An interfaith take on the Pope’s visit

Will the Pope address the impact that the Enlightenment has had on his Church?

I am particularly interested in relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims. With a papal visit to Britain imminent, I wish to reflect on what Pope Benedict XVI has to say -- and, sometimes, on what he doesn't say -- about the relationship between Christianity and other faiths.

Even though he hasn't yet arrived, there has been a great deal of publicity about the Pope's response to the paedophilia scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church; discussions about the state of relations between Rome and Canterbury; coverage of the role of women in the Roman Catholic Church; as well as concerns expressed by people of other faiths about the extent to which the Bishop of Rome acknowledges (if indeed he does at all) the validity of their faith.

I doubt if the Pope will say much about any of these explicitly -- however much journalists would like him to -- but we can try to read the tea leaves when he makes his addresses and delivers his sermons. One thing we can be sure of is that Benedict XVI will warn us of the dangers of secularism, which, he will argue, undermines religion as well as the authority of the Church. He will emphasise Catholic Truth over and against what he will describe as the dangers of atheistic society and moral anarchy.

This is one way of seeing what has happened in western civilisation over the past 400 years, since the Enlightenment. The Pope is not a fan of the Enlightenment. At best, he suggests it is a mixed blessing and hostile to religious belief. In this, he is joined by other religious leaders.

But where would we be without the Enlightenment? As a Jew, I know where I would be: back in the ghetto.

Of course, it is not only Jews who owe a great deal to the Enlightenment. My Muslim friends and colleagues would still be known as Moors or Saracens, an epithet that the chroniclers of the Crusades applied to Muslims. In other words, without the Enlightenment, minority religious groups -- let alone those of no faith -- would have remained in the Middle Ages.

Without the Enlightenment, there would be no human rights nor democracy, but there would be continued Christian anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, persecution of gays and so on.

I don't expect that the Pope will acknowledge that many of the great advances in our society that have been made in the past 400 years have come secularism and the forces of the Enlightenment, not from religion. But I do expect him to address how Catholics should live with the consequences of the Enlightenment.

Some traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church -- such as members of the Society of St Pius X, home of the Holocaust denier Bishop Williamson, among others -- reject all the values of the Enlightenment. They condemn the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which was a defining event for Catholicism in the 20th century and a turning point in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations as well as Catholic relations with other faiths.

Vatican II was convened for the purpose of aggiornamento or "updating", and it was in the spirit of Enlightenment that that the council initiated Church reform in a number of areas, including interfaith relations. According to the latest surveys, most Catholics in the UK would like to see more application of the values of the Enlightenment, such as an increased role for women.

So, one thing I expect to learn in the next few days is where the Pope stands on this, the tension between religion and the Enlightenment. In the UK, he will be walking a tightrope between traditionalists who reject the consequences of the Enlightenment and the majority of Catholics, who would like to see Enlightenment values more deeply embedded in the Church.

This will have implications for the role of women in the Church, relations with fellow Christians, fellow believers and fellow humans. Yes, all of us.

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Low fat, full fat: why the diet industry keeps changing its mind

A new report illustrates just how disillusioned the diet industry has become, at the expense of everyone else.

Another year, another wave of dietary fads. Most seem to surface in the summer, when new nutritional advice claims to provide the panacea to everyone’s health woes: “Eat clean get lean!” “The simple secret of intermittent fasting!” “The paleo way is the only way!” “Six weeks to a super you!”

However, despite the barrage of diet books, the expansion of nutrition research and the growth of education about healthy living, global obesity has more than doubled since 1980.

It may be that this is due to the conflicting information constantly issued from the diet industry. “Eat lots of protein – it’ll speed up your metabolism!” “Too much protein will damage your kidneys – reduce your protein intake!” “Superfoods are a vital source of antioxidants!” “Superfoods aren’t so super at all!” “Don’t snack it will make you pile on the pounds!” “You should snack – it’ll stop you from binge eating!” It’s no wonder people aren’t sure what to eat.

The UK launched its first dietary guidelines in 1994, which have since been continuously revised to form the guide now known as “The Eatwell Plate”. The dietary guidelines recommend plentiful carbohydrates “such as rice, bread, pasta and potatoes”, at least five portions of fruits and vegetables, some protein, some milk, some dairy and minimal saturated fat.

