Sunday, 15 October 2017

Don't Put That In Your Mouth!




There have always been fad diets and people making money out of them, like Atkins or the grapefruit diet or swallowing tapeworm eggs. It’s getting harder to know who to trust as the diet messiahs compete for our money, harder to hack through the jungle of lies, empty promises and dangerous bullshit to find the truth. And lately the diet world has been getting vicious.

Weight loss means that using more calories than you consume. As simple as that. Cutting out a whole food group restricts calories, weight loss happens, but as soon as you go back to eating a healthy balanced diet or back to your unhealthy one, the weight comes back.

Nature abhors a vacuum so as soon as one fad loses its shine, another is spawned to take its place, along with all the expensive accessories – courgette rice, gluten free everything, spiralisers. That’s the marketplace in action.

The current crop includes paleo, LCHF (low carb-high fat, sometimes called low carb-high protein), ketogenic, clean eating.

Some messiahs are alert to public weariness with diet books and have rebranded their Gospel as ‘wellness’. Every single Wellness lifestyle is really a diet in disguise. All the Wellness messiahs are skinny and glossy and young.

Why are these diets a problem?
If dieting worked, there would only need to be one diet, everyone would do it and no one would put the weight back on. But that doesn’t happen. We have a short attention span. We want a quick fix, we all want to feel shiny and special. When one diet doesn’t work, we move on to the next one that promises us salvation. Life as a diet messiah is short. There’s always another one waiting in the wings so you have to make big claims to get attention and excommunicate the competition as heretics.

 The problems start when essential nutrients or dietary elements are being missed – vitamins, minerals, fibre – or an excess of fat/protein raises risks of conditions like kidney stones, osteoporosis, heart disease, liver disease and so on.

Fibre is the orphan child of many current diets. Without fibre it is very hard to poo. Pooing should not be under-rated as long-term constipation can have serious consequences. It’s also a natural detox, along with peeing. So regular trips to the loo will save you buying all those detox products and laxatives (but not prunes as the European Food Safety Authorityruled that they do not have a laxative effect). 

And of course carbs are cheap. Baked beans on wholemeal toast is a balanced, poo-friendly meal but it has no swank factor. Your Instagram followers will not be impressed.

How to tell crap from Christmas?
There’s a link between fad diets and fake news – they look plausible, they use science words, they fit with what you would like to be true and it takes an effort to research if they are genuine. It’s getting harder to tell crap from Christmas.

Once you’ve invested in something financially and emotionally, you’re likely to defend it whatever the evidence. Cognitive bias means you’ll ignore the evidence against your beliefs and cling onto anything that appears to confirm them.

You’re part of a tribe. You read the book, buy the products, join the online forums, identify with skinny glossy, hench celebs doing the same diet, Instagram your meals and get thousands of Likes, worship at the church of your chosen messiah. And your tribe hates all the other tribes, especially the Science Tribe who will insist on pissing on your chips (which are made of lard if you’re on the low carb diet).

Do not dare to question the Chosen One or we will smite you with the wrath of social media. It’s all gone a bit Old Testament.

I’ve been harangued by women for daring to question their proselytising of paleo and of turmeric as a miracle ingredient in everything.

Margaret McCartney, who is a real medical doctor (unlike me), had the temerity to point out that fad diets like LCHF are not a miracle fix and received a shitstorm of hatred on Twitter.

Where’s the harm?
The risks of the LCHF diet are not hard to find despite the fact that its advocates can get pretty vicious. 

Clean eating advocates are particularly vocal with their loathsome conflation of moral value and food which, in some cases leads to orthorexia and other eating disorders. 

Sometimes dietary claims get even nastier, like the claims that dairy products cause autism and anyone feeding their child dairy is risking their lives. 

Then they get nastier still, like the claim that the ketogenic diet can cure cancer.

