Archive for category science

You Can’t Moisturise Away Depression – The Commodification of Self Care

I live with anxiety and depression. I’m not alone in this with 1 in 4 people experiencing a mental health problem each year. I regularly feel like getting out of bed is an insurmountable task, that I’m drowning in the weight of my failings and that life is hopeless. Sometimes the world is so scary, so fraught with risk, that I’m not sure I can keep myself safe. When I’m in a particularly low ebb, it can feel like I won’t ever get better and I rely on self care to get me through the day, and maintain some amount of wellbeing for other days.

Self care is a difficult, but essential, part of recovery for a lot of people. It isn’t glamorous or hashtag Instagram worthy for the most part. It’s doing the basic things you need to do to survive, and hopefully thrive at some point. It’s getting out of bed, showering, sticking to a treatment plan that works for you (be that therapy or medication or a combination of both), working towards good sleep hygiene, cooking and eating something nutritious, exercising in a way you can and paying your bills. A lot of this might seem pretty easy to a well person, but it’s not. It can be hard but it’s necessary.Two Instagram posts from @makedaisychains from the artist's "boring self-care". On the left is a bed reading "changed my bed sheets" and on the right a heart shaped dinner plate with the words "cooked and ate a nourishing meal"

Self care has become a huge trend on social media, in fact this week is #selfcareweek. Your social timelines are likely to be filled with pictures of people practicing self care, though it might not look like what I just described. Self care has been utilised by brands and influencers who have everything you need to be better…at a price. There is no shortage of companies willing to exploit illness to sell their bath bombs, face masks, cosy blankets and scented candles. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those things, what I don’t love is that self care is being redefined to be about expensive pampering sessions and products that aren’t going to have the impact they claim.A woman relaxing in a bubble bath surrounded by lit candles

To get a real idea of the problem, let’s look at some of those products, shall we? Goop have a ‘Self Care for the Cubicle-Bound’ kit which promises to “sharpen your wits, improve your mood, and liven up your skin”, for a hefty price tag of £380. If that is too much for you to invest, don’t worry, the combination of “potent, miracle” face oil, cuticle cream, lipstick and dental floss probably wasn’t going to be all that helpful anyway. For the much lower cost of £25.99 you could purchase an Anxiety Kit, but it’s contents of an aromatherapy roller, positive thinking deck and healing crystal are no less problematic.  If a subscription is more your thing, you could pay £38.00 monthly to receive a WILDWOMAN box which claims to be able to make you “live the life you truly desire and deserve” through a book, stationary, crystals and sweet treats.

A selection of brightly coloured cut crystals on a wooden table

As well as hawking chocolates, pretty stationary and beauty products, most of these packages also include the usual pseudoscience culprits. Crystals feature heavily, which makes sense because those who endorse crystals claim they support and heal your body, and can be used in many ways including wearing in a locket, rolling on your face and even inserting inside yourself. However, there remains no scientific evidence that crystals are useful at all. Similarly, aromatherapy products are included in a lot of these self care kits despite there being very little evidence for all the claims made by aromatherapists regarding the various healing properties of oils. With all of that considered, you could be setting yourself back hundreds of pounds to receive a whole heap of nothing useful, and potentially end up feeling worse that it hasn’t worked when you were promised that it would.

If having a bubble bath or taking a nap under a fluffy blanket makes you feel better, great, do that. Taking time to enjoy small pleasures is definitely an aspect of self care, but it isn’t the whole story. Mental health conditions are never going to be cured by having a dewy complexion or wearing a necklace with a phrase of affirmation on it. It’s important we don’t accept that potentially vulnerable people are being peddled luxury (and mostly useless) products in the name of self care. Commodifying recovery isn’t okay and it shouldn’t be a trend we allow to go unchallenged.

 

A photo of Christina Berry-Moorcroft. She is a white woman with dark, curly hair. She is wearing a brightly coloured scarf and bright pink lipstick. Christina Berry-Moorcroft

Christina is a Communications and Fundraising Manager for a dementia carers charity, and Trustee for a women’s refugee and asylum seeker charity. With over a decade of experience in the third sector, and a specialism in campaigns, capacity building and social impact, Christina has worked internationally on issues like global health, hunger, and wealth inequality.  In her spare time she’s an avid bad dancing doer, board game player, city break haver and tea drinker. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @ChrissieBM for political ramblings, mental health honesty and far too many selfies.

