Bernard Trafford: Contradictory advice can be bad for your health

Health bodies have been hitting the headlines lately arguing about statins. Bernard Trafford argues that it's all about balance

Obesity rates are high in the North East
Obesity rates are high in the North East

How many times have I complain in this column about the contradictory advice we receive, especially about health?

They’re at it again. During the past week opposing bodies of medics have been arguing about statins. Millions of us (not me, yet) take them to lower our cholesterol levels and avert heart disease or stroke. That makes sense.

Except the camp opposed to statins is alarmed about side-effects. I share that fear, for no coherent reason. I dislike taking more pills than absolutely necessary to keep blood pressure, cholesterol or everything else under control.

I’m a biddable patient, and go along with what my excellent NHS GP tells me. But we can’t leave it all to doctors. Our ups and downs in health and weight are influenced not by prescriptions but by the day-to-day choices we make. And all these contradictions make such decisions a lot more difficult.

We’ve all known for years that saturated fats are bad for us. These killers create the wrong kind of cholesterol (yes, apparently there are right and wrong kinds). But now experts are claiming we actually need saturated fats in our diet: it’s not good for us to live entirely on Flora and other polyunsaturates.

Meanwhile red meat, that other deadly substance, a source not only of heart attacks but allegedly also of cancer, has gained a clean bill of health too.

I guess it’s only a matter of time before bacon (you’ll remember when processed meats were pronounced bad for us) also gets the thumbs-up: then we can go back to a good old diet of white bread and dripping, fried breakfasts, and two-pounder steaks Florentine with chips cooked in animal fat.

How can we hope to pick our way through the labyrinth of conflicting food advice? Yet find it we must: we’re sitting on a societal time-bomb, storing up self-inflicted health problems for our ever-lengthening old age.

Obesity has assumed plague proportions: we’re a nation of wobblies, waddling from chip-shop to pie-shop and producing children who weigh 20 stone at age seven.

Health authorities are advocating the use of text messages to counter this disastrous trend and encourage sensible eating.

My fellow columnist Keith Hann suggests such texts should simply read, “Oi, fatty! Put that burger down!”

We’re useless at helping ourselves: but it’s the only way that can work. I’m weak-willed and love my food.

Yet I know (as even hearty eaters are starting to understand) that wonder diets, slimming pills, fasting days or even gastric bands aren’t going to do the trick for me. What I need is to develop self-control so that I make better decisions from day to day.

I like a bit of butter, though I usually stick to margarine. I love a juicy steak, but nowadays eat it with veg, not chips. I’m far from virtuous: but maybe I’m finally becoming realistic.

There never was much wrong with red meat, but there was always a problem in eating too much of it: it’s excess that does the damage. If we lose control and splurge one day, we have to take the pain the next in order to restore that elusive, healthy balance.

There’s some good news. If we stop claiming that one foodstuff or another is a killer: lurching from one faddy diet to another; kidding ourselves that we must live like pre-civilisation hunter-gatherers, berry-eating bears, or mermaids; if we truly strive for moderation, we will win the battle.

But the last word lies, inevitably, with my dad, now 93. Some years ago, while Mum was still baking, we visited for a proper “granny tea”. As I reached for the homemade scones, Dad asked if I’d seen this new cholesterol-reducing spread. “Marvellous stuff,” he said. “We use it all the time.”

I questioned an octogenarian’s need to watch his cholesterol, but offered him the tub anyway. “No thanks, old boy,” he replied. “Scones require clotted cream!”

  • @bernardtrafford
  • Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.

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