  
Who can we trust?
Just as with other forms of fake news, it can be hard to know who to trust. The Pioppi diet is best described as ‘a superficial lifestyle guide based on distorted evidence’ even if one the authors of the diet book is a cardiologist. Most people would think it’s safe to believe a cardiologist. But as the author of this article points out: ‘Pasta is as central to the Italian diet as potatoes are to Britain’s. So too is bread. This is the elephant in the room for anyone trying to pretend that Italians eat a low carb diet’.

There’s another cardiology scientist recommending eating a lot of salt against all expert advice. Trust me, I’m a doctor? Maybe not. 

Sometimes the boundary between saints and sinners is blurred. For example, in this video, a vegan looks at the evidence for the dangers of the keto diet. One of the experts he cites is called Paleo Mom. They both have an agenda but the science is right – keto can be very dangerous, especially for children. Because it’s not just middle class adults wasting their money and messing with their bodies.

Other fake news tactics the diet messiahs use include taking evidence and distorting it, making the false link between correlation and causation, cherry-picking data, using facts out of context, ignoring confounding factors that don’t suit them, picking an arbitrary period in evolution for which the evidence is obscure and declaring that is our most ‘natural’ diet.

It gets crazier
The next step is the conspiracy theory. The sugar lobby is undeniably powerful but conspiracy theorists have attributed it god-like powers to ensure that we poor fools think saturated fat is the devil. 

As Antony Warner, the Angry Chef, says, this would require ‘paying off the medical establishment, the World Health Organisation, numerous charities, public health bodies and nutrition researchers around the world, and keep producing systematic reviews that show links between consumption of saturated fats and increased risk of heart disease.’

Once a conspiracy theory gets going, any evidence against it is taken as part of the conspiracy. The believers think that they and they alone know the truth. They feel powerful and clever and smug. And presumably constipated.

Yes, the parallels with religion are all there, the In Group and the Out Group, the access to privileged information, the righteousness, the smiting of enemies, feeling persecuted, the Gospels (the lucrative book deal is the Holy Grail of the Messiahs), the Way, the Truth and the Life. There’s no point being Saved unless others are Damned. Preferably on Twitter.


What’s the answer?
How are people to know what is a healthy diet and what isn’t? It’s so much easier to join a tribe and buy the book/watch the videos/follow a messiah on social media than to go and see a clinical dietitian.

Basically, if a diet involves eating less saturated fat, cutting out processed carbs but keeping whole grains, fruit and veg, reducing salt and sugar, reducing portion size and getting some exercise, it’s a good one. Basically, it’s just common sense. Which doesn’t make anyone any money.

Most people aren’t stupid but society puts pressure on us all to be thin and healthy. Desperation can lead us to make bad choices. The Internet should make it easier to get access to good information but the proliferation of messiahs makes it so much harder. They are all false prophets of diet salvation. We need to become diet atheists.





Thursday, 22 June 2017

Is it sex that’s keeping Granny going?



Is regular sex good for your brain as you get older?

The journal Age and Ageing published some research in 2016 on the effects of sex on the brains of older people called Sex on the brain! Associations between sexual activity and cognitivefunction in older age

The Journal of Gerontology has just published Frequent Sexual Activity Predicts Specific Cognitive Abilities in Older Adults, which says it ‘replicates and extends the findings’ of the first study.

Any article purporting to be about the science of sex makes for good headlines, but is the science any good? (Spoiler: No).

First, the Sex on the Brain research. Let’s set aside the dreadful title. Has anyone done research into the tendency of academic studies to make themselves sound like tabloid articles?

For the purposes of this study, ‘sexual activity could include intercourse, masturbation, petting or fondling’. I’m not sure what counts as petting and fondling except that there used to be signs at swimming pools saying: ‘No petting’.

The aim of the study is to explore ‘the relationship between cognition and sexual activity in healthy older adults’ (aged 50-89). The tests used were number sequencing and word recall. The findings were that ‘there were significant associations between sexual activity and number sequencing and recall in men. However, in women there was a significant association between sexual activity and recall, but not number sequencing’.

The word to keep in mind here is ‘association’. We’ll come to that.