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Is your vagina depressed?

Are you femme presenting? Do you sometimes wish more people would have more of an opinion on how you have sex? How often you have sex? How you should behave when you don’t want to have sex? How often you should want sex? How your body behaves when you do/don’t have sex? Whether your experience of sex is real? What ‘real’ sex is and who ‘real’ sex happens with?

Well, you’re in luck! Because over the last year and a half the British media have been telling us all about a “study” which says if you’re not having “enough” sex, your vagina (if you have one) will get depressed and “atrophy”.

Woman's head and shoulders from behind, in grayscale. Her head is dropped down.

As far as I can tell, this all started a little over a year ago when The Sun wrote this headline:

SORE POINT Do you have a ‘depressed’ vagina? This could be why sex is SO painful (and it’s nothing to do with an STI)”. The story resurfaced just a few weeks ago when Higher Perspectives said “New Research Says Lack Of Sex Makes Your Vagina Depressed

The Higher Perspectives article begins “We all know that a healthy sex life keeps our immune system humming, lessens pain and relieves stress. It makes for a happier life. But what happens when we don’t have a sex?”. The article goes on to explain that “research” shows that “Sexual abstinence can make our vagina depressed and this can also lead to vaginal atrophy.”

Do they link to this research? Well, no. And having a look on Pubmed shows no sign of any such research in existence. But they said their claims were “backed in science” it so it must be true, right?

Digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that the media – including The Sun, Maxim, The New York Post and Women’s Health Magazine seem to think a diagnosis of vulvodynia is a synonym for vaginal depression. The Sun even claims that vaginal atrophy is “The horrifying thing that can happen to your vagina if you don’t have enough sex” – again, this begs the question of where they get this claim that a lack of sex can cause vaginal atrophy – and again, this news outlet does not link a reliable source to support the claim.

Two stormtrooper lego figures holding hands stood in front of a sunset over water

They do however, mention that Louise Mazanti, a “sex therapist” from London, has just released a book…More on Louise Mazanti later.

Vulvodynia ≠ vaginal depression

The idea that vulvodynia and vaginal depression are equivalent terms, seems to come from an episode of Sex and the City where Charlotte is diagnosed with the condition (the real one, not the media hyperbole one). She remarks that her doctor prescribed her antidepressants and it’s “hilariously” questioned if her vagina is depressed.

Nearly ten years after Sex and the City finished broadcasting, we collectively know so little about vulvodynia that this misnomer seems to have stuck.

And yet vulvodynia is a significant diagnosis that affects a huge proportion of people with vaginas at some point in their lives.a stethoscope and sphygmomanometer on a white surface

Simply put, vulvodynia is chronic pain (lasting 3 months or more) of the vulvar area. Vulvodynia is a tricky condition to treat, as with many chronic pain conditions, and requires collaboration between doctor and patient to find the right treatment.

One treatment option is a tricyclic antidepressant.

This is where the confusion starts – but antidepressants used in this way are prescribed in far lower doses than required for an antidepressant effect. These drugs are actually used because in low doses they act as pain modifiers. The comparison of vulvodynia to depression is completely inaccurate.

Having “enough” sex?

For some people with vulvodynia, penetrative sex is not possible. Suggesting women have more sex to solve all their medical problems, can actually cause harm far more than it helps. We know that our society tends to view penis in vagina sex as the only “real” sex. The consequences of this are significant – sex between two women is dismissed, oral and digital forms of sex are considered “foreplay” and there is a huge pressure placed onto the idea of “virginity”. And for people with the forms of vulvodynia that make penetration very difficult, this idea can have a damaging effect on their mental health. Across our society “women” are expected to “provide” for their “men” and this includes having sex frequently (but not too frequently). It is easy for people with vulval pain to feel dysfunctional and that can be damaging to their mental wellbeing – not helped when a lack of libido is often termed “female sexual dysfunction” but that’s a rant for another day.

two women holding hands in a field

Vaginal atrophy

These latest stories are particularly keen to mention frequency of (penetrative) sex being a preventative for vaginal atrophy (a thinning of the vaginal walls which the NHS website refers to as vaginal dryness). They claim this is founded in science but give no supporting evidence of this. Vaginal atrophy does happen – but it is scientifically understood to be a response to changes in hormone levels, and therefore is most common during and after the menopause. There is very little a person can do to control it and it is not as “horrifying” as The Sun claims – sexual frequency might enhance blood flow to the area to help delay or prevent this but that is not dependent on penis in vagina penetration. Using dilators, dildos, vibrators or manual penetration and stimulation will help just as well.

