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The Pick

Forget superfoods, you can't beat an apple a day. The craze for exotic, expensive foods is not backed up by science, warn leading dieticians. Blueberries began the superfood trend. The hype continued with pomegranates, acai berries and seaweed. Now a long list of expensive and exotic foods has been credited with health-enhancing and memory-boosting qualities. With each announcement, sales have leapt, superfood cookbooks have multiplied and supermarkets have rushed to meet demand, offering a year-round supply of items once available in only the most hardcore of health food shops. The Guardian.

One fat kid versus a lean, mean army of meddlers. The crusaders running the "war on obesity" are toying with a new weapon: interning children without trial...Time was when fat kids only had to fear the school bully. Now they and their parents risk being bullied by a gang of authorities and experts. Complaining that "People pick on us 'cos of my weight", Connor says he is "sick of the nutters always shouting at us". To those picking on his family he can now add two specialist obesity nurses, a consultant paediatrician, two social workers and a police officer, who will all be at the conference. Oh, and Sir Trevor McDonald, whose Tonight with . . . ITV programme featured him last night. Mick Hume in the Times

Journals omit absolute risks. Absolute risks should be routinely included in abstracts, adjacent to any reported risk ratio, to allow readers to discern the meaning of ratio measures. In a structured review of the accessibility of absolute risk data in six leading journals, including the BMJ, Schwartz and colleagues examined 222 articles with study designs that allow absolute risks to be calculated. They found 68% of articles failed to report absolute risks in the abstract, and half of these did not report them anywhere in the article. BMJ

Leading article: A timely lesson in trusting the people. One year on from the controversial liberalisation of the licensing laws, and Britain is finally beginning to see with a clear head. Let's cast our minds back 12 months to the formidable level of opposition to the new regime. Politicians, judges, medical professionals, senior police officers and populist newspapers were queuing up to argue that the Government's plan to allow pubs and bars to extend their opening hours would be a disaster … We are delighted that all these critics were wrong. Independent

When healthy eating turns into a disease. ‘Orthorexics’ think their severe diets are healthy, but do they actually have a eating disorder? ... On asking Janet Hackney when she last went out to a restaurant, I am met with a long silence. "It must be about five years ago," she says finally, "on my mum’s 70th birthday. A group of us went to a restaurant where the owners know me and they assured me that they would be able to provide food that I could eat, cooked exactly as I wanted. You can’t get that very often, though, can you? So I usually don’t go out. It’s sad, really, how it ruins your social life." Guardian.

The truth about juice - science is cruel Reports about the benefits of healthy foods should be treated with great caution suggests Richard Smith. Who knows how many people have started guzzling fruit juice thanks to the blizzard of publicity surrounding an article in the American Journal of Medicine last week that suggested drinking the stuff might help fend off Alzheimer’s disease. A survey of 1,836 Japanese Americans, the journal reported, found that those who drank fruit juice at least three times a week were not as likely as those who consumed it less than once a week to develop ‘probable Alzheimer’s disease’. It may be that fruit juice does protect against dementia, but my bet is that it doesn’t. We’ve been here before... Guardian.

Sick - or simply eating too much? The launch of a new weight loss pill has been hailed as a breakthrough by health campaigners wringing their hands over what can be done about Britain’s "obesity crisis" ... But when did being fat become a medical issue - and should it be regarded as an illness? ... The self-avowed culprit is Professor Andrew Prentice ... "I have to hold my hands up," says Prof Prentice now. "Around 15 years ago, when I was at the Association for the Study of Obesity, my colleagues and I consciously started to up the ante about obesity in the media, because it was a Cinderella area and nobody was taking any interest in it. I think it was the right thing to do, but now I do have concerns, and I confess that it’s a tortuous issue ... we don’t want to go too far and we certainly don’t want to play into the hands of the lobby that would say this can be treated only by drugs." Telegraph.

Media Monitoring Doctor’s diary. "We live, sadly, in an era of gesture politics where trivial matters are exaggerated out of all proportion, the better to justify dramatic but useless pieces of legislation. And so it is with the current "crisis" of childhood obesity, which apparently warrants a whole raft of measures to combat it - including the proposal to ban junk food advertising until after the 9pm watershed. It won’t, of course, make a blind bit of difference, because the supposed crisis, as the British Medical Journal points out this week, is not only largely fictitious - being based on arbitrary measurements of body mass - but positively harmful in labelling children with a pseudo-medical diagnosis. So what is going on?" James Le Fanu in the Telegraph.

