Friday, July 25, 2003

Diets are not only useless, but downright harmful

An interesting series of articles by Sandy Szwarc on TechCentralStation argues that the obsession with obesity is misplaced. Mostly, a person's body shape is determined by their genes, she argues. The simple calories in minus calories burned = weight gained or lost, is too simplistic. Diets can lead the body to take up a starvation survival strategy, burning few calories, losing muscle mass and disproportionately gaining fat - how ironic. Moreover, diets can produce an unhealthy shortage of proper nutrition.

Interesting - but not sure I entirely agree with it. It seems to be a case of replacing one panic with another: "obesity is bad" with "dieting is bad". Still worth a read, though.

The Truth About Obesity, TechCentralStation, 14 July 2003 onwards

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Anti-alcohol campaigns: do they work?

A report in the US suggests that campaigns aimed at getting students to reduce their drinking don't work. The 'social norms' campaigns put posters on campuses suggesting that most students drink moderately. The idea is to counteract peer pressure.

The research has been criticised but there is perhaps an element of double standards going on. The campaigns are often funded in part by alcohol manufacturers. So, in relation to these campaigns, they would argue that advertising discourages drinking. However, in relation to their own adverts, they argue that they do not act to increase consumption, just to influence brand loyalty.

I would argue they are right on the second count, but probably wrong on the first. Why people drink is much more related to their own individual desires and the social setting than to do with some wider moral or health picture. If I'm having a good time, I'll stay in the bar. If not, I'll go home. The poster on the wall matters little.

The fact is that alcohol is like anything else - it can be enjoyed without problem by the vast majority of people. Those who cannot handle it properly might need help and advice. But ultimately, they will have to decide for themselves what to do.

In the meantime, most college students have a perfectly healthy attitude to drinking: a hangover can last a day, but a good drinking story can last a lifetime.

New study shows college alcohol abuse unaffected by responsible drinking campaign, Newsday, 24 July 2003

Meanwhile, the same sentiment informs a new campaign by doctors in the UK to introduce labelling on alcoholic drinks. They want a label stating how many units of alcohol are contained in any drink, along with a note about how many units you are safely allowed per week. Whether this actually effects behaviour overall is open to question. The same kind of labels on cigarettes have caused more amusement than moderation.

Doctors call for health warnings on alcohol, Daily Telegraph, 24 July 2003

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Lose pounds, gain stones

Is the Atkins diet safe? According to a report in The Times (London), the Atkins diet can increase your risk of kidney stones. The diet is based on the near-elimination of carbohydrates, leading to a diet high in protein and fat. On top of that, some of the vegetables encouraged on the diet are high in oxylates, which further encourage the formation of kidney stones. Dr Bill Robertson, a clinical biochemist at the Institute of Urology and Nephrology at University College Medical School in London, is quoted as saying, ĎIf I was designing an experiment to make people form kidney stones, Iíd put them on the Atkins dietí. There is also evidence that high-protein diets may exacerbate problems with kidney function.

The Atkins diet seems to run counter to everything we have been told in the past twenty years or so about our diets. It is relatively high in fat, especially saturated fat; it removes high-fibre, complex carbohydrates; and it bans many of the fruits and vegetables we are told we should be eating. No wonder that orthodox nutritionists are up in arms about it.

The truth is that humans have a remarkable capacity to eat just about anything and survive quite happily. Thus, it is possible for people on diets high in meat and fats to live just as healthily as others who refuse meat altogether. For any fad diet, you can find medical evidence for and against. For example, there have been studies which suggest that the Atkins diet could be beneficial in relation to lowering cholesterol levels with a possible knock-on effect on cardiovascular disease. What is worth bearing in mind is that most of these studies are small, often choose obese subjects who are not typical of the population (but are willing to try anything to lose weight), and may have high dropout rates.

As for losing weight, it is quite likely that any diet which imposes arbitrary rules to reduce your food intake would work. The best approach is probably to trust your own judgement on what is an appropriate diet for you. If you want to lose weight, and a fad diet works for you, then why not?

The biggest risk from the Atkins diet is boredom. Itís not just that you might get bored with what you eat. If you become a born-again Atkins fanatic, youíre quite likely to bore your friends to death talking about it.

Atkins dieters may lose one stone to gain another, The Times, 21 July 2003

Celebrity diet 'safe and effective', BBC News, 22 May 2003

Monday, July 21, 2003

GM food: almost certainly safe

The UK government's scientific review will, apparently, report that GM foods pose a low risk to humans and are unlikely to produce 'superweeds'. However, the effect on wildlife is uncertain. Since many GM foods are chemically identical to their non-GM equivalents, the conclusion is not particularly surprising. It will be interesting to see if the UK government can hold its nerve and allow GM crop production.

GM crops 'low risk' for humans, BBC News, 21 July 2003