1 Comment »Posted on Saturday 23 May 2009 at 5:20 pm by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Let me begin by saying that sneering at the Daily Mail is not big and it’s not clever. But 2.2 million people read it every day, and it has a lot to say about how they should look after themselves, so it’s only reasonable that its coverage of stories relating to health should be subjected to scrutiny. Here are a few of the questionable articles I found this week.

Monday: Neuroimaging as a crystal ball

I know she looks like a crystal ball reader, but actually Mail hack Wendy Leigh is the one who’s having her fate revealed in this scene. The silly-looking headgear is part of the setup for a procedure called brain electrical activity mapping, or Beam: ‘the latest health trend’ in America.

The theory behind it is that measuring the electrical activity of the brain reveals its ‘true’ age, speed and ability, pointing to the likelihood of certain conditions.

Wendy learns that her acetylcholine levels are high, meaning that she has a low risk of Parkinson’s and dementia. Using imaging technology to predict neurological conditions early is an appealing idea, but are we really able to do this already? I found reliable answers surprisingly hard to come by on the internet, but it doesn’t look like there’s good evidence for quantitative electroencephalography, as it is more properly called, having high predictive value for this kind of use. The article admits as much towards the end:

Dr Richard Henson, of the Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, says while recording brain waves is a well-established technique, it’s unlikely the results could provide meaningful information about what the brain’s neurotransmitters are up to.

Still, Wendy reports that after three weeks, she’s sleeping better and her sugar cravings have lessened, so let’s keep an open mind about it.

Tuesday: Fat = Fit

Overweight heart attack victims should stay fat as they are more likely to live longer, say researchers.

Given the massive health risks associated with being overweight, that’s a pretty dangerous piece of advice. Are there good grounds for it? The story is based on a review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. I couldn’t access the article myself, but according to NHS Choices, the authors actually said that although a paradox exists, the data still support “purposeful weight reduction in the prevention and treatment of CV [cardiovascular] diseases”.

Wednesday: Forget dieting, have a biryani

If you did decide to reject the Mail’s advice and lose weight, how to go about it? I’m not going to have to eat salad for dinner am I? Not according to this article: ‘Why eating a curry could STOP you from putting on weight‘. It seems that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, suppresses the growth of fat tissue. Mice fed on a high fat diet gained less weight if their food was supplemented with curcumin. They still gained weight though. Will takeaway curries become the latest fad diet. Since curries (combined with the associated naan, rice, poppadoms, chutney etc) are quite high in calories, I suspect a salad might still be a better option.

Thursday: Hang on, forget the biryani, go to bed

You wait ages for a more appealing weight loss strategy than eating less and exercising, and two come along at once. This time: ‘Why sleeping more could help you lose weight‘.

Researchers in the US analysed the sleep activity and energy expenditure of 14 volunteer nurses at the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC.

14? That’s your sample size? And all doing the same job in the same place? Alright then, what did you find?

Those identified as ‘short sleepers’ had an average body mass index (BMI) of 28.3 – classed as overweight – compared with 24.5 – classed as normal – for ‘long sleepers.’

Oh, for crying out loud! Surely we don’t have to go over the whole correlation/causation thing again? Maybe fat people don’t sleep well because they sink into the mattress too much, or because they can’t stop thinking about cake.

Friday: Swigging from plastic bottles will make you strangely self-conscious about your thighs

Drink from plastic bottles can raise the body’s levels of a controversial ‘gender-bending’ chemical by more than two thirds, according to tests.

Experts have been concerned about the possible health effects of bisphenol A (BPA) – an everyday chemical used in many plastic food and drink containers and tins as well as clear baby bottles – which is officially classified as toxic in some countries.

A study found that participants who drank for a week from polycarbonate bottles showed a 69 per cent increase in their urine of BPA, which mimics the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Gosh, this all sounds very scary. Maybe our increasing tendency to drink from plastic bottles is what caused the whole ‘metrosexual’ thing.

Once again, NHS Choices provides a pretty thorough discussion of the limitations of this study. Most significantly, there’s no evidence to suggest that the levels of BPA seen in the participants have any significant effects on physiology.

I promise to write about some good science next week. If I kept doing this, I’d probably tear my hair out.


  1. One Comment

  2. Great post Sam. I look forward to seeing “Why tearing your hair out is actually GOOD for you” next week.

    By Jacob Aron on Saturday 23 May, 2009 at 5:27 pm

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