People in the study were asked about sexual activity in the last 12 months. The findings were that ‘sexually active men and women to have significantly higher scores on the number sequencing and recall tests than sexually inactive men and women (all P < 0.001)’.

This is where the alarm bells start to go off.  

As all good skeptics know, correlation does not imply causation – or ‘association’ as the study calls it. That’s at the core of the problem with this research. Both studies admit this: ‘we can only speculate as to a causal relationship at this time’ and ‘we cannot infer a causal relationship between SA and cognitive function’. So all the studies are really saying is that people who say they have more sex when they are older do better on certain tests.

It’s important to have a control group when researching: people who did not receive the treatment or got a placebo or who didn’t do something to others did, for example. You need something to compare your results with.

The control group here is people not having regular sex. This might work if there were no other variables and confounding factors. But that’s not the case. It would be a much better indicator if the people who did score higher had no sex for 12 months and were then retested. Did their abilities change?

Another problem is that the average age of people having sex was 64.4 years and those not having sex was 72.9 years. That’s quite a big difference in terms of ageing; changes to the body over those 8.5 years are not considered. Women at the lower end of the age range were not asked if they had been through menopause, which can affect sexual activity and interest.

There was no indication of whether the participants were straight or LGBT, trans or cis.

The sample size is good, 3,060 men and 3,773 women, enough to produce significant results. But there were 2349 men who were having regular sex and only 711 who weren’t, which could skew the results.

A further problem with the research is that ‘sexually active men and women were more likely to have a higher level of education, be younger, wealthier, more physically active, not depressed, less lonely and have a better quality of life’.

This is where another klaxon goes off.

People with more money and a better education scored higher. They were also more likely to be living with a partner and so have easier access to sex. The study could just as well be called ‘Educated, wealthy old couples have more sex!’ (Not quite so catchy as titles go)

It could also have been called ‘People with depression, illness and loneliness have less sex!’ These conditions don’t just affect older people but everyone and can reduce sexual desire or activity.

Masturbation was included as sexual activity but not split into solo or mutual groups. So it could be that DIY is just as effective as sex with someone else – there’s no way of knowing from this study.

Both studies speculate that the cause could be the ‘potential cognitive enhancing effects of dopamine’ and ‘enhanced oxytocin release’. These two have been shown to improve cognitive functioning but levels were not measured in participants.

There’s also the problem of self-reporting. How honest were the answers?

The participants were not asked if they were having good quality sex or how their sexual activity had changed over time.

The second study replicated the findings of the first and tested for a wider range of cognitive functions. But there were only 73 participants (aged 50-83), not enough to be statistically significant. One of the tests was to list as many words beginning with F as possible. Don’t tempt me.

How are the media reporting these findings? One guess.

The Express says ‘University boffins have discovered older people can boost their brain power - by having more sex’ and thoughtfully includes a badly-drawn diagram on a sex position for people with arthritis. Props for using the word ‘boffins’ though, that always makes me laugh, especially in an article about sex. 

The Evening Standard goes with ‘Over-50s can boost their brain power by having more sex, new research has found’. That’s an interesting but not unexpected use of ‘found’.

The Daily Mail says ‘Sex is the key to staying sharp in old age!’ What are we to infer from the exclamation mark? That it’s a surprise? That old people are having sex? Or just that it’s about SEX!

So yes, the expected uncritical response because it’s SEX. And we all like to read about SEX. Or SEX! to be more accurate.

What do we take away from this research?

That some people do better on some cognitive tests than others and that they are likely to be better educated, wealthier and healthier. They also have more sex.

There’s no consideration for people who either can’t have sex or don’t want to and how articles like this might make them feel. The research is carefully neutral but the media coverage implies that people should be having sex to preserve cognitive faculties. It’s up to you, shag or go senile. No pressure.

As a positive takeaway, if you’re not having sex, your brain is not doomed to shrivel up. Dopamine levels can be increased through exercise, getting enough sleep, achieving goals (even small ones) and eating bananas. Oxytocin levels can be increased by holding hands, stroking pets, laughing, exercise and even looking at pictures of cute things.  So go eat a banana and look at some kittens.  


