How often have you been scrolling through a website or leafing through a newspaper and been struck by a sensationalist headline about health that just seems a little outlandish? Have you ever stopped to question it before believing it as fact? We took a look at a few of the latest health stories that have made the news and put them to the experts to discover the truth behind the headlines. Here’s what they had to say…
Sugary drinks: The truth!
It’s a scary headline, especially in today’s hectic world where we’re so busy rushing around after others that we can often forget to eat. So, can missing our morning meal really have such an affect on our health? “There’s a lot of mixed information out there about whether or not breakfast really is the most important meal of the day,” says Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the British Heart Foundation (bhf.org.uk). “Many of the studies that highlight the health benefits of eating breakfast are observational, meaning that they can’t demonstrate cause and effect. Although breakfast eaters may appear to be healthier, they could also be making other healthy lifestyle choices that affect the results. Other research into intermittent fasting, which often means people skip breakfast, suggests that this may help some with weight loss. However, this approach does not suit everyone. The bottom line is, that whether or not you eat breakfast should be down to your individual appetite. When it comes to lowering our risk of heart and circulatory diseases, our whole diet is what matters, rather than individual foods, nutrients or meals. Whenever you eat your first meal of the day – be it within moments of waking, at your desk when you get to work or later on in the day – plan ahead and make sure it’s nutritious.”
Immediately worrying about that glass of orange juice you had at breakfast this morning? Here’s what the experts have to say. “This was based on a large study of approximately 100,000 people and they were followed up for five years,” says Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa, founder and GP at Your Doctor (your-doctor.co.uk). “This headline is alarmist and, although the reporting of the relative risks is probably correct, it does not convey the absolute risk to individuals. The research did find that there is an approximate increase of 18 percent per 100ml of daily sugary drinks consumed. It seemed to increase breast cancer risk, but not colon or prostate. This equates to an extra 22 people getting cancer in every 1,000, whether it was the sugary drinks that were directly causing the increase, is uncertain. The study relied on people volunteering to take part, mainly women, and was only carried out in France. The results may not be representative of what they would be in the wider population in France, or in other countries. Identifying the direct impact of a specific part of the diet on health is challenging, and it was concluded that their results need to be confirmed in other, larger studies. Scientific studies would also need to look at how sugary drinks might contribute to cancer risk, and whether it’s the sugar having an effect or other components of the drinks. My advice is that making healthy lifestyle changes is the most effective way to reduce your cancer risk. This means looking after yourself and making good choices, which include regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, avoiding smoking and not drinking too much alcohol.”
Chocolate: The best cure
Hands up, how many of us would love this to be true? We put it to Victoria to discover the facts. “Eating chocolate is frequently linked to benefits in reducing the risk of heart and circulatory diseases and there is some truth in this,” she explains. “Substances in cocoa called flavanols have been found to have a beneficial effect on a number of risk factors, including reducing blood pressure. This sounds like good news, but to get the benefits of flavanols you’d need to be eating dark chocolate with a high cocoa content, which isn’t what most of us are having. Chocolate also contains saturated fat and sugar, which can have a negative effect on your risk of heart and circulatory diseases. Better sources of flavanols are fruit and vegetables, such as dark green vegetables, berries and beetroot, which don’t come loaded with
the saturated fat and sugar that chocolate does. So, while a square or two of chocolate every now and then is a tasty treat, it’s not going to be enough to lower your blood pressure. Sticking to a healthy weight, cutting down on your salt and alcohol intake, being physically active and not smoking are all more reliable ways of lowering your blood pressure.”
Fish: The new health hero?
Sounds good, but is it too good to be true? “This was a European study that involved approximately 500,000 people over 10 countries,” says Dr Riccardo. “It’s been reported in a number of papers and it was an observational study that followed up peoples risk of bowel cancer for 15 years,compared to people who ate little fish. It was oily fish, like mackerel, rather than white fish, and it’s believed that the oils in these types of fish will help as an anti-inflammatory. The numbers of new bowel cancer diagnoses in the UK are relatively small, at roughly 40,000 per year. The research adds to the evidence that eating fish can be part of a healthy, balanced diet, and may slightly reduce the risk of bowel cancer. However, it’s important not to get carried away with the findings – the risk reductions were all very small, and it can be said that all fish tended to be linked with a small reduced risk of bowel cancer. Many other factors could be involved, for example people eating more fish may be following a healthier lifestyle overall, with more fruit and vegetables, less saturated fat and more exercise. Overall though, the study suggests that eating one or two portions of fish a week may have benefits in reducing bowel cancer risk, and we already know it may reduce risks of getting other conditions, such as cardiovascular disease. My advice is that you can reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer through your diet by restricting your consumption of red and processed meat – you should be aiming to eat no more than 70g a day and keep your weight at a healthy level with plenty of exercise.”