Health ‘Facts’ We’ve Had All Wrong – And How To Stay Healthy According To Science
GP, medical journalist, author and host of SBS’s upcoming Trust Me, I’m a Doctor, Dr Michael Mosley shared his deeply scientific approach to wellbeing at Sydney’s All About Women festival – dispelling myths and setting the latest record straight.
This one time in Kenya, Dr Michael Mosely ate cysts from tapeworms ‘just to see’ what would happen. You know, like when you try the milk that’s been sitting in the fridge for ages ‘just to see’ if it’s still good, except it’s not like that at all because he ate cysts from tapeworms.
Admitting he’s done “some hardcore things” in his time in the name of research, Dr Michael is well known for The 5:2 Fast Diet. The famed weekly fasting plan initially ruffled a few feathers, but Dr Michael wasn’t phased – he goes against the grain when required; and when that grain is often outdated or funded by the very companies whose products negatively impact our health, it’s a great thing.
Keeping abreast of the latest science and research is something he sees as crucial for practitioners in medical and nutritional fields. The problem is that many aren’t up-to-date with the latest research (including government health bodies) and they wind up perpetuating outdated thought.
To prove the point, Dr Michael filled us in on the newest research and studies, which wound up as one plot twist after the next and re-wrote many of the health tropes we grew up with.
MYTH #1: It’s best to lose weight gradually
Dr Michael asked the All About Women audience to raise their hands if they thought losing weight gradually was a myth, fact or presumption. Most voted fact or presumption, and that is incorrect.
A recent study out of the University of Melbourne, which tested 200 overweight women, found that “rapid and greater initial weight loss is associated with lower body weight at the end of long-term follow-up.” So basically, go for it (but read the rest of this article first).
MYTH #2: Eating breakfast reduces weight gain
Breakfast is known as ‘the most important meal of the day’ according to nutritionists, doctors, the TV and your mum. There’s a belief that skipping breakfast will cause weight gain, but this actually hasn’t been proven at all.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition conducted a study with two groups; skippers and regular brekkie eaters. They asked them to swap habits for four months and the results were almost identical. Dr Michael says that this myth, more than anything, is a slogan from breakfast cereal companies.
MYTH #3: Exercise is important for weight loss
That’s right: myth. The reality is we have to spend a lot of time exercising to make any significant impact on weight loss. For example, Dr Michael says if a 65kg woman wanted to burn just half a kilo of fat, she would have to run almost 71kms (44 miles). Fancy a muffin? That’ll take you three hours of walking to undo.
But that’s not the worst of it, because people do what’s called ‘compensatory eating’ – you know, the ‘I did spin class GIVE ME ALL THE FOOD’ rationale. He adds that we also enjoy a bit of compensatory relaxing, too, where we’ll basically “sit on [our] ass afterwards.” Guilty.
Exercise is excellent for aerobic fitness and building strength. Currently, there is only one type of exercise Dr Michael is aware of that’s shown to be linked to weight loss in the long term, but more on that later.
FACT: Sugar is not so sweet
“Sugar is the obvious villain,” says Dr Michael. Avoiding it will drastically improve your health (and this includes foods with naturally occurring high sugar levels). Studies have shown that high sugar consumption is directly linked to diabetes and obesity. Sadly, the average Aussie kid is consuming their own body weight in sugar every year (around 30kgs).
I was in a hospital talking to diabetic about to have foot amputated and his breakfast was white bread & cornflakes https://t.co/51GabRDJc7
— Michael Mosley (@DrMichaelMosley) February 6, 2016
We used to think eating fat would make us fat, but studies (like the Predimed study) show there isn’t significant difference to overall body weight when you compare a low-fat diet with a Mediterranean one that has no calorie restrictions. All this time, it’s been the sugar.
So how can we actually be healthy?
Eat like a tanned 80-year-old on a yacht in the Mediterranean
There’s something to the Mediterranean diet. In that Predimed study (published just two months ago), the results between a low fat and Mediterranean diet didn’t show slight variations – they were pretty massive.
Those eating the Med diet (including vegetables, oily fish, nuts, eggs and poultry, lots and lots of olive oil, a nightly glass of red, and a little dark chocolate – not endless pizza and pasta) were found to be 30% less likely to die from a heart attack than those on a low-fat diet.
And that’s not all, more than half (52%) cut their risk of developing diabetes and, in what Dr Michael describes as “the biggest result I’ve ever seen, ever, anywhere” – those on the Mediterranean diet who supplemented with extra virgin olive oil were almost 70% less likely to develop breast cancer.
You’re also less likely to get dementia or have memory issues. Mediterranean diet FTW.
“I think willpower is grossly overrated,” Dr Michael says. He believes it all comes down to creating an environment where you’re not tempted. Seems frighteningly logical.
Following this logic, if you love chocolate like he does, you’re less likely to eat it if it’s out of sight (or just not in the house at all). So the self-confessed chocaholic gives it to his wife to hide and distribute as she sees fit.
The same exercise that increases aerobic fitness and improves insulin sensitivity is also the only exercise linked to weight loss in the long term – and it only needs to be done for a couple of minutes a day to be “amazingly effective.” It’s HIT, or High Intensity Training. Dr Michael says you don’t get these benefits from low intensity exercise, like jogging.
Inspired by Professor Jamie Timmons, Dr Michael’s personal routine is a 1-minute warm up on a bike, then “go[ing] crazy against resistance” for 20 seconds, followed by a minute’s rest, repeated three times. Then “you collapse, because it’s quite knackering.”
It’s also important to move your body (and this includes incidental exercise like taking the stairs instead of the lift) and use your own body weight to do resistance exercise like push ups and squats. Dr Michael does three to four minutes in the morning, three times a week.
“Stand up for science”
In news that brings joy to my lazy, tired heart, it turns out that standing burns three times more calories than sitting: if you stood for three hours a day, five days a week, the calories you’d burn are about the equivalent of completing 14 marathons a year. Yep.
Dr Michael says we should be standing up at least once every 20 minutes. In addition to burning energy, it also helps move food waste through the body and enables enzymes to do their job in your blood.
Give your mind a break
Reducing stress is essential. Dr Michael practices mindfulness for 10 minutes every day. You can use apps like Headspace to help guide you or join a meditation group, but you should definitely jump on the bandwagon, because it’s scientifically proven to reduce stress.
"Mindfulness is about reconnecting to your body. It's about the small moments" @DrMichaelMosley. mindfulness as effective stress reliever
— The Cusp (@thecusp_au) March 6, 2016
Stress spikes our cortisol levels, and is the culprit responsible for disrupted sleep or insomnia, and abdominal weight gain. Dr Michael also says we’re more inclined to reach for comfort food when we’re stressed, which is never a good solution.
Dr Michael’s latest book, The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet, busts these myths and more, and if you want to watch his excellent and informed talk from All About Women, here it is:
Sonia Taylor is the editor of The Cusp and is currently experimenting with a 21-breath meditation.