Expanding definitions of obesity may harm children. A new and expanded definition of childhood overweight and obesity expected later this year is causing concerns that many healthy children may be unnecessarily labelled as having a disease. A powerful "expert committee" in the United States has tentatively decided to reclassify children who are currently called "at risk of overweight" and refer to them in the future as "overweight." Those familiar with these definitions say that such a change could lead to a dramatic expansion of prevalence estimates, with 25% of American toddlers and almost 40% of children aged 6 to 11 years portrayed as having a medical condition called "overweight and obese." BMJ.

Media Monitoring Citizens must not be force-fed health advice ... it is planned to screen every child for obesity in their first year at primary school, to ban junk food in children’s packed lunches, to have GPs interrogate patients on how much exercise they take and to screen public sector workers for obesity ... When the Executive proposes sending inspectors into housing estates, to home in on sickly looking people and refer them for medical treatment, alarm bells should be ringing. It is simply none of their business ... The delicate equilibrium between life and liberty must always be respected by legislators. Otherwise we may find that politicians’ aspirations to make us all live longer end in an unhappy halfway house where, although we do not, it oppressively feels as if we do. Scotsman.

Calories are not immoral. For most people the problem is not their size but the torment of fat weighing on their minds ... "With the government’s declaration of an Obesity Crisis, the food and pharmaceutical industries are revelling in commercial opportunities that await them to scoop up the problem with pills and specialised foods. But, as with the green sandwich, beware. The epidemiological analyses that originally had the US Surgeon General putting obesity-related deaths at around 400,000 have been reanalysed, and we find they’ve dropped to less than 26,000. Not good by any means, but not enough to drive our own House of Commons committee on obesity and the Department of Health to respond robotically. Reanalysis also shows that the "overweight", that’s to say people with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, live longer on average than those with a "normal" BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9." Susie Orbach in the Guardian.

Low-Fat Diet Does Not Cut Health Risks, Study Finds. The largest study ever to ask whether a low-fat diet reduces the risk of getting cancer or heart disease has found that the diet has no effect. The $415 million federal study involved nearly 49,000 women ages 50 to 79 who were followed for eight years. In the end, those assigned to a low-fat diet had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer, heart attacks and strokes as those who ate whatever they pleased, researchers are reporting today. "These studies are revolutionary," said Dr. Jules Hirsch, physician in chief emeritus at Rockefeller University in New York City, who has spent a lifetime studying the effects of diets on weight and health. "They should put a stop to this era of thinking that we have all the information we need to change the whole national diet and make everybody healthy." ... Dr. Freedman, the Berkeley statistician, said the overall lesson was clear. "We, in the scientific community, often give strong advice based on flimsy evidence," he said. "That’s why we have to do experiments." New York Times.

Media Monitoring Salt of the earth. A delicious setback for those who would deny us a basic pleasure. Two wrongs do not make a right, we are taught. Yet occasionally a pair of misguided paths can cross to the benefit of all. And so it is with the collision of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), two benighted agencies without whose acronymns Britain would be a lesser, wordier country. Existentially misguided they may be, but their disagreement has produced a commodity otherwise scarce in their pronouncements: common sense. Times

Scares & Miracles

Did microwaves 'spark' obesity? Microwaves may be to blame for kick-starting the obesity epidemic, a UK scientist suggests. Professor Jane Wardle says obesity rates started to rise soon after 1984 - around the time of the rapid spread of microwave ownership. BBC

The 'dangers' of the humble carrot.Visitors to the Chelsea Flower Show, which opens on Wednesday, will be able to see an exhibition by the Royal College of Pathologists entitled "The pathology of plant sensitivities", which looks in particular at allergies to plants. "Most people are aware of peanut allergies, but how many know that you can be allergic to a carrot or its entire family?" Prof Newland said that those allergic to carrots, for example, could also have reactions to the rest of the carrot family - parsley, coriander, parsnip, celery, fennel, dill and anise. bbc

Junk food is causing famine symptoms. The national addiction to junk food is leaving millions malnourished - with some suffering conditions more usually associated with African famine victims. The number of hospital patients diagnosed with malnutrition has risen by 44 per cent in just five years, with almost 4,000 cases last year. Daily Mail

