Harvard v Harcombe: top holiday health, weightloss tips


By Marika Sboros

For many people, end-of-year holiday season is a time of excess, indulgence and expanding waistlines and waste. Not forgetting unscientific tips on how best to keep all those in check.

Dr Zoë Harcombe

Fortunately for many, it is also a time of mindful, healthy eating and top tips based on robust scientific evidence. Which side of the weighty fence you’ll be on this holiday season depends on your favourite sources of diet and nutrition advice.

Take, for example, top tips from Harvard researchers in the US on one hand and British public health researcher Dr Zoë Harcombe on the other.

Scientific chalk and cheese doesn’t even begin to describe their different approaches.

The Harvard scientists, from the TH Chan School of Public Health, have a well-documented plant-based – and plant-biased – approach. They don’t disappoint in their latest emailed newsletter offering the tips.

Harcombe doesn’t disappoint either with her top tips in her final newsletter for 2019 that is for subscribers to her website only. (It’s worth subscribing to be able to read it in full. I’m a subscriber and can vouch for the value as an investment in long-term health)

Harcombe isn’t against plants. Far from it. Her bias is nutrient-dense foods for health and weight-loss based on the evidence. She’s one of many experts worldwide who says that plant foods can’t hold a scientific candle to animal foods for nutrient density.

Also unlike the Harvard scientists, Harcombe is not fat-phobic. She does not subscribe to the diet-heart hypothesis that saturated fat causes heart disease. Robust science continues to undermine the hypothesis yet many scientists still cling to it doggedly, claiming that it is proven.

Not surprisingly, the first of the Harvard tips is to start meals with – yes, you guessed it – plants. They recommend a “simple salad” and give a recipe.  It includes lots of different vegetables, mushroom “bacon” – and maple syrup and honey.

Their rationale: it will “increase your veggie intake for the day” and “keep your appetite in check”. That’s presuming, of course, that increasing your plant intake is always a good thing.

That presumption is based on the so-called ” 5-a-day” fruit and veg. In some countries, it’s 7-a-day and even as much as 12-a-day. Harcombe is funny and formidable on the science – or lack thereof – behind that advice.

She has shown that some enterprising marketing person simply plucked those numbers out of thin air.

Click here to read: You need 5-a-day fruit, veg? No! says Harcombe


Research also shows that plants are not best for keeping appetites in check. As Harcombe notes, salads and non-starchy vegetables are “essentially water”. So, you don’t need to worry overly much about eating those. They won’t cause blood sugar spikes, depending on what else is in the salad, like maple syrup and honey.

And if it’s nutrient density and satiety (feeling full) you are after in your food, then salads are not your best options.

The Harvard researchers also say that by “choosing to fill up on nutritious foods first, you may be less inclined to overeat later”. This means eating “fewer empty calories and reducing food waste”, making it a “win-win” for your health and the planet, they say.

Nothing wrong with benefiting the planet along with your health, of course.

The Harvard researchers’ second tip is to move more. They tell you to get into the habit during the holidays of “squeezing in some extra steps”.

Nothing wrong with that, either. After all, Harcombe and other experts recognise that regular exercise is important for overall health, especially cardiovascular health.

However, they also recognise that exercise is not the best weight-loss tool. And that much as you might wish, you really can’t outrun a bad diet.

Click here to read: Think you can outrun a bad diet? Fat chance!


The Harvard researchers do give some good tips, like drinking water instead of sugar-laden drinks. And you can commend them for advising that we all “showcase simplicity” and move away from the “more” mentality during holiday celebrations.

They advise cooking fewer dishes with more nutritious ingredients. They say that these will make people “feel nourished and satisfied – not stuffed – after eating”. That will also reduce energy expenditure and waste.

Their final tip to “redefine dessert” is also not a bad one – on the surface. They suggest a simple fruit spread or, for more variety, some “artfully arranged” fruit, nuts and dark chocolate, with a “small glass of liquor as an optional add-on”.

The only problem is that fruit and alcohol are not best options for anyone with diabetes. Or for those with any degree of the insulin resistance that lies at the heart of metabolic disorders that are now epidemic globally.

Click here to read: For your heart’s sake, eat saturated fat: Norway scientists


Harcombe recognises that this time of year is difficult for people who are ” still working on their own relationship with food”.

Food will be all around us for many of the coming days, Harcombe writes. Family will also “be all around us”. That brings its own “emotions and food connections – many of which won’t be helpful”.

A family Christmas dinner can “take us back to meals we had in childhood. Bad habits that we picked up then can come back into our minds,” Harcombe says.

Language is crucial at this time, she says, which is why she always refer to “cheats”, not “treats”.  If Harcombe had one wish for parents, it would be that they “bring children up knowing that junk is junk”.

That will allow children to become adults knowing that junk is a cheat (bad) and not a treat (good), she says. Adults would be far less likely to reach for junk were it not for the lifetime association of “chocolate cheers me up” and “ice cream will make me feel better”.

It won’t, says Harcombe, but years of “sweets are treats” have made it so.

Harcombe gives simple tips for losing or maintaining weight:

“Don’t eat fat and carbs at the same meal. Have meat/fish/eggs/dairy with veg/salads or fruit/baked potatoes/brown rice/beans with veg/salads. But don’t have steak and chips or pasta with a creamy sauce.”

Fats and carbs together make it too easy to overeat, she says. Add to that, the insulin your body releases in response to carbs will facilitate fat storage.

Her top tips for holiday or anytime eating centre around three key principles: Don’t cheat too much – an excess of junk food at any one time will just leave you feeling awful and if you have diabetes you’re better off not cheating at all; don’t cheat too often; and, always stay alert and in control.

Harcombe gives seven more tips to avoid the ubiquitous “obesogenic” environment and processed-food pitfalls that face all of us over holiday periods.

These tips include that you don’t “waste your cheating”. And don’t ever eat something just because it’s there.

“Cheating should be a conscious choice and it should feel indulgent.”

Harcombe also recommends that you don’t “graze” – in other words, snack throughout the day.  That harks back to one of my favourite pieces of advice from Harcombe:

“Don’t graze – unless you are a cow or want to be the size of one.”

Last but not least, Harcombe tells you to beware of “feeders” out to sabotage your eating habits over the holidays.  “For some strange reason, people try to get you to eat junk over Christmas,” she writes. “They think they’re being nice, but they’re not.”

Simply decline with thanks and carry on saying no until they get the message.  Have a cheat food if you really want it, Harcombe says, but not just to be polite.

“Your health is more important.” Amen to all that!



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