Louise Mazanti

So, if there’s no obvious “new” study which triggers this year’s media interest in our sexual habits, why else might this be “newsworthy”?

Perhaps it’s all to do with a new book that Louise Mazanti published earlier this year titled “Real Sex: Why Everything you Learned about Sex is Wrong” alongside her husband Mike Lousada.

Mike was an investment banker before his spiritual awakening led him to retrain as a counsellor and “sexologist” while Louise was a Professor in art and design before her own spiritual awakening and retraining in sex therapy. They both see clients in London and give talks and write books together and separately.

Louise is touted as an expert sex therapist in a number of articles discussing vulvodynia. On her webpage about her “expertise” is the claim that “Louise holds a strong energetic field for you to start exploring your own inner truth, and she can guide you into states of expansion that will give you a new direction in life.”. Louise is “trained in energy psychology [and] esoteric wisdom”.

And apparently that’s good enough to be an expert on the medical health of the vagina, or at least that seems to be the opinion of the media who think vaginal depression is a synonym for vulvodynia.

Read more about vulvodynia:

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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Arsenic cures cancer!

Last week The Daily Mail boldly asked “Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug”. It’s worth pointing out here, that even in the subheading bullet points the Mail Online downplayed their excitement a little, de-escalating from arsenic being a potential “miracle cure” to “makes chemotherapy more effective”.

Headline from the Mail Online reading "Could arsenic be a miracle cure for cancer? Scientists say it had astonishing results when added to a leukemia drug"

The Mail Online wasn’t the only one to cover this story. Medical News Today headlined “Poison or cure? Arsenic can help treat cancer, study finds” while Science Daily said “Arsenic in combination with an existing drug could combat cancer – An ancient medicine shows new promise” and Harvard Magazine asked “Is Arsenic a Key Ingredient in the Battle Against Cancer?”. So, the Mail Online seem to be in good company in reporting this apparently exciting news.

New use for a traditional medicine?

One thing all of these stories had in common was the detailing of arsenic in traditional Chinese medicine. Harvard Magazine quoted study author Kun Ping Lu: “In Chinese traditional medicine, “Arsenic has been used for thousands of years,” said Lu. “Its oxidized form is the active ingredient” for a concoction the Chinese called “magic bullet,” which was used to treat a specific kind of leukemia, APL”.

Arsenic, in fact, has been claimed to treat a whole range of diseases throughout history – in Ancient Greek times it was used to treat ulcers and in Chinese Traditional Medicine it’s been used for over 2000 years. Arsenic was once added to Indian Ayurvedic herbal remedies and when Paracelsus, an Italian Professor of Medicine from the 1500s was skeptical of the old methods of balancing humours to treat disease, he introduced arsenic as an alternative. Paracelsus, in fact, stumbled across a genuine therapeutic action of arsenic in its ability to treat syphilis – an indication for which arsenic was used well into the 20th Century until antibiotics came along.

an open brown medicine bottle laying on its side containing a white powder and labelled "acid arsenic"

But arsenic has not only been a persistent element in traditional medicine, it has also been used to treat cancer – first, to treat chronic myeloid leukaemia in the 1930s and later to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). Arsenic trioxide (ATO) has been used to treat APL since its approval in 1995.

The study

The study the Mail Online et al. referenced was summarised in Nature Communications earlier this year in an article titled “Arsenic targets Pin1 and cooperates with retinoic acid to inhibit cancer-driving pathways and tumor-initiating cells”. The study is apparently based on three things:

  • A protein called Pin1 is important in cancer
  • Arsenic trioxide (ATO) is a treatment for cancer
  • All-trans-retinoic acid (ATRA) inhibits Pin1

A good introduction to any peer-reviewed article will use scientific literature to convince you that the question the researchers have asked is a valid one and set their work within the context of what is known in the field. At first glance, this article is particularly industrious in the effort to convince the reader on the three areas above. They strongly stress that “Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer. Pin1 is hyperactivated in most human cancers and correlates with poor clinical outcome”.