Appendage: The picture at the top is only vaguely linked to the subject but all the words I could think of to put into an image search would have taken me somewhere I may not have wanted to go.







Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Quit It - Part Three



Part Three of dispatches from the front line after ONE YEAR without smoking


Have I smoked in the last year? No. Not one. Do I still want to? Yes. Will I give in? The hell I will.

The addict part of my brain will always be there but it’s become a puny, mewling thing.

One of the strongest triggers now is leaving a cinema; my first thought is still to light up. Last week I dreamed I was smoking and really enjoying it; for the next couple of days I really wanted one. An ex-smoker I know said this still happens to her occasionally, even after years.

People keep saying that I must feel so much better. In theory, my immune system should now have recalibrated, the cilia and cells in my airways regrown. My risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke has dropped to less than half that of a smoker. But it’s only in the last couple of weeks that I’ve actually started feeling well after being almost constantly ill for more than eight months - not just with post-smoking coughs and colds but with non-respiratory viruses.  The GP tells me this is normal. Bloody marvellous.

I’ve just got back to my pre-quitting weight. Maintaining it is hard and means not even looking at lovely, lovely sugar more than once a week. I’m eating less overall than I was too, which is a real challenge.

My knees have adjusted to the extra cardio and my bum muscles are a bit firmer than they were.

I’ve saved myself a couple of thousand pounds (my brand, Silk Cut Silver, now sells for £10.45 in my local supermarket, of which £5.19 is tax). Am I saving the NHS money? I may not need it for smoking-related diseases but if I live longer, I will need it for other things.

Since I quit, standardized cigarette packaging has been introduced and the ten pack is no longer available. The idea is that the drab boxes with big ugly health warnings will make more people quit and put children off starting. The evidence for quitting is very slim but there is some evidence that the boxes are less attractive to teenagers. 

Most of the legislation, constant price increases and public health strategies are aimed at preventing young people from starting. They won’t put off the addicts – and certainly wouldn’t have made me stop.

You can see why vaping is becoming more popular with its pretty colours and no health warnings or gruesome images. So far. Evidence is growing of the dangers of vaping if it is not used as a short-term quitting aid. 

Some tobacco companies have started selling tins to avoid the new packaging rules and keep their branding visible. One expert said “The fact that these tins appeared almost immediately prior to the branding and size restrictions coming into force is suspicious.” It’s not suspicious, it’s predictable. They are not going to go down without a fight for a global industry currently worth $770 billion a year.

I’ve learnt a lot about quitting in the last year, some of it scientific, some of it personal. The main messages are:
  • Quitting is bloody awful but if it was easy everyone would do it. I am super special sparkly
  • There is no good time to stop. This last year has been a bugger for many reasons
  • It’s different for everyone
  • Think before you open your mouth around a quitter
  • There will be consequences. Quitting is damage limitation, not resetting to zero
  • There are both genetic and cultural components to addiction
  • Public health information and support is very inadequate
  • It’s really important to get support from anyone who will listen to you constantly whining
  • Punching people won’t make you want to smoke any less

So that’s my year of quitting. Now give me that damn cake.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Beyond Belief


A Comres survey commissioned by the BBC for Palm Sunday** does not look good for the Church of England despite a predictable effort to spin the findings.

In the survey, 51% of people surveyed identified as Christian. Half of the people surveyed said they didn’t believe in the resurrection, while only 31% of people identifying as Christian said they did. Only 17% of people thought the Bible version was literally true while 26% believed but thought the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally.

Although Christmas is now far more celebrated, the resurrection is the core tenet of Christianity and Easter is its most important festival. No resurrection, no Christianity.  To quote the Bible: Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. (John 11:25) And yet more than two thirds of Christians don’t believe that.


Belief and church attendance have been falling for quite some time. The figures for belief in this survey are slightly better than those in a YouGov survey from last year which found that only 46% of people identify as Christian. This was a much bigger survey and so is more likely to represent the population as a whole (nearly 12,000 as opposed to around 2,000 people). The YouGov survey also found that more people believe in ghosts than in a Creator.
  
