Sorting Out The Health Scares

It seems that never a day goes by without another warning that we're urged to heed if we want to live longer, healthier lives, but all too often the advice can appear contradictory.

Dr Peter Marsh, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre recognises the problem and warns that our exposure to high doses of health scares can result in a kind of "warning fatigue".

He says people can become so accustomed to this advice that they become de-sensitised by unfounded scares and "eventually pay no attention at all" even to important health-related information.

Women are particularly vulnerable to fretting about health risks. Research by the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that thanks to lower levels of a brain enzyme called COMT women are hard-wired to worry (whereas in general men are less anxious about life.)

It's time to take a deep breath while we sort out the facts from the fiction and present some calming advice.

:: ALCOHOL

Warnings about excessive binge drinking abound but many 'social drinkers' like to comfort themselves by constantly claiming that wine, particularly red, may reduce the risk of heart disease.

The reality is that in 1997 the World Health Organisation calculated the reduced risk of coronary disease was found at the level of only one drink consumed every second day - and for drinkers alcohol undoubtedly increases the risk of heart disease.

The Institute of Alcohol Studies found that alcohol causes 10% of all ill health and premature death in Europe.

Drinkers may point to a new 'wonder' drug mimicking Resveratrol, a compound found in the skin of red grapes, which is now in development.

It may eventually hold back the ageing process, help prevent cancer, Alzheimer's and heart disease.

But before you start cracking open a case, research shows that to get similar benefits a drinker would have to drink around 1,000 bottles of wine!

WHAT'S THE ANSWER?

:: Moderation - current medical advice shows men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day and women not more than two.

"Regularly" means drinking every day or most days of the week. Consistently drinking more than these amounts risks damage to health.
The danger increases the longer drinkers continue - and the more they consume.

:: Different strengths of drinks and sizes of glasses can be confusing. As a guideline, a pint of typical strength bitter contains about two units while a glass of wine can be anything from around 1.5 to three units.

:: WATER

We're all encouraged to drink two litres (eight glasses) of water daily to replace what we lose through normal bodily function.

It's been argued that coffee and alcohol don't count as they act as a diuretic squeezing water from cells so that more is lost than taken on board.

Too little may lead us to feel tired and struggling to concentrate but excessive water intake can be dangerous. Some detox advocates wrongly suggest drinking only water and eating nothing but fruit and vegetables with no salt for a number of days, but medical experts claim this is not only unnecessary and ineffective but also potentially dangerous.

There have been recent reports of people dying of water overdose, or hyponatremia, which occurs when water consumption dilutes vital salt and mineral levels in the body.

WHAT'S THE ANSWER?

"As an absolute minimum we should aim for one litre a day," says kidney specialist Professor David Oliveira of St George's hospital, London.

"That figure's calculated on the basis that, daily, we lose about 100ml of water breathing out, 500ml sweating and another 500ml in urine."

While it's sensible to drink up to two litres a day, he says that food, especially fruit and vegetables, can provide around 20% of our water intake.

Some foods have a higher water content than others. For instance, a cucumber has 96%, a tomato 94%, onions 89% while a plate of cooked pasta and grilled chicken has around 70%.

Caffeine addicts could take cheer from a recent study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition which found that coffee drinkers had the same level of hydration as those who stuck to water.

It seems that any water lost as a result of the caffeine was just a fraction of what can be gained from drinking it.

Do ensure you remain hydrated while exercising. Dr Dan Tunstall Pedoe, a London marathon medical director, advises drinking about a quarter of a pint of fluid for every hour of exercise.

:: EXERCISE

While being unfit carries a similar risk of heart disease to smoking 20 cigarettes a day, the latest research on exercise is optimistic.

You do not need impractical levels of exercise to be healthy, according to Paul Clayton, chair of the forum on Food and Health at the Royal Society of Medicine.

He points out that benefits kick in from quite a low-level programme: that means moderate exercise three times per week for 20 minutes, at a rate that raises the heart rate by 30%, makes you sweat and raise your breathing level.

That's enough to begin to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL, the protective cholesterol, to lower blood pressure and improve muscle tone. You may even lose weight!

WHAT'S THE ANSWER?

Shopping till you drop or jogging could be good ways to keep fit as women burn off more than 12,000 calories each year just by shopping, according to the latest UK research.

On an average trip a female shopper will cover more than three kilometres, and on five trips a month can clock up around 190 kilometres a year.

Unsurprisingly, men don't have as much stamina and with fewer and shorter trips lose only around 9,000 calories a year, according to a study conducted by a Warrington shopping centre.

If you want to protect your credit card and hold back the hands of time, you'll be pleased to find out that running may be a more effective way to slow the effects of ageing.

A 20-year study of people aged 50 and over conducted by scientists at the University of California found that elderly joggers remained fit and active for longer than non-runners, despite fears that over-active pensioners might end up crippled by arthritis and orthopaedic injuries.

"The study has a very pro-exercise message. If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise," Prof James Fries says.

:: SALT

We all know that eating too much of the white stuff is bad for us – but food watchdog The Food Standards Agency found that adults are eating an average 8.6g of salt a day - 44% more than the recommended daily level of 6g.

Eating too much can increase the risk of high blood pressure, which in turn is linked to heart disease and strokes.

WHAT'S THE ANSWER?

Too much salt is bad news but we shouldn't cut salt out completely.

Some sodium is needed for the body to function properly, especially in summer. It helps to regulate fluid balance and is needed for nerves and muscles, including those in the heart, to work.

Many of us are unaware how much salt we absorb daily in our food.

"We are all still eating too much salt," says Alette Addison, head of the FSA's salt reduction strategy says.

"That's why it's so important that we check labels and choose the lowest salt options."

Cutting down on toast and sandwiches could help. Bread may be the single biggest source of salt in the nation's diet. Look out for salt labelling particularly on breads, cereals, soups, cooking sauces, biscuits and cakes as well as baked beans, crisps and frozen meals.

:: BRITISH BREAKFAST

Those who love sausage and bacon - breakfast favourites for Brits – have been warned by the World Cancer Research Fund of the dangers lurking in the foods.

It's been found that eating 1.8oz of processed meat a day – the equivalent of one sausage or three rashers of bacon raises the likelihood of bowel cancer by a 20%.

It adds to growing evidence that too much meat in the diet can be deadly. Bowel cancer claims 80 lives each week according to Bowel Cancer Australia and is Australia's second biggest cancer killer.

"We are more sure now than ever before that eating processed meat increases your risk of bowel cancer," says Professor Martin Wiseman, the World Cancer Research Fund's medical and scientific adviser.

"The evidence is whether you are talking about bacon, ham or pastrami, the safest amount to eat is none at all."

Sausages, hamburgers and mince fall into the same bracket if they've been preserved with salt or chemical additives.

WHAT'S THE ANSWER

Those who can't bear to cut out processed meat will still benefit from eating smaller quantities, says Prof Wiseman, who says people should be aware of the risk so they can make an informed choice about what they eat.

Experts say red meat need not be eaten every day and that 18oz/500g a week in cooked weight or 27oz/750g uncooked weight is sufficient.

That's the equivalent of three steaks, although the definition of red meat covers pork and lamb as well as beef.

Processed meat's stronger links to bowel cancer have led to advice that it should be avoided altogether.

The World Cancer Research Fund advises that any meat bought should be as lean as possible, with visible fat trimmed before cooking. Chops or sausages can be swapped for fish, and a chicken or tuna sandwich a healthy alternative to bacon.

When making a chilli with mince, the quantity of meat can be halved and extra kidney beans added in its place.
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