Health Advice You Can Believe in
We fact-check those bits of health advice seen in newspaper headlines
We read the news today – oh boy. Apparently we should be necking red wine and eating a full English breakfast slathered in butter. So much for the information age: the more we know about health, the more confused we are. Is standing the new cancer? Is butter the new kale? Coach asks some sensible experts to try and calm the panic.
1. Is sunbathing asking for trouble?
Short answer: Without three coats of lotion, yes
One area of concern for specialists is that our understanding of sun protection factor (SPF) is lacking. Professor Antony Young of King’s College London says that the SPF of a sunscreen is only accurate when applied at a concentration of 2mg per cm² of skin.
“People apply about a quarter to a third of that,” he says. “So somebody who buys an SPF product labelled 20 is only going to get an SPF of three or four because they’re applying it so thinly. If you want to get an SPF of 15 or 20 and you were applying your sunscreen as you normally do, you probably need to buy an SPF 50+ product.”
2. Must I take 10,000 steps daily?
Short answer: Yes – and some cardio
A recent addition to health “lore” is that everyone should aim to take 10,000 steps a day. It’s a rather conveniently round number though, and one that happened to coincide with a rise in popularity of wearable tech wristbands designed to help you monitor this task. So – genuine insight or PR drive? And should we be suspicious of this one?
Dr Julia Zakrzewski-Fruer, a lecturer in health, nutrition and exercise at the University of Bedfordshire, says: “Ten thousand steps a day is a good target for keeping people active in their daily life and I think people respond quite well to having targets like that. But just doing that without any exercise that increases your heart rate to a level where you’re breathing quite deeply [and] potentially getting a little bit sweaty... It’s not going to be able to replace that.”
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3. What should breakfast look like?
Short answer: Don’t play the innocent. You know when you’re putting junk in your mouth
A University of Alabama study in 2010 showed high-fat breakfasts boost metabolism, while a 2013 University of Missouri study showed high-protein breakfasts help you lose weight. So does this mean a full English is healthy?
Chloe Miles, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says: “Breakfast is important and can help with weight control. However, opting for daily fried breakfasts instead of wholegrain cereal, fruit and low-fat dairy is likely to be detrimental to your heart health.” Our advice? Protein will keep you full till lunch (and less likely to snack on rubbish) – and there’s no reason not to start packing in your fruit and veg portions first thing.
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4. So is butter really good for me now?
Short answer: No
A study back in 1970 found a correlation between foods with high cholesterol content and heart disease, so the word came down from on high: CUT OUT BUTTER. Yet closer review of the “facts” more recently showed that there was actually no specific causal link between the two. Almost immediately the papers started trumpeting the news that butter was some sort of health supplement.
Miles says: “There is still a large body of evidence that suggests that by cutting down on saturated fat and replacing these with moderate amounts of unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, we can reduce the risk of heart disease. You don’t have to cut out butter completely, though – just reduce the amount you use.”
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5. Should I actually be getting LESS sleep?
Short answer: Jury’s out
When an October 2015 study from the University of California found that hunter-gatherers in “pre-industrial societies” in South America and Africa function well on six to seven hours, newspapers began to suggest we were lazy for demanding eight. Help!
Dr Paul Reading, neurologist and one-time president of the British Sleep Society, says: “Seven hours for the majority is about right. Increasingly, though, more emphasis is being placed on sleep ‘quality’ as an equally important parameter.”
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6. Is sitting down really bad for me?
Short answer: Yes
According to some recent research, sitting is now one of the riskiest things you can do. Have you heard the phrase “Sitting is the new smoking”? Surely not… right?
Dr Daniel Bailey, senior lecturer in health, nutrition and exercise at the University of Bedfordshire, says: “It’s not as bad as smoking. If you smoke, the chances are you’re going to get cancer or a disease of some kind. But the increased risk from sitting can still be massive. For example, individuals who sit down for the longest period of time could have up to a 150% increase in the risk of a cardiovascular event occurring – so that’s staggering.”
7. Is vaping safe?
Short answer: Err…
Recent stories about e-cigarettes have suggested that vaping isn’t perfect – and it may even act as a gateway to young people picking up tobacco habits.
Professor Simon Capewell, an expert in clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, says: “Right now, the debate is whether using e-cigarettes as a quitting route from smoking could offer bigger benefits to smokers than the potential disadvantages or harms for children and non-smoking adults. Some public agencies are enthusiastic; others, such as the BMA and WHO, are cautious. The media will naturally get more profile if they emphasise the controversies, rather than the 99% which is agreed.”
8. Do I need to consume water like a paper mill?
Short answer: No
The advice is to drink anywhere between four to eight glasses of water a day. But is that correct?
Dr Emma Derbyshire says: “Most of the confusion comes as scientists will refer to the nutrient ‘water’ when advising on fluid intake. The recommendations are that women should have two litres of fluid and men two and a half, and people literally take that as two litres of water. But ‘fluids’ includes other things, like tea and food. However, water is one of the healthiest ways to hydrate as it contains no calories or sugar. Approximately 70% should come from drinks and 30% from foods.”
9. Are five portions of fruit and veg a day necessary?
Short answer: It’s pretty much a bare minimum for long-term health
How much fruit and veg actually constitutes “enough”? Five portions a day is the UK government’s official suggestion, but studies conducted since suggest that seven is better. One study by UCL recommends as many as ten portions.
Miles says: “Only 15% of adults currently meet the target of having at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. There is evidence to show that for every portion of fruit and vegetables eaten there is a reduced risk of stroke and some cancers, so aiming for more than five a day is likely to be beneficial.”
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10. Is red wine good alcohol?
Short answer: No
Newspapers love to position red wine as a sort of magical blood-thinning, stroke-preventing, fat-burning, life-lengthening elixir. As recently as December 2015, reports of a study from the University of Alberta suggesting that drinking red wine is as good for you as exercise were greeted like a lottery win. This year, though, the only story the papers have been0 telling us is that it’s killing us with every sip. What changed?
Epidemiologist and narcotic expert Dr Sarah Wadd from the University of Bedfordshire says: “There’s no clear evidence that red wine is better than other forms of alcohol when it comes to possible heart benefits. Animal studies suggest that the wine ingredient resveratrol might have an effect on inflammation, but studies in humans have yet to find any proof that [it] stops heart disease or prolongs life.”
Scientists Say The Funniest Things
Meanwhile, work continues on the burning issues of the day…
- Scientists at the University of East Anglia have been getting rats sloshed on champagne to see if it prevents dementia.
- The University of Utrecht conducted a study into hangovers. “From what we know from the surveys so far,” they said, “the only practical way to avoid a hangover is to drink less alcohol.”
- A study in last February’s Journal Of Clinical Sleep Medicine looked into whether marijuana use might be causing “excessive daytime sleepiness” in teenagers. No prizes for guessing what they found.
- The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (the PNAS – stop laughing) proved your mum right by confirming that you’re more likely to catch a cold if your nose is cold.
- To discover if yogurt was the key to a higher quality of life, 4,445 Spanish adults ate a load of it for three years in a study in Madrid. The answer? No. It isn’t.
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