At the beginning of a new year it is traditional to make predictions. But the past few years have shown us that this is just pointless.
We are all basically all alone and all at sea and must, therefore, make the most of whatever happens in any way we can.
To this end, I am going to try and prove or bust a few health myths, in order to help/hinder you on whatever route you choose to take in 2023. Just some gentle advice, cynicism and hope.
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
In my opinion this is absolute nonsense.
There is a saying; ‘Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper’.
We are constantly being told that breakfast is without doubt the most important meal of the day, that an early meal is essential to fuel you up for the events of the day to come.
The stereotype is that the Brits eat a daily fry-up, the Italians drink an espresso and the French eat a croissant with their bowl of milky coffee and a cigarette and the Germans eat cold meat in a roll. All true.
Whatever you have for breakfast, scientists believe the timing of meals is an important factor in weight loss, alongside metabolic and cardiovascular health. One study on overweight volunteers found that those who ate a large breakfast saw greater weight loss and waist circumference reduction than another group who had a low-calorie breakfast and larger dinner, even when overall calories were similar.
“This might be because skipping breakfast leads to increased hunger levels later in the day, resulting in people overeating,” says Brady Holmer, a researcher at Examine.com. “People who eat a big breakfast instead of a big dinner also tend to lose more weight, feel less hungry and can regulate their blood sugar levels better.” Although the evidence is mixed, some studies have found that eating more calories earlier in the day could have benefits for metabolic health.
So there you have it. Breakfast is important if it is something you enjoy, or helps you follow a well-balanced diet, and skipping it may have varying effects on appetite, weight and energy for different people. If you can make it through the morning on a coffee, that’s probably fine, especially if you sit behind a desk all day. Whereas, if you have a morning ploughing fields planned, you might want something a bit more substantial.
You should walk 10,000 steps a day
Why is 10,000 steps the magic number?
Well, it isn’t really. Apparently, in the 1960s, a Japanese firm started selling pedometers called ‘manpo-kei’, which translates as ‘10,000-step meter’. Studies later showed that people who take 10,000 steps daily have lower blood pressure than those who don’t. And the number stuck.
Lots of studies have looked at the comparative health benefits of 5k to 10k steps and determined that, the higher, the better, and Harvard Medical School studied 16,000 women in their 70s, comparing the number of steps they took each day to their likelihood of dying, from any causes.
They followed the women up, four and a bit years later, and 504 had died. Of the survivors, the average number of steps was 5,500 and incremental gains in steps were important. Women who had taken more than 4,000 steps a day were significantly more likely to still be alive than those who did 2,700. A small difference seemed to make a significant difference to longevity.
Interestingly, the more steps the better held true only up to 7,500 steps, after which the benefits plateaued. Any more than 7,500 made no difference to life expectancy.
The number of steps someone should aim for is interesting psychologically. The 10,000 target does seem quite a high goal to get to every day and failing to do so might discourage you. But only if you are weak-willed.
Duke University found that people who tracked their steps walked further and, ultimately that is the important thing, whatever target you set yourself. But Duke also found that those who tracked their walking enjoyed it less, saying it felt like work.
Counting steps might also encourage ftter, more active people to stop once they have reached their 10k target.
The key then, is to set your own goal, probably start at 10k and experiment to see what works for you.
You need eight hours of sleep
It is easy to think of sleep as an individual thing: some people need eight hours, while others can get by on seven. Margaret Thatcher, among other psychopaths, famously claimed to manage on four, and new parents often cope on less. In one of the largest sleep studies, in 2017, participants who reported sleeping the endorsed seven to eight hours performed better cognitively than those who slept more or less than that, regardless of age. Those who slept four hours or less performed as if they were almost nine years older. Lack of sleep can also affect testosterone production in men and a review of studies published in 2010 suggests it can raise the risk of all-cause mortality.
None of this will help when you are trying in vain to get to sleep, so give yourself the best chance of a decent night’s kip by keeping good habits. “Establish a routine,” says Steve Magness, author of Do Hard Things. “If we repeat things often enough, the brain and body figure it out and sync the hormonal and neurochemical release in anticipation of that event – and the same goes for sleeping. Try to get outside early in the day to see some sunlight, which helps to regulate your circadian rhythm – and cut down on your device use at night.”
So, clean your teeth before going to bed and read a book till you drift off.
Eat five portions of fruit and veg a day
Apparently five might actually be the minimum. The five servings recommendation is sound advice, but also somewhat arbitrary. Many studies have found that roughly this number is associated with improved health, but there is also evidence that up to 10 servings per day of these foods can be beneficial. In general, those who consume more fruits and vegetables have lower risks for cognitive decline and dementia, and diabetes, and may even experience decreased levels of stress.
