Read between the newspaper health headlines


Read the small print before believing the newspaper health headlines

There’s some welcome news in the papers today, after a health minister indicated that in an effort to beat the obesity crisis, the new government is considering taxing companies that produce sugary foods.

It’s a refreshing way of looking at the problem: self-regulation and increased awareness of the effect of such foods on diet have failed to arrest the decline in health standards and the increase in the population’s weight. 

Contrast that news with a headline in the Daily Mail two weeks ago: 

Everything you know about diets is WRONG!
Calorie-controlled diets don’t work

claimed the paper. 

Now I’ve worked in newspapers in the past and have been known to write the odd sensationalist headline in my time, but this one went a step too far for me. 

The article was about a study by genetics expert Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London. 

Prof. Spector’s study shows that the type of bacteria in our gut can determine how much weight we put on if we overeat. 

One example given is of putting identical twins on high-calorie diets, where they eat an extra 1,000 calories every day and eat the same food.

After six weeks they’ll have completely different changes in weight: Some will have gained as much as 13 kg, others only 4 kg. 

While there’s some obvious merit to the research, which has looked at 11,000 pairs of twins, what the newspaper fails to say in its screaming headline is that this doesn’t tell us to “forget everything we know” at all.

It actually bolsters current thinking: that overeating is a recipe for packing on weight (let’s not forget that 4kg is still more than half a stone after all!), and that some people put on more weight than others if they eat more than they’re supposed to. 

It’s a good couple of hundred words before the article finally admits

“Clearly, calories aren’t the only factor”

Before going on to explain the key ground breaking point of the research: that the type of bacteria in our stomach will affect how much weight we put on – and crucially that modern diets of processed food kill the bacteria that aid weight loss!

Why does all this matter? Well because the danger is that some people will scan that headline (it made the Mail’s front page) in a supermarket queue or at the garage and come to the conclusion that conventional dietary theory – that taking in more energy via food than you use by living and exercising will make you gain weight – is wrong. 

This may then put them off making positive changes to their diet that will be beneficial to their health. What’s the point in eating all if calorie counting supposedly doesn’t work?

What’s even more surprising is that the article came out on the same day as a more shocking report: that the number of strokes in people of a working age is showing a massive increase in Britain. 

The study by the Stroke Association showed that last year, 6,221 men aged between 40 and 54 were admitted to hospitals in England after a stroke – up by nearly 50 per cent in 15 years.

The report admitted that some of the increase was down to a larger population and changes in reporting practices, but experts said growing obesity levels, sedentary lives and unhealthy diets – which raise the risks of dangerous blood clots – all played a part.

Many factors make up for our wellbeing, both emotional and physical – and it would be wrong to suggest that simply exercising more and eating better is a catch-all panacea for happiness. But there are too many studies out there to defy conventional wisdom: you are more likely to suffer from health complications later in life if you allow yourself to drift into obesity.

The next time you see a headline hailing a health fad, be sure to get all the facts before taking what’s written at face value. 

And if you have weight concerns, drop me a line