ATO and leukaemia

ATO has been approved for use in a certain kind of leukaemia called acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL) for many years and is successfully used in combination with ATRA in patients with APL. There are very few alternative treatments for this form of leukaemia and ATO combined with ATRA has low toxicity.

The underlying mechanism of this treatment is down to the existence of a protein called PML-RARα which causes APL. PML-RARα doesn’t exist in normal conditions however patients with APL have a genetic mutation which produces this fusion of the genes for two individual proteins PML and RARα – this generates the fusion protein, PML-RARα. It doesn’t really matter what PML-RARα does, only that it drives APL and it doesn’t exist outside of disease. Studies have shown that ATO binds to the PML part of this fusion protein and degrades it.

an image taken from one of the study figures showing the chemical structure of Pin1 and the chemical structure of ATO - the two are shown overlapping to indicate where ATO binds in Pin1

The chemical structure of Pin1 is shown with ATO (I) sitting within in apparent binding pocket on the protein. This image is adapted from the paper.

ATO and Pin1

But the authors of this study were interested in the effect of arsenic on a completely different protein – Pin1.

They don’t really explain why they thought arsenic might remove Pin1 in cancer cells. They used a technique to identify ATRA as a drug of interest, but it seems like they only looked at ATO because it’s already used in combination with ATRA.

In their study the authors find that treating cancer cells with arsenic in the lab reduces the levels of Pin1. They also show that ATO and ATRA combined, reduce cancer cell growth and reduce tumour size in mice. And they go some way towards explaining the mechanism behind these interactions and discounting alternative explanations for their findings.

In many ways, it’s a solid paper.

So why am I skeptical?

There are a few reasons, though, to be wary of the findings in this paper and the way it has been presented. Firstly, it’s the particularly hyped up nature of the story – arsenic has been used to treat leukaemia since the mid-1990s, this isn’t really news. But it does make me wonder if there’s a particular reason this article might be so strongly endorsed.

The authors also don’t really explain why they picked arsenic in the first place other than they’re interested in ATRA and Pin1… In fact they’re very, very interested in Pin1.

They argue “that Pin1 is a critical “driver” and a unique drug target in cancer” – which is particularly interesting because as a cancer researcher with a PhD in cancer cell biology, I’ve never even heard of this protein. They reference three papers to support their claim but two of them are from the group’s own lab – the final paper they reference, an article titled “Pin1 in cancer” is from a separate source. This unrelated (and therefore, unbiased to some degree) article argues that Pin1 is hyperactivated in around 10% of all cancers. That number is pretty high, but it is certainly not enough to say that Pin1 is a “critical driver” in “most human cancers”.

So why are the authors so keen on Pin1? The suggestion that it’s a “unique drug target” might give us a clue.

five stacks of silver coins increasing in height from left to right

At the end of the article is the heading “Competing interests” under which is stated “K.P.L. and X.Z.Z. are inventors of Pin1 technology, which was licensed by BIDMC to Pinteon Therapeutics. Both Dr. Lu and Dr. Zhou own equity in, and consult for, Pinteon. Their interests were reviewed and are managed by BIDMC in accordance with its conflict of interest policy. The remaining authors declare no competing interests.”

Pinteon Therapeutics is a “private venture backed biotechnology company focused on the discovery and development of breakthrough therapeutics targeting Pin1” and we can therefore assume that this company will make money from the generation of Pin1 inhibitors that can be used to treat cancer.

Of course, Pin1 inhibition might well make for an interesting cancer target – there’s no disputing that – but its promise might well be overstated both in this article and in the media coverage of the article.

Me? I’m suspending judgement until we see more compelling evidence.

 

Dr Alice Howarth, PhD

Alice is a cell biologist and cancer researcher who works in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. She is the Treasurer of the Merseyside Skeptics Society and co-hosts the popular sceptical podcast Skeptics with a K. In her free time she Instagrams photos of her ridiculous dog, Lupin and watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad infinitum. Find her at DrAlice.blog or @AliceEmmaLouise on social media.