If you are struggling to hit the minimum, it’s worth bearing in mind that not all portions are created equal. For long-term health, two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables per day has been associated with the greatest benefit and the more variety, the better. Dark, leafy greens, broccoli, sprouts and cabbage – are some of the most nutritionally dense vegetables available, while berries tend to be more packed with antioxidants than bananas.
You need to drink two litres of water a day
Staying hydrated is important, but the recommendation to drink two litres of water a day, while reasonable advice, is also not based on hard science. In 1945, the US National Research Council wrote: “A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 litres daily in most instances. Most of this quantity is in prepared foods.” And in 1974, a book by leading US nutritionist Dr Frederick J Stare stated: “How much water each day? This is usually well regulated by various physiological mechanisms, but for the average adult, somewhere around six to eight glasses per 24 hours, and this can be in the form of coffee, tea, milk, soft drinks, beer, etc. Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of water.”
Excellent news then; you can get enough daily water through tea, coffee and beer.
A daily glass of wine is better than abstinence
The old recommendation to have a glass each night is based on observational evidence that people who classify themselves as “moderate drinkers” (roughly 1-2 units a day) seem to have a lower risk for some diseases – but that is very difficult to study in isolation. Generally, moderate drinkers tend to be wealthier, more educated, live in nicer areas and benefit from other factors that heavy drinkers and non-drinkers don’t, which is probably why a New Zealand study saw the “benefits” of moderate drinking disappear almost entirely.
One thing we can probably dismiss is the idea that the potentially heart-healthy molecule resveratrol plays a part – you would need to drink gallons of wine every day to hit the amount that seems to be beneficial in animal research. Recent research suggests that regular, small-scale drinking is far from ideal: one study of 36,000 adults found that even one or two drinks a day might decrease the chance of healthy ageing and reduce the size of your brain
That said, there are well-known health benefits that come from a lively social life – so if you are regularly getting drunk with friends, it might be doing you more good than harm.
Sit-ups will give you a six-pack
Of course they will.
“It makes a sort of sense that if you want to build your abs, you would do typical ab exercises like crunches and sit-ups,” says Emma Storey-Gordon, a personal trainer and sports scientist. “But the truth is that whether you have visible abs or not has far more to do with your body fat levels and where you are predisposed to store fat than the number of sit-ups you do.” Many resources will tell you that you need to be around the 10-15% body fat range to start seeing the outline of your abs if you’re male, or 15-20% if you’re female. In reality, it’s a bit more complicated. “A lot of women need to go below a healthy body fat range for abs; those with longer torsos, who don’t store fat around their midsection, may not.
Okay, perhaps not then.
As for whether you can target specific areas to spot-reduce fat, there is some evidence that hormones may play a role in where it’s stored. But one of the biggest recent meta-analyses of studies suggests that the best thing you can do is reduce your alcohol intake a bit.
The takeaway from this is basically, sit-ups will probably give you an invisible six-pack.
Dieting will slow your metabolism
No idea on this one; but turning to the science:
It’s a common trope that eating a very low-calorie diet, or even fasting, will trigger “starvation mode”, where the body slows metabolism as a way to keep you from losing any more weight. Science now says there’s no such thing as ‘starvation mode’, but there may be small changes to someone’s metabolic rate when they lose weight or go on a diet, and it’s called adaptive thermogenesis – a process during which the body reduces its production of heat in order to conserve energy. This phenomenon might explain why some people have a hard time keeping weight off, or even regain weight after dieting. Even though the change might not be that large – about 100 calories a day – it can still make a difference in the long term.
To lessen the chances of your metabolism slowing down due to dieting or weight loss, you should avoid rapid weight loss: gradual is better. Also, alternate periods of dieting with periods of energy balance, and increase your activity levels by doing exercise. And, as there are plenty of other benefits to going for a walk, it’s probably easier than cutting out even more calories.
Red meat is bad for you
Classically, red meat was often advised against because it contains a lot of saturated fat – but it’s not as simple as that. Several studies have shown an association between a higher intake of red meat and an increased risk of prostate cancer and heart disease, but it is now widely believed that the associations between red meat and disease risk might be confounded, because many studies don’t distinguish between processed (bacon, sausages, burgers and deli meats) and unprocessed red meat intake.
Several recent studies have found that eating unprocessed red meat may not actually increase the risk for heart disease or cancer, and major health organisations have recommended that people can continue to eat unprocessed red meat.