However, a recent report serves to highlight the confusion consumers face when it comes to food: it claims that the official advice on low-fat diets is outright wrong, even damaging.

Led by the National Obesity Forum and the Public Health Collaboration, the report (not peer-reviewed, it’s worth noting) attacked a host of official health proposals. It claims that “eating fat does not make you fat”, and criticises Eatwell Plate’s small fat allowance. The report also stated that saturated fats have been unfairly demonised, as there is allegedly little evidence to suggest that they cause heart disease. Meanwhile sugar consumption should be dialled down to zero, apparently, and calories shouldn’t be counted, as an abundance of them won’t cause obesity. Also, forget about the exercise - apparently a bad diet can’t be outrun, according to the report.

Professor David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “As a clinician, treating patients all day every day, I quickly realised that guidelines from on high, suggesting high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets were the universal panacea, were deeply flawed. Current efforts have failed – the proof being that obesity levels are higher than they have ever been, and show no chance of reducing despite the best efforts of government and scientists.”

Dr Aseem Malhotra, consultant cardiologist and founding member of the Public Health Collaboration reinforced this by saying the guidelines were “perhaps the biggest mistake in modern medical history, resulting in devastating consequences for public health.” Under current dietary guidelines, obesity levels have indeed increased in the UK, with nearly two-thirds of men and women overweight or obese, costing the economy more than £3bn per year.

In the face of such starkly opposed sides - both backed by seemingly reputable experts who claim all their research is based on empirical evidence - what are consumers meant to do?

The vilification of fat

In 1983, it was recommended that overall dietary fat consumption should make up only 30 per cent of total daily energy intake – 10 per cent of which, at most, should come from saturated fat.

The recommendations came from a number of research papers published at the time, which suggested a link between saturated fat intake and increased levels of LDL cholesterol – the cholesterol which has been connected to increased risk of heart disease, stroke and atherosclerosis.

An even simpler reason for the suggestions boiled down to this: fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates – nine calories per gram versus four, to be exact. This shape to future official guidelines, and gave birth to the low-fat high-carbohydrate mantra. Fat was cemented as public enemy number one.

As a result, the fat eliminated from people’s diets was to be supplemented with an increased intake of carbohydrates. Tipping the scales in favour of carbohydrates were promises of weight loss as a result of higher fibre content, elevated levels of serotonin to aid sleep and boosts in mood from feeling fuller.

But obesity levels continued to soar, and health experts shifted their focus to the next culprit: carbs.

The low-carb era

An analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition combined the results of 21 studies and found that “saturated fat was not associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease”. Other studies demonstrated the positive effect on testosterone levels in men from increased saturated fat intake, and have noted increased levels of triglycerides (the stuff that makes you fat) from lower fat diets.

As a result, dieticians developed a deep suspicion of carbs, and sugar in particular, and diets like the Atkins regime became more and more popular.

In part, the report by the National Obesity Forum and Public Health Collaboration uses the research that propped up these low-carb high-fat diets as a means by which to attack the general consensus surrounding healthy eating. Dr Malhotra, who led the latest report, previously worked in a pressure group called Action on Sugar – a group that has tried to get the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar added to food.

The reasoning goes something like this: guidelines encouraging greater carbohydrate consumption are oblivious to the fact that sugars constitute a vast amount of refined carbohydrates. By cranking up the sugar intake we ratchet up the risk of type 2 diabetes; this in turn could spark further health problems including obesity.

The logic seems sound, and yet obesity levels have continued to soar in the face of this research. The notion that all sugar should be avoided also ignores the fact that our brains require a significant amount of glucose for optimal functioning.

Everything in moderation

In the face of an industry that can’t make up its mind about how people should eat, it’s no wonder obesity levels have grown to epidemic proportions. So what can be done?

Professor Susan Jebb, the government’s obesity adviser, believes that the current debate needs to expand beyond the battle between carbohydrates and fat. She said: “We’re eating too many calories – if we want to tackle obesity people do need to eat fewer calories and that means less fat and less sugar.” And she’s right. If decades of research have pointed to anything assertively, it’s that calories count, and paying attention to portion sizes could take us a long way.

Both fat and carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to function. The solution? Enjoy everything in moderation. Eat fruits without fearing fructose, don’t throw away the egg yolk, get a decent amount of protein and yes, you should have your slice of cake too.