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Green is Good?

You may have heard that exposure to nature can improve your health*. There are also many trends floating around the Internet that claim to leverage the benefits of nature to improve your physical and mental health. While proponents claim to be driven by evidence, is there really evidence that nature can improve your health? And if so, is it really necessary to reorganise your daily life, drive out to the wilderness, and/or buy expensive accoutrements in order to leverage the benefits?

Popular Claims

Among the most prominent trends is earthing or grounding, a practice popularised by a variety of holistic health devotees, from nature-loving vegans and Ayurvedic enthusiasts to paleo and primal dieters and Silicon valley biohackers. The trend is based on the idea that the earth has a negative charge; but that modern life bombards us with positive charges, creating an imbalance and reducing our ability to combat free radicals. The benefits of grounding touted by advocates are vast, from reducing jetlag to balancing hormones and normalising blood pressure.

A large field under a blue almost cloudless sky

At its most basic, grounding advocates suggest we simply spend more time walking outside on soil and grass in bare feet; but many advocates also promote grounding mats, blankets, shoes, sheets, bags, and a variety of other devices to counteract modern life and provide ready (and overnight!) access to the benefits of the earth through an electrical charge. Most of these sites enthusiastically link to studies, but any effects seen in these small studies are miniscule and potentially the results of design flaws, as described in a recent segment of Skeptics with a K.

Forest bathing is an older cousin of grounding, referring to the Japanese practice of using your senses to soak in the forest atmosphere. Increasingly popular outside of Japan, it has a small number of researchers who suggest it is not only a way to combat the psychological stresses of increasingly urban life but also a way to combat cancer, lower blood pressure, and boost immune function. Although one would think this is a fairly solitary endeavour, as with many holistic practices, its Western reinterpretation includes guided group visits and sometimes even hugging and speaking to trees.People walking along a footpath surrounded by trees

Understanding the connections between exposure to nature and human health

For most people, the idea of sleeping on a specially designed electrical mat and wandering around barefoot in forests are beyond what they are willing to do for health. Access to nature can also be challenging for city dwellers, and in most developed countries, more than 75% of the population lives in urban areas. In the UK that number is over 90%. While cities offer many benefits, urbanisation increases the incidence of a host of health problems and associated socio-economic costs. For these reasons, it’s perhaps more helpful to investigate what we actually know about urban green space and human health, to see if there are measurable benefits.

A tarmac road lined with trees

The evidence

A considerable body of research is developing, suggesting positive impacts of being in, and leaving near, green space. The amount of green space seems more important for perceived health than the amount of urbanisation, although certain groups may benefit more.

The benefits

Exposure to green spaces has been shown to relieve stress and promote relaxation, and has positive impacts on affect and reducing sadness, which improve cardiovascular disease outcomes and all-cause mortality. The effect may be amplified by the fact that people prefer green spaces for physical activity, making exercise and active forms of transport more attractive. Some studies have shown decreases in salivary cortisol and reduced blood pressure, with women potentially more negatively affected by lack of green space. Although some reviews have noted this effect is not consistent across studies.

Increasingly studies are looking at the dose of nature that we actually need to experience these benefits.  Most studies suggest that the required dose is likely relatively small (perhaps only 5-10 minutes on a given day). Benefits are evident whether you are merely looking at nature or exercising in it, although the latter, perhaps understandably, offers benefits more quickly. Lower rates of blood pressure and depression have been documented from just 30 minutes in green space per week. The shape of the dose-response curve is still in question.

A footpath beneath lots of trees with sunlight shining through

Countering harm

It is also worth noting that green space can contribute to reducing air pollution, which is a major contributor to poor human health outcomes. This effect is direct, in that vegetation can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce pollutants such as particulates (PM10), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), and nitrogen and sulphur oxides (NOx and SOx). Green space makes walking and cycling more attractive. This contributes not only to improving air quality via reduced vehicle use, but the increased physical activity has associated health benefits.

Green space can also reduce the urban heat island (UHI) effect, wherein cities are hotter than surrounding areas because of the prevalence of dark surfaces such as asphalt and concrete. UHI also contributes to poor air and water quality. By lessening this effect, green spaces can improve the urban environment, decrease health impacts of heat and even reduce mortality from heat waves.

