but also scientific publications are constantly contradicting each other. Observant decided to make some phone calls.

Omega-3 fatty acids, as healthy as anything! They can be found in fatty fish and protect against cardiovascular diseases. This conclusion was drawn from research carried out in 2006, in which more than eight hundred studies were scrutinised. In the same year, however, the influential British Medical Journal published an article, also based on a meta-analysis, which concluded that fatty acids make no difference at all. Pardon me?

Red wine. Healthy or not? And if so, how many glasses per day? One to four if we are to believe the scientific studies of the past few years. But believing them is something we should not always do, because only last month it appeared that fraud had been committed with an American study into red wine, or to be more precise, into a substance called resveratrol.

Maastricht research (by Patrick Schrauwen) into that same substance received a lot of media attention at the end of last year. The results were astounding: resveratrol appeared to be good for one's overall health, comparable to doing sports. It lowers the blood sugar and insulin levels, inhibits inflammation and reduces fatty livers. It can be found in peanuts, grapes and … in red wine.

“And then you read in the newspaper that red wine is good for your health,” says Annemie Schols, director of Nutrim institute. “But an important differentiation has been omitted: resveratrol is only favourable in doses that are much higher than what is found in red wine. Anyway, readers are susceptible to this kind of reporting, they want to know which products are healthy. Often because they want to lose weight.”

If you want to know what is healthy, Schols says, surf to the - government-financed - Nutrition Centre (Voedingscentrum). “This organisation translates scientific findings and recommendations by the Dutch Health Council into language that can be understood by the average citizen. Everyone agrees on the broad outlines: more fruit and vegetables, fibres and unsaturated fats. They do not agree on individual agents. Perhaps you should call Ronald Mensink. He knows a lot about how to furnish proof, about research into products.”



Ronald Mensink, professor of Molecular Nutrition, can well imagine that consumers do not know what to think with all this information. “It is tempting for newspapers, but also for journals, to make much of a mere two positive study results, but actually one should wait until such findings have be corroborated several times.”

What makes it complicated is that foodstuffs show both negative and positive effects. “If you drink an alcoholic beverage now and again, you run less risk of cardiovascular disease. But the risk of breast cancer is greater.”

These investigations are often of an epidemiological nature. “For example, one asks a large group of people how much red wine they drink and then you look at how long they live. There is now agreement on the claim that people who drink one or two glasses of wine per day, live longer. Large-scale studies are valuable but they also have all kinds of snags and catches. One could wonder, for example, if this longer life is actually the result of drinking wine. Maybe it is because of the relaxation caused by - among others - alcohol.”

What does his own diet look like? Does Mensink swear by specific ingredients? “I have often been asked that. Because I have studied Nutrition, I know a little more about it than most people, but I am not constantly looking at wrappings or labels to see what it contains. Maybe when I am abroad, but that’s it. Food also has something of a socioemotional aspect. If you want to know more about information and education, call Nanne de Vries.”



Nanne de Vries, professor and chairman of the department of Health Promotion and Health Education, immediately thinks of his father. “He once said: ‘There will come a time when even eating lettuce will be unhealthy.’ And that prediction has come true. Because if you eat too much lettuce, you absorb harmful levels of nitrite, a newspaper said.”

What De Vries has noticed is how little people know about food. “They do not even know which products contain a lot of fat or a little fat. Not to mention the misconceptions that are in circulation. One should not eat charred meat, because it's carcinogenic. True, but only if you eat kilos of it every day. Then there are the E numbers on packaging. My mother always thought that this meant that it contained a lot of rubbish. They are merely European codes for ingredients and substances that have been assessed and approved.”

How do you eliminate these misconceptions? “That is not so easy. The Ik kies bewust (I make a conscious choice) organisation designed a logo by the same name to provide people with healthy alternatives. But this created confusion when mayonnaise also received a logo. Not that healthy, really. But as a colleague of mine once said: it is all about the size of the portion. A little bit of mayonnaise is harmless, but a jar a day is not. Food is complicated. It not only matters what you eat but also how you eat it, how much, in what combination, how you prepare it, et cetera. The most useful is of course a Sonja Bakker diet, because she prescribes exactly what and how much you should eat every day. It works, until people have to go on by themselves. That is when fluctuating weight takes hold. I advise people to vary what they eat and not to eat out too much. We make our own lasagne at home. Why? Because then we know exactly what's in it.”


Maurice Timmermans

What is healthy?

The mayor of Maastricht, Onno Hoes, works out three times a week, two times of which are with a personal trainer, and eats a low-fat diet. He avoids microwave meals, does not often eat out and usually cooks his own food. Nothing too complicated, but things like salmon with vegetables, because that is healthy. But is fatty fish really healthy? Or red wine? Or garlic? What is the situation, really? Hoes – and with him many consumers – sometimes cannot see the wood for the trees anymore. Observant put the matter before UM experts.



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