According to the current survey, 37% of people identifying as Christian never go to Church. Another survey by the Church of England itself found that only 2% of the population go to the Church of England at Easter. The flock really has strayed far from the Good Shepherd (probably because they know he’s going to herd them off to the slaughterhouse so we can all eat our traditional Easter roast lamb and rosemary). 

The survey also looked at belief in life after death. It found that only 46% of people said they believed in it and the same number said they didn’t. If you don’t believe in an afterlife then the Church’s carrot and stick tactics are not going to work on you.

Sidebar: of those who do believe in an afterlife, 56% were women and 36% were men. I looked at why women may believe more than men in many kinds of supernatural phenomena (and non-evidence based medicines) here.

The Church is fighting a rearguard action and trying to spin the findings that 20% of the non-religious believe in some sort of life after death and that 9% of non-believers do believe that the resurrection happened.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Right Reverend David Walker,said: "This important and welcome survey proves that many British people, despite not being regular churchgoers, hold core Christian beliefs”. He describes the results as “surprisingly high levels of religious belief among those who follow no specific religion, often erroneously referred to as secularists or atheists”.

Let’s unpack this a bit. Firstly, the Church doesn’t have a monopoly in life after death belief. About a third of the people (32%) who believed in some sort of life after death believe in reincarnation, hardly a Christian doctrine.

Secondly, 9% believing in the resurrection is not a ‘surprisingly high level’ when you look more closely and see that these are people who ‘do not belong to a religious group’ according to the survey. They are not identified as non-believers or claiming to be atheist or secular, he’s just grasping at straws because any kind of belief, however small or tenuous is better than nothing.  He does deserve credit for his top skills at ignoring all the stats that don’t reflect well on the Church though. That’s quite an impressive mental contortionist act.

Thirdly, he is conflating atheists and secularists. Atheism means no belief in God whereas secularism is a political belief in the need for separation of Church and State. You can be religious and secular, as many people are.

Like a lot of Easter eggs, the Bishop’s claims are hollow and crack under the slightest pressure.

There is also dissension in the Christian ranks. Reverend Dr Lorraine Cavenagh is the acting general secretary for Modern Church, which promotes liberal Christian theology. She said "Science, but also intellectual and philosophical thought has progressed. It has a trickle-down effect on just about everybody's lives.

"So to ask an adult to believe in the resurrection the way they did when they were at Sunday school simply won't do and that's true of much of the key elements of the Christian faith."

A cynical person might say that the Church wants us all to believe like children at Sunday School do. Many of these children also believe in Santa.

Would it be mean to point out that in 2002 a survey found that a third of Church of England clergy don’t believe in the physical resurrection? That’s a bit of an own goal. It’s also unfair to people who do believe if they’re being led by people who don’t.  

These findings follow the Cadbury Easter egg fiasco where self-proclaimed vicar’s daughter Theresa May and Archbishop Sentamu got very hot under the dog collar about Cadbury’s and the National Trust dropping the word Easter from their eggs and egg hunt. I wrote about that here (short version – it’s not true).  

Does any of this really matter to most of us who are more interested in hot cross buns, chocolate eggs and maybe some roast lamb next Sunday?

The Bishop of Manchester also said: "This demonstrates how important beliefs remain across our society and hence the importance both of religious literacy and of religion having a prominent place in public discourse."

This is the crux of the matter. The Church will not give up its power and influence. It will not give up unelected bishops in the House of Lords or its tax-free benefits or state-funded Church schools and hospital chaplains or its general right to meddle in people’s lives. It wants the right to cherry-pick who gets to go to its schools, to mislead children in sex education classes and to discriminate against women and non-hetero cis men.

Church leaders are deluding themselves about the relevance of their beliefs and their jobs in a multi-cultural society. Yes, this country has a Christian heritage, religion has shaped society and history but it is not the sole influence. Societies evolve and the Church is looking increasingly like a dinosaur just before the meteors hit. Or, to add another simile, the Church is like a ferret that will not let go once its jaws have locked on.

