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IFST Lecture 2018

IFST Lecture 2018

This year at the IFST Lecture 2018 we had the privilege of hearing Dr Michael Mosley, well-known British television journalist, producer and presenter, talk on the subject Food, Diet and Public Health: The Role and Impact of the Media in Presenting Scientific Evidence. It was held at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London on Wednesday 27 June and was live streamed to several locations in the UK: Bath, Coventry, Craigavon, Dunfermline, Norwich and Newport.

Mosley studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, before becoming an investment banker. After realising that it really wasn’t the industry for him, he studied medicine at the Royal Free Hospital, London and retrained as a doctor. He joined the BBC as a trainee assistant producer and, during the last 25 years, he has made many science and history documentaries and published numerous books on diet and health.

After a short introduction, Mosley discussed how, in the past, stomach ulcers were common in patients relying on drugs to reduce acid levels, but, if unsuccessful, stomachs were removed as the issue was deemed incurable. Doctors suspected stress as a cause of excess acid but in the early 1980s, Dr Barry Marshall isolated and identified the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and proved it was the cause of most pectic ulcers. Nevertheless, the BMJ reviews were generally ignored. It was only once the Australian pathologist went on to win the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine with gastroenterologist Robin Warren, leading to breakthroughs in the study and treatment of stomach cancers, that doctors took them seriously.

In addition, Mosley talked about the reported link between exposure to the measles virus and Crohn’s disease and how Dr Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet, in 1998, claimed a link between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism and bowel cancer. A Sunday newspaper subsequently revealed there was a conflict of interest thus discrediting the research due to fraudulent data, resulting in the physician being struck off in the UK and the cover up being declared a catastrophe.

The fact that the public are often confused by conflicting and contradictory media reports and unsure who to trust, was also considered.

Mosley talked about cholesterol studies [low (LDL) and high (HDL) density lipoprotein] involving volunteers from University of Cambridge with no history of diabetes or heart disease, who were asked to consume unsalted butter as well as extra-virgin olive and coconut oils. Although the latter was shown to be convincingly the best, more studies were deemed to be required due to limited available data.

Statistics Professor Spiegelhalter reviewed how health news is reported in the press, and how the process from the initial study, through to the generation of the published article allows distortions to creep in. Such ‘Crimes against Science’ include:

• reporting research carried out in animals, without mentioning the absence of human studies – hence results may have no relevance to humans;

• reporting a correlation as a cause, for example an association between being wealthy and a higher rate of brain tumours;

• not distinguishing between relative and absolute risk, such as claiming consumption of processed meat (a little versus a lot) increases the risk of cancer by 17%, when the absolute risk may still be small (less than 1%).

The lecture continued on to discuss the impact of daily activities or consumption on life expectancy. For example, smoking 20 cigarettes a day reducing it by ten years, and 50g of processed meat, or two hours of television, by a year. On the other hand, it was explained that fruit and vegetables can add four years, two to three cups of coffee one year, and the first 20 minutes of exercise two years, but the next 40 minutes only eight months. The fact that half the population get ‘runners’ high’ was described and that scientists think the effect can be attributed to chemicals other than endorphins, such as endocannabinoids, which give the effects of cannabis.

The question of whether the media are to blame for consumer confusion was raised, e.g. a university press officer may generate a dramatic headline, which a journalist could edit to maximise interest. An example given was a newspaper headline linking fasting with diabetes when the reports were based on studies with rats. To enable accurate reporting in the UK, the Science Media Centre deconstructs stories to decide if they are believable.

When Michael was diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic, he used an intermittent fasting diet, namely ‘5:2’ (involving only eating 600 calories on two days a week but eating normally the other 5), rather than medication to successfully reverse the condition. This was in line with what had been demonstrated by Professor Taylor from Nottingham University, who proved that excess fat in the liver passes into the pancreas impacting insulin production.

However, the condition can be reversed if a person loses weight. If one is prediabetic, losing fat is also important in reducing one’s risk of developing diabetes; thousands of limbs are amputated each year because of complications of type 2 diabetes.

Consumption of a healthy Mediterranean diet (high in fruit and vegetables, legumes, olive oil and oily fish; low in meat and dairy foods), reduces the risk of heart attacks, breast cancer and cognitive issues, and wholegrains and vegetables were recommended as pasta substitutes. It was explained that fibre-rich foods feed one’s gut microbiome, the diverse community of bacteria inhabiting our intestines, which influence health but are affected by poor diet and overuse of antibiotics.

Michael specifically mentioned the PREDIMED study involving 7400 Spaniards, encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables, but fed either a low-fat diet (eating carbohydrates) or a Mediterranean diet (including extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, eggs, red wine, dark chocolate), which showed that the latter reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease among high risk persons. There was also a positive impact on breast cancer and cognitive function. He also endorsed fermented foods (e.g. shark, dark chocolate, red wine) as being beneficial – ideally those made safely using traditional methods (e.g. sauerkraut) and containing a wide array of bacteria in acidic conditions which boost gut health. On the contrary, commercial versions are likely to be pasteurised to kill bacteria for food safety reasons and shelf life extension.

The discrepancy between fact and reporting was raised, regarding media coverage of dairy foods protecting against diabetes, which is unproven. Similarly, inaccuracies in links between eggs and health are also covered by NHS Choices.

To sum up, a prescription for a healthy life was described advising people to:

• keep active, especially outside;

• participate in resistance exercise daily;

• enjoy Mediterranean/fibre rich/fermented food diets;

• avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary, especially in the case of children;

• minimise consumption of processed foods;

• remain curious.

IFST President, David Gregory, commented on the Lecture being exciting, informative and fun, and Michael Mosley thanked the audience for their stimulating questions.

Natasha Medhurst

Scientific Affairs Manager, IFST

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