Caveats within the literature

There is a lot of academic literature focusing on the connections between human health and urban green space**. This literature is both theoretical and empirical, and methods are a mixed bag. For example:

  • Self-reported data from individuals on perceived improvements in health (usually gathered via questionnaires)
  • Correlations between access to green space and population-level data
  • Direct measurements of key indicators (e.g. blood pressure, heart rate, salivary cortisol) either linked to exposure or accessibility of green space.

What constitutes health varies across studies, with the first two categories often adopting a fairly broad definition that includes physical health as well as mental health (especially anxiety and depression) and broader indicators such as happiness, life satisfaction, and social cohesion.

A body of water with a bridge in the background and trees on either side

As with all social and health research in the “real world”, teasing out causal relationships is difficult. Confounding factors are controlled for, to an extent, but there are so many causal factors that complicate the issue. For example, people prefer to exercise in green space, but green space tends to be more scarce and of lower quality in areas with multiple social, economic, and health deprivations. However increasing green space (and improving its quality, addressing personal safety issues, etc.) can also improve these indicators.

Conclusion

Spending more time in green areas, whether forests urban parks, is likely to offer you some health benefits and encourage you to be more active. The great news is that it needn’t take much of your time, and no special mats, shoes, blankets, or spiritual guides are required. Green spaces also address some of the environmental problems in urban areas, providing benefits for both people and nature.

Dr Sarah Clement standing in front of a wall and smilingDr Sarah Clement

Sarah is a faculty member in the Department of Geography and Planning within the School of Environmental Science at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on environmental governance, science-based policy, and nature-based solutions. She is particularly interested in how reforming policy and practice can enable better ecological, socio-economic, and democratic outcomes, particularly during periods of rapid environmental and social change.  Sarah has worked in the field of environmental science and policy for 16 years as an environmental consultant, researcher, and environmental policy advisor in Australia, the UK, and the USA. She is also on the board of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. She spends most of her spare time hiking in nature, travelling, lifting heavy things, adoring her cat, and documenting all of these in pictures. She tweets as @DrSarahClement, and posts said pictures on IG @umsfromumbridge.

 

Footnotes:

* The most widely used definition of ‘health’ is from the World Health Organisation: ‘physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. Operationalising and measuring this concept is a major challenge that leads to the variety of measures discussed here.

** Also called “green infrastructure” and “nature based solutions” in the literature and public policy. To complicate matters, “blue infrastructure” (i.e. water) is often, but not always, embedded in these terms.

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The Potato Famine Diet

I’m not a fan of ‘the past’. There’s too much of it quite frankly, most of it is messy and violent, full of bad people with bad ideas and there’s no internet. (Yep, sorry folks, I’m one of those dreaded ‘millennials’ that are apparently ruining everything, sorry……..#notsorry)

I feel in the minority however, most people these days love the past! They’re obsessed with it. So much so they will stop at nothing to take us back to it!

It may surprise you that I am not actually talking about politics (for once). I’m talking about food. More specifically I’m talking about diets. There’s a trend in faddy diets and ‘clean’ eating at the moment that focusses on going ‘back to basics’, going back to a simpler time and eating like our ancestors did. They obviously make a convincing argument, the whole ‘wellness’, ‘clean eating’ movement are extremely popular and don’t seem to be going anywhere. (Dammit). So with that in mind…….

tomatoes, garlic and a red pepper on a wooden chopping board

Looking for a diet that’s based on a famine that killed over 1 million people!? Well look no more my friend because I present to you the ‘Irish peasant diet’!………seriously. That’s a thing.

The Irish ‘peasant’ diet

I spotted an article on twitter from The Irish Independent titled ‘Is this Ireland’s answer to the Med diet?’ In which it went on to describe how research had found that a diet from mid-Victorian Ireland in poor, rural communities made them healthier than their city dwelling counterparts, they were living longer and contracting fewer diseases, and therefore we should adopt a similar diet now.

The ‘diet’ consisted of vegetables, milk and fish. Sounds pretty healthy right? What’s my issue here?