Larger-size clothes should come with warning to lose weight, say experts. Clothes made in larger sizes should carry a tag with an obesity helpline number, health specialists have suggested. Sweets and snacks should not be permitted near checkouts, new roads should not be built unless they include cycle lanes and food likely to make people fat should be taxed, they say in a checklist of what we might "reasonably do" to deal with obesity. Times

School obesity tests distorted. Parents of fat children are being blamed by ministers for the failure of an attempt to measure the nation's childhood obesity crisis. Independent

Human species ‘may split in two’. Humanity may split into two sub-species in 100,000 years' time as predicted by HG Wells, an expert has said. Evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry of the London School of Economics expects a genetic upper class and a dim-witted underclass to emerge. BBC

NHS dance classes for obese patients. Dance classes are to be provided on the National Health Service in a bid to counter declining fitness levels and prevent a national obesity crisis. Daily Mail

Mince pie danger to be assessed. Organisers of a village Christmas party have been told they must carry out a risk assessment of their mince pies - or their festivities will be cancelled. Council bosses say posters will have to be displayed at the party in Embsay, in the Yorkshire Dales, warning villagers the pies contain nuts and suet pastry. The cocoa content and temperature of the hot chocolate must also be checked. BBC

‘Nutrition nannies’ to help obese families shop. A three year £3 million programme of keep fit classes and healthy eating advice for 5,000 obese children has been unveiled. ‘Nutrition nannies’ from Sainsbury's will walk supermarket aisles to advise families about what to buy to lose weight and stay fit. Daily Mail

Snuff users tend to obesity. A Swedish study finds that people who use snuff are more likely to be overweight and to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Many people have turned to Swedish moist snuff or snus as a substitute for cigarettes. Researchers tracked 16,500 people in Västerbotten in northern Sweden and found that heavy snuff users were four times as likely to suffer from "metabolic syndrome," a cluster of symptoms that contribute to heart disease. UPI.

Flip flops can damage your health.Perfect for hot weather, they have been the fashion hit of the summer. But doctors warned yesterday that flip flops can be as bad for your health as they are for your career. Business chiefs said last month that wearing them to work was an invitation to be sacked. Now medics have joined the attack by saying they can lead to joint pain, shin splints and twisted ankles. Mail.

Working-class marriages ‘shorten lifespan’. Being working class or marrying into the working classes could dramatically reduce an individual’s lifespan, new research has claimed. A study of hundreds of female twins found those deemed working class - employed in a manual, unskilled job - can expect to age significantly faster than their middle-class peers. It could reduce life expectancy by seven years. Scotsman.

Health warning: Praying for the sick makes them feel even worse. Praying for hospital patients can make their illnesses worse and lead to significant post-operative complications, new research has found. The biggest study into the relationship between prayer and healing found that, on the whole, prayers offered by strangers had no effect on patients’ recovery. Scotsman

Standing-only classrooms ‘could prevent child obesity’. Chair-free classrooms where pupils stand for hours a day are being introduced to Britain after a study found that they could lead to substantial weight loss. Children burnt so many extra calories that the long-term effect on their waistlines would be "significant", researchers found. The revolutionary approach has been spearheaded by a British expert on obesity, Dr James Levine, a medical consultant at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, in the United States. He is convinced that stand-up lessons can provide an answer to childhood obesity problems. Telegraph

Virus blamed for obesity epidemic. As many as one in five Australians may have contracted a virus linked to obesity. Blood tests on 2000 Australians, carried out in the US, showed about 20 per cent of them had been exposed to a virus called Ad-36, which some researchers say can cause weight gain. The idea that fatness is catching is controversial. However, Richard Atkinson, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, who did the testing, said a fat virus could help explain the worldwide epidemic of obesity Sydney Morning Herald.

Obesity ‘raises crash death risk’. Male drivers who are involved in a car crash are more likely to die if they are obese, a US study suggests. The Milwaukee team says this may be due to the driver’s greater momentum in a crash and because of the effect obesity has on the body’s ability to recover. But the bodies of moderately overweight men appear to cushion the blow, reports the American Journal of Public Health. BBC

Media Monitor  EPA Warns Of Dangerous Levels Of Romance In Air. WASHINGTON, DC — Responding to a dramatic increase in cases of starry-eyed gazing and spontaneous poetry, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a general health warning Tuesday for hazardous levels of atmospheric romance across the entire North American continent. "Early indications of romantic exposure include a flushing of the skin around the face, neck, and chest, accelerated heartbeat, rapid eyelash batting, and sighs," EPA administrator Steven Johnson said at a morning press conference. "Left untreated, the ailment progresses rapidly, leading to aimless strolls, floral purchases, and a form of acute and regressive aphasia in which the victim’s speech degenerates into that of a young child." The Onion.