However, this survey is no reason for celebration. Politicians won’t do anything to secularise the country because they’re afraid of losing votes. Anglicans (Church of England) are more likely to vote Tory, for a start. This government is very good at ignoring research it doesn’t like in any area and at dismissing ‘experts’ as irrelevant. 

So the Church of England has the last laugh. Whatever surveys show, there is no prospect of change any time soon. It’s much easier to hold onto power than to gain it. Inertia, cowardice and the status quo prevail.

Happy Easter.



** Palm Sunday is the one before Easter where the Bible says Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and people waved palm leaves at him.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The E Word



As if Theresa May didn’t have enough to deceive the British public about at the moment, now she decides to wade into the Great Easter Egg Debate. This is basically the Winterval, ’they’re cancelling Christmas’ non-story with added chocolate.

Cadbury’s and the National Trust have been running a joint egg hunt for 10 years. This year they’re calling it the Cadbury's Great British Egg Hunt instead of the Easter Egg Trail.

According to May, dropping the Easter is ‘ridiculous’. According to Archbishop Sentamu, this is ‘spitting on the grave’ of the company founder, John Cadbury, who was a Quaker.

May said: "I think the stance they have taken is absolutely ridiculous. I don't know what they are thinking about frankly. Easter's very important... It's a very important festival for the Christian faith for millions across the world." She also reminds us that she’s a vicar’s daughter.

Firstly, Cadbury is not dropping Easter from its promotions. As a spokesman point out: "A casual glance at our website will see dozens of references to Easter throughout." A ten second look at their website shows ‘Enjoy Easter fun at the National Trust’. Yes, the E Word is right there.  They also have a section called Easter Products  that says ‘Our eggstensive range is packed with perfect treats for the Easter season!’. Yes, it’s a terrible pun, but, again, the E Word is right there.

The National Trust website  says Join the Cadbury Egg Hunts this Easter. In fact, the page mentions the E Word five times.

Secondly, dear Archbishop, stop being a drama queen for one minute and you may remember that Quakers don’t even celebrate Easter because they believe every day is holy. 

Thirdly, both the Archbishop and the vicar’s daughter seem to have forgotten that there is nothing in Christian doctrine about the mass consumption of poor quality chocolate at Easter, whether it is shaped like an egg or a rabbit. These are wholly pagan relics. I wrote about the pagan originsof Easter here .

Fourthly, calling it the Great British Egg Hunt should make all the Brexiteers happy. We’ll have none of that Middle Eastern religion that was imposed on traditional British beliefs around 1500 years ago. Keep Britain’s Spring Festival British.

Fifthly, if Easter is as important as the two of them are trying to make out, how come only about 2% of people bother going to Church to celebrate what is the fundamental basis of Christianity?  And that’s according the Church of England’s own statistics. 

All of those armchair Christians really should stop their advance towards diabetes for an hour and go to their nearest church – if they even know where it is.  They may be able to sing some carols but how many Easter hymns do they know? How many gave something up for Lent? It’s not as if Cadbury and the National Trust are barricading church doors to keep people out.

Sixthly, the real story here is that Brexit could mean more expensive or smaller chocolate bars. Cadbury’s have already reduced a pack of six Creme Eggs to five with only a slight decrease in the price. A spokesman for thecompany has said that it may well have to pass on higher costs to customers by raising prices or selling smaller products for the same price. And it’s not even a British company any more, it’s owned by US company Mondel─ôz International. I suspect the ghost of Mr Cadbury would be far more bothered about that.

Cadbury’s are probably far less worried about what Theresa May thinks than about the fact that six out of ten of our favourite chocolate products are made by their rival Mars, including the top slot, which is taken by Maltesers.  

Finally, a vicar’s daughter and an Archbishop really should know that it’s a sin to tell a lie. They won’t be getting any eggs this year because the Easter Bunny knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. Santa sold the Bunny his list – customer data sharing gets everywhere.