Healthy eating

Margaret McCartney

Shall we? The vegetable tide is turning. For those of us forcing vegetables into our children in the belief that they are essential to health, the news, from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute: Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Overall Cancer Risk in the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition reporting a very large study, is that vegetables don’t cut the risk of cancer in the way some analyses had found: Fruit, vegetables, and cancer prevention: a review of the epidemiological evidence

All those UK Department of Health ’5 a day’ campaigns, and attempts to wean us off chocolate bars and onto bananas may have wasted their efforts.

By Rebecca Knight

Should we treat foods high in sugar and saturated fat – such as French fries and soda – like cigarettes and liquor, and subject them to a “sin” tax?
Some health advocates think so, and this week a study that appears in the Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals, provides some pretty persuasive scientific evidence to support such a measure. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that if junk foods were subjected to a “fat tax” people would eat them less and lose weight as a result. 

Margaret McCartney

One evening this winter, I counted 17 slugs making their way out of the rain and into my kitchen. I am no domestic goddess, but this invasion clearly merited action.

I began to search for a household remedy that would banish the slimy visitors: cooking salt. Twenty minutes later, unable to find any, things went from bad to worse. Would the tiny packet of Maldon sea salt I keep tucked away be effective – and could I bear to use such a delicious product to kill slugs?

Salt is not just a hazard for slugs; we humans are meant to be worried about it, too. In fact, we are continually told we consume too much, to the detriment of our health. Salt affects many different parts of the body. It contributes to increased blood pressure, which, over time, can result in a hardening of the arteries, thereby increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack and kidney failure. While the body needs a small amount of salt for metabolism, including sweating, too much is harmful. Parents are now advised not to add any salt to food for small children.

Continue reading “Worth our salt”

Margaret McCartney

Boris Johnson isn’t just endlessly entertaining, intelligent and amusing, but he is actually, as Mayor of London, in a position of power.

So it was amusing to read his newspaper column about how his private medical examination (“my feeling from the female doctors and nurses was that I was doing better than I ever thought possible … the general ego-boost was what I imagine it must be like to be in a South-East Asian massage parlour and receive a series of extravagant and wholly warranted compliments on one’s physique.”)

However Mr Johnson’s check-up did not go to plan, because he received the results not of his own blood and other tests, but of some other unfortunate person with leukaemia. Boris laughs this off and gets his real results couriered round.

Apparently the Mayor of London’s annual exam has to be done for “insurance purposes”. But what a waste of time and money!

Margaret McCartney

It seems that people like enticements. Take the shimmering lures at make-up counters, where if you buy enough of one brand’s products, you’re promised a “gift”.

Of course, these deals rarely look so good on closer inspection. Buying one and getting one free, for example, often applies to goods where buying large quantities is impractical. And I don’t really want another make-up bag full of travel-sized cosmetics, even if not boosting my spending just a bit to get that freebie seems like a waste.

So what happens when you incentivise patients to do what is “best” for their health – lose weight, stop smoking, eat more vegetables? Over the past few years, the catalogue of research on health-related incentives has thickened.

The remainder of this article can be read here. Please post comments below.

Margaret McCartney

The Care Quality Commission is a newish organisation, with the role of being “the independent regulator of health and social care in England…we regulate health and adult services whether provided by the NHS, local authorities, private companies or voluntary organisations.”

I had rather hoped that various alternative practitioners charging vast amounts for non-evidence-based treatments would be trembling as their doors were knocked on and decent evidence demanded. But so far, no.

This report from GP Newspaper – Watchdog calls for systematic statin checks –  suggests that the CQC will be montioring practices to make sure enough, and the cheaper, types of statins – cholestorol lowering drugs - are being used.

However statins are very unpleasant for some people to take, and many people don’t want to take them when they find that their chance of benefit is rather small. While the cheaper versions are perfectly good for the majority, there are a few people unable to either tolerate or reduce their cholesterol on them, meaning a different, and less cheap, statin might be justified.

I do hate it when the long story of how and why someone came to be, or not be on a statin is reduced to a number on a page. The very best doctor might be someone who prescribed virtually no statins, having explained small benefits clearly and having managed to assist patients to reduce their cardiac risk by other means, such as stopping smoking and losing weight.

Whereas the doctor with all his patients on statins could prescribe them without ever taking time to discuss the pros and cons.

I have no objection at all towards anonymised data being made public. But it’s what you then go on to do with it.

By Rebecca Knight

What does it mean to lead a healthy life? Sure, we all have our peccadilloes – some of us smoke cigarettes, or eat too much fast food, others spend too much time on the couch, and not enough on the treadmill. (My own indulgences include too much sun, too much chocolate, and far too much red wine.)

But with apologies to John Maynard Keynes, we’re all dead in the long run, right? Do these sins against our own wellbeing make any real difference to our longevity? Some matter more than others, according to a report in the latest issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have determined that four lifestyle factors – never smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and following a healthy diet -together appear to be related to as much as an 80 per cent reduction in the risk of developing the most common and deadly chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, that account for most deaths.

By Rebecca Knight

It was a Friday from hell. I had two big stories due in the morning, my daughter’s 18-month checkup at the pediatrician in the afternoon, and I needed to pick up my car from the shop before the weekend arrived. While I managed to get it all done, I woke up the next morning feeling achy and rundown.

It’s a familiar pattern: stressful time at work, school or home, followed by a crippling cold. Is this merely coincidence, or is it possible that stress is what makes me sick?

By Rebecca Knight

It’s a struggle that parents of small children face every day: How much should you feed your kids? How much should you coax them to eat certain foods that good for them? And at what point do you risk making food an “issue”? (At this point I ought to confess that for breakfast this morning my toddler ate: precisely four blueberries, a forkful of egg, two pretzels, and a sliver of angel food cake. I try to ensure she eats a healthy diet, but she is a willful child and – as every parent knows -you have to pick your battles.)

A study by researchers at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University sheds some light on the matter. The study, published in the journal Obesity, finds that strict maternal feeding practices are not linked to child weight gain, and that some form of control may be necessary to help children eat well, and maintain healthy weight.

Health and science blog (Archived)

This blog, part of the FT's health series, is a forum for readers interested in the science, policy, management, technology, business and delivery of healthcare.

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

About our regular bloggers

Margaret McCartney is a Glasgow-based GP and FT Weekend columnist. She started writing for the Life and Arts section in 2005 and moved to the magazine in 2008. She also has her own blog:

Clive Cookson has been a science journalist for the whole of his working life. He joined the FT in 1987. Clive, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education.

Andrew Jack is pharmaceuticals correspondent, covering the industry and public health issues. He has been a journalist with the FT for 19 years, based in London, Paris and Moscow