Obesity can be caught from a virus, scientist says. A sharp increase in the number of Britons who are severely overweight may be the result of a virus that allows people to ‘catch’ obesity, controversial research suggests. A study by American scientists, published today, offers evidence supporting the theory that fat is infectious and is caused by a family of viruses that affect certain people. Times.

Running, it seems, can jog your memory. A team of neuroscientists from Germany studied the mental abilities of joggers over a number of weeks and found both their concentration and their visual memory were improved by pounding the pavement. Scotsman.

Drinking decaffeinated coffee may be bad for your heart - a finding that will come as a shock to those who think ridding the beverage of its powerful stimulant might make it better for them. A study comparing the cardiac health of 187 coffee drinkers yesterday suggested decaf versions of the world’s most popular drink could help raise "bad" cholesterol, which at high levels can lead to disease of the arteries. But overweight people may do better to stick with decaf since, among them, there were higher levels of "good" cholesterol, which has been linked to improved prospects for avoiding heart disease. Guardian

SIRC Comment

Belonging in 21st century Britain. The notion of belonging, or social identity, is a central aspect of how we define who we are. We consider ourselves to be individuals but it is our membership of particular groups that is most important in constructing a sense of identity. Social identity is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. Full report

Girl Talk The new rules of female friendship and communication. For women friends play many roles, helping them to define themselves at particular stages in their lives. Women aged between 25-35 in particular value their friendships a great deal — investing time, commitment and emotion in them and expecting the same in return. Full report

Life online: The Web in 2020 The Life online report, looking as it does toward a vision of the Web in the year 2020, aims to provide an outline and analysis not only of projected technological developments but also their social, political and economic implications. What will the Web look like in 2020? What will it do? Where will it be? How will we use it?

SIRC’s starting point has been the notion that the Web in 2020 will meet human needs more fully than it does at present, with many resulting social and political implications. It will have come to provide a renewed forum for social cohesion and democracy as well as continuing as a platform for information, entertainment, communication, shopping, etc. But will it, as some predict, provide a digital alternative to ‘real life’, with the distinction between Human and machine becoming ever-more blurred? Or will it, as we believe, be not so indistinguishable from the Web we know today. Full report.

Britain: A nation of emotion? Public displays of emotion in Britain attract media commentary and brow beating over whether we should in fact keep it all bottled up. Yet at the other extreme we have the current weekly torrent of tears of joy and sadness on the X-Factor. What's going on? Full report

Risk! — In the Western World we are currently experiencing, by objective standards, the safest environments that we have ever had in our evolution and in our history. And yet, in spite of all this 'safety' around us we seem compelled to worry. Full report

The dinner party is dead. Long live the dinner party! Contrary to the professional pessimists who would have us believe that society is falling apart and that we are increasingly less sociable as a nation, eating together with friends at home is alive and well. All that has changed is that we no longer use the term ‘dinner party’ so much. It is a bit pretentious and conjures up images of the stiff, formal gatherings that are as now as dead as the hostess trolley. Instead, more relaxed more sociable gatherings continue the timeless rituals of sharing food and eating together — traditions that have been with us since the Stone Age. Full report.

The impact of sport on the UK workplace. This major study, commissioned by professional services recruitment and talent management consultancy, Hudson, and conducted by The Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), was first published just prior to the football World Cup 2006. It assesses the impact of sporting success and failure on the UK workplace. The findings are based on information gathered from detailed qualitative and quantitative research, which consisted of focus groups, one-to-one interviews, and a YouGov national poll of 2000 people aged between 18 and 70.Full report.

Fattened statistics. Recent media coverage of levels of obesity among children in Britain continues to inflate the scale of the phenomenon by using statistical methods that are fundamentally flawed. The Guardian, for example claimed, on the basis of data from the Health Survey for England (HSfE), that "26.7% of girls and 24.2% of boys [aged 11-15] qualified as obese." And yes, that is what the short release from the NHS Health and Social Care Information Centre said as well. The problem is that these figures are based on the now outdated UK National BMI standards for defining obesity in children — cut-off points that have been described by leading experts in the field as ‘arbitrary’ and ‘confusing’. Full article.

