The Food Hourglass

Breaking news: Refined sugars are bad for your health, vegetables are good! What? Not the sea change in dietary insight you were expecting from the break-out nutrition book of the year, De voedselzandloper (The Food Hourglass) by Kris Verburgh? Nevertheless, it seems to be a message for which people are hungry; the book has been on the best-seller lists in Belgium and The Netherlands all year long. It’s going to hit UK bookshelves this week

Lovers of your typical health guru’s how-to-lose-20-kilos-by-only-eating-cabbage treatises perhaps should look away (or, actually, please stay). Verburgh emphatically states that he does not believe in diets. Instead, he is after something bigger than numbers on a scale: He is after the fountain of youth. And you’ll be surprised to find out you already know where it is

Verburgh is actually Dr Verburgh, a 28-year-old medical doctor who researches aging at the University of Antwerp and who had written three books by the time he was 25. In The Food Hourglass he makes the link between the way we eat and the way we age.

Basically, staying young means avoiding the typical diseases of aeging, which is anything from loss of eyesight to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer or osteoporosis. What’s the best way to do this, according to Verburgh? Eat well and exercise, not just for a period of time, but always. “If you want to have the health benefits of healthy food, you have to do it your whole life,” he says

Classic, with a twist

OK, but what doctor doesn’t preach the benefits of a healthy diet? But Verburgh takes it a step further, acknowledging that with all the confusion, chaos and bad advice in the diet book world, people no longer actually know what eating healthily really is. So he created the ‘food hourglass’, a model to help his readers concretely understand how they should be eating

This model takes the classic food pyramid and turns it on its head. The result is an hourglass: two pyramids facing each other, one pointing up with its hierarchical strata of foods we should eat more of, and one tapering downwards, also divided into levels, of foods that we should consume less of

The food hourglass is about giving people alternatives, an idea Verburgh developed while working in a psychiatric institute, where diet plays a big role because of the effects psychotropic medications have on metabolism. These medications often cause weight gain and increase a patient’s risk for aging-related illnesses like type II diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s

“If you say to people that you should drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake, that you should eat less potatoes or rice or pasta, there are many people who would say that is difficult,” he explains. “But, for example, if you say that you can replace the potatoes with mushrooms or legumes or an extra portion of other vegetables, then people say, ‘OK, I can try that’”

Out with the bad

In the food hourglass, Verburgh tries to correct some of the main faults of the standard pyramid. Naturally, fruits and vegetables are among the stars of foods that Verburgh says we should eat more of, replacing things like bread and pasta as the main substance of our meals. He encourages eating fatty fish and white meats like chicken, but says to eat as little red meat as possible (the normal food pyramid doesn’t usually distinguish between types of meat)

Cakes and sweets should be replaced by dark chocolate and nuts. He also differentiates between different kinds of fat, promoting healthy, omega-3-rich oils and recommending avoiding omega-6-rich oils, butter and margarine

Most of the recommendations are pretty predictable; however, the food hourglass does include some surprises. For starters, milk and fruit juices from concentrate are included next to soda at the top and broadest level of items to eat less of, which has incited some commentary from the powerful dairy industry

Nutrition for our times

Also, food supplements are found in the top point of the “more” pyramid. For many people, this may go against logic – if you’re eating healthily, shouldn’t you have all the vitamins and minerals you need? Verburgh says no. “People think our bodies are intelligent enough to get all these nutrients if we eat healthily, but our bodies and our food live in a completely different environment to the environment in which our bodies evolved”

Sitting at desks all day means we aren’t getting enough vitamin D from the sun, for instance. We are also not eating seaweed in large enough amounts for iodine. And even if we were snacking on seaweed all day, changes in the way we grow vegetables means that our foods are not as rich in vitamins and minerals as they were in the past. For example, there is 70% less copper in our tomatoes today than 50 years ago. Therefore, Verburgh recommends taking a daily food supplement

There’s not much revolutionary in The Food Hourglass. But in the Babel of the industry of nutrition, that in itself is revolutionary. Verburgh offers a sane voice that lays out to readers the myths and assumptions about eating and nutrition. In the end, you walk away feeling better prepared to make your own decisions about what’s healthy for you

Verburgh agrees: “The food hourglass is not some kind of command or order; it’s just a guideline for people to know what is good, what is not good, and how they can replace the bad foods with the good foods. So people can choose on their own how far they want to go with this”

What’s the science behind the hourglass advice?

The beige foodstuffs are out because they contain starch: this turns into glucose which can accelerate ageing (think wrinkles and cataracts) and is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and diabetes

Shop-bought juices are out for the same reason since they contain large amounts of sugar, although freshly made ones are OK as they contain the fibres needed to help break sugar down and can have vegetables in them that naturally contain less sugar

Excessive protein is sidelined because it triggers our ageing mechanisms and increases the risk of age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s

While milk and yoghurt are to be avoided for their roles in accelerating the ageing process (“nature never intended us to digest animal milk”), cheese is OK in small quantities as it contains an important source of vitamin K2 — good for bones, heart and blood vessels — and probiotics, which are healthy bacteria for your gut. Almond milk (without added sugar) is firmly in because it is made from nuts, which are good for the heart and cardiovascular system

What we should be drinking is ginger tea, green tea, white tea and coffee: ginger tea reduces inflammation; green tea reduces the risk of strokes; white tea fends off wrinkles and coffee contains vegetable substances that have been shown to have a protective effect against ageing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes

The good news is that we can have small doses of dark chocolate made from at least 70% cocoa. It can apparently reduce the risk of heart attack by 37%. Stick to the above and Verburgh is confident that you will be slim and live a long and healthy life. He’s aiming for the “ripe old age of 90”

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