Reality TV food policy. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Ruth Kelly, seems to have received a achieved a boost to her popularity after she announced that from September 2006 ‘junk food’ will be banned from the nation’s school canteens. Riding on the wave of interest/disgust generated by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s TV series, which featured the now infamous Turkey Twizzler style of catering, she had earlier announced, just 6 weeks before the last election, that the government had found an extra £280million to plough into ‘improvements’ in children’s diet. This, according to Kelly, had nothing to do with the TV programmes - the government were going to that anyway she claimed, much to most people’s disbelief. Her more recent conversion to the food activists’ cause also looks suspiciously like another populist, knee-jerk reaction than an evidence-based approach to policy. Out will go ‘poor quality’ burgers and sausages, to be replaced with low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt alternatives. And no, our nation’s children will no longer be able to indulge themselves with a fizzy drink of bar of chocolate because these will also be noticeably absent from the school vending machines. Full article.

Sneaking God into science by the back door - Time for the UK to confront ‘Intelligent Design’. In February 2006, the BBC television programme Horizon commissioned a MORI poll to ascertain UK public opinion on the theory of evolution. A group of over 2000 participants were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life, from a list including creationism, intelligent design and evolutionary theory. 22% chose creationism, 17% opted for intelligent design, 48% selected evolutionary theory, the rest didn’t know. According to this poll, just over half of the British public are not convinced by evolutionary theory. Even given caveats about the validity of polls as a way of measuring public opinion, these are worrying statistics. Full article.

I don’t know what to believe!
Regular browsers of the SIRC web site will be familiar with the MediaWatch page and our ‘Scares and Miracles’ section. Given the frequent disregard in many parts of the media for accurate and balanced science and health coverage, it is not surprising that many people find it difficult to know what is factually based and what is pure junk. The fault, however, does not lie entirely with the press. Quite often journalists receive material in the form of press releases or confernce papers which have not been subject to any formal vetting procedures — the critical test being that of ‘peer review’. This assesses the validity of the methods and results of research, the significance of the findings and whether the content should or should not be published. Full story.

The Noughties — the decade of diversity.
At the Social Issues Research Centre we talk with people, we listen carefully, and we try to make sense of what people say within the context of their own ways of seeing the world and the meanings that they attribute to it. In parallel, we note the results of opinion polls, surveys and sources of statistical data that may indicate change, even though these alone cannot inform us about why things are changing. For this study we were particularly interested in those whose lives are being shaped by, and in turn are shaping, the Noughties — people who had recently left school as the new millennium dawned and who are now mainly in their 20’s. This, then, is the basis for what follows in this report — the Noughties as seen from the perspective of those who are being, and will continue to be for the next four and a half years, most strongly influenced by it. Full Report.

An epidemic of confusion. One of the fundamental premises that guides thinking and research at SIRC is that people have the right of access to accurate and balanced health and lifestyle information, on the basis of which they can make informed decisions about how they lead their lives. They may choose, of course, to ignore the evidence and its implications. In liberal democracies we must concede that people are entitled to have bad habits. But when the facts are clearly and fairly presented they cannot claim that they have acted in ignorance or have been misled. The problem, however, is that we are increasingly exposed not to balanced presentations of the evidence but rather to an ever-changing diet of conjecture and distortions of reality motivated by doctrine or personal advancement. Full article.

The the CDC reclassifies obesity (again) — "The surprise calculations led the agency to review its rankings of preventable causes of death, moving obesity from second place behind smoking, to seventh, behind alcohol, germs, toxins, pollutants, car crashes and guns." Times, BBC, CNN and Reuters
Research available from JAMA
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SIRC Media Watch SIRC Media Watch

The Social Issues Research Centre continually monitors the world’s press to determine trends in the food, health and science fields. Media editor Simon Bradley makes a selection of items of particular interest.

Items which have been removed from this page can be found in the Archives section, or use our site Search facility.

Some of the links that are provided may go dead after a day or so. We recommend that you download linked articles of interest on the day that they are published.

SIRC welcomes suggestions for items to include in Media Watch. These should be sent to the email address below.