The average life expectancy of a man in Ireland during the 1800’s was 40 years old. Sanitation was basic, people were starving and healthcare was minimal if there at all. The reality is that ‘peasants’ were eating what was available to them. Sure, it was a ‘low-calorie’ diet but when you look at all other lifestyle factors that might not count for much. The article mentions that Tuberculosis cases in rural areas were lower compared to cities and attributes that to die. But let’s remember that in Victorian city slums, people were living in unsanitary conditions, closely packed together with limited access to clean water and that tends to help diseases, like tuberculosis, spread like wildfire. The article also talks about the benefits ‘peasants’ had due to their ‘low caloric intake’……….aka. STARVING TO DEATH.

lots of potatoes

Following the logic of that article I have a few of my own ideas on ‘limiting caloric intake’: How about the 1930’s ‘Stalin Diet’?, or maybe the 1940’s ‘Warsaw Ghetto Diet’? or if you fancy something a little more up to date why not the 1980’s ‘Ethiopia Diet’? Sound flippant? So does basing a diet on a tragedy that killed over a million people…

Maybe I’m wrong though, maybe these Victorian peasants weren’t starving because they had no food, maybe they were the early pioneers of the ‘Keto’ diet! – the diet based on the idea of putting your body in a state of ketosis to lose weight. It’s unlikely though….unless they were so determined to make their diet work that the death of millions didn’t prompt them to rethink their methods…..anyway, I digress.

We are living in a world that has never been more medically and scientifically advanced. Life expectancy and our ability to treat and cure disease has never been better and yet people are desperate to go backwards. Back to a simpler time, when we didn’t have the big scary GMO’s and nasty (un-defined) chemicals in our food. A simpler time, when disease amongst the poor was rife and living beyond 50 was a significant achievement.

The article does what a lot of the ‘it was better in the old days’ types tend to do which is cherry pick ‘evidence’. They select the positives and ignore everything else, presenting a false, rose tinted view which ignores the inequality and suffering of many in favour of pushing an agenda……….still talking about diets. Definitely diets…….

The article gives the opinions from a few nutritionists, one of which says…

“Peasants may also have experienced periods of food scarcity. Whilst this is clearly not always beneficial and malnutrition would have been a concern, we now understand that limiting caloric intake can trigger biological processes that support health and help prevent disease.”

two hands held outwards together cupped in a form of request

I had to read this quote several times to fully understand the point she was trying to make. Food scarcity is ‘not always beneficial’? When is a lack of availability of a basic human resource ever ‘beneficial’ exactly? It’s fine though because we now know that those malnourished peasants were clearly just paving the way for the ‘faddy’ diets of the future right? This take is flippant and condescending. This ‘peasant diet’ is nothing more than fetishizing and trivialising poverty.

A symptom of a wider problem?

If we move away from the past and take a look at the present this patronising attitude towards poverty is everywhere. Although instead of praising the poor on their dietary ‘choices’ we now condemn them.

There is a great deal of ignorance when it comes to poverty and the realities of living with austerity. This can be seen clearly in the approach to advising or criticising poor people on their diet. You might see ‘clean eaters’, chefs and other middle class ‘foodies’ telling people to stop buying ready meals, cheap takeaways and processed food, or as Mr Jamie Oliver calls it, ‘crap’, and instead get down to our local farmer’s markets at the weekend, buy fresh produce, prepare fresh meals for their families everyday and just live a ‘better, healthier life’. They see these changes as easy and simple, insinuating that a failure to do so is just down to laziness and a lack of self-care.

three bacon cheeseburgers on a wooden board

What they fail to understand or even consider is the restrictions that exist on many, when it comes to what food is available to them. Much like the ‘peasant diet’, it isn’t about choice. The truth is that, now, in 2018, ‘junk’ food is widely available, it’s convenient and it’s affordable. Many families and individuals in this country are living hand to mouth or having to rely on foodbanks (a polite reminder that it is 2018). They can’t afford (whether it is time of money) to get out to a market every weekend. As Anthony Warner (aka The Angry Chef) said, “We need to stop mistaking the markers of inequality for the causes of inequality”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of people giving advice are well meaning, but they’re not helping. They’re just being patronising.

Oh, and another thing! Seeing as I’m on the subject. What is the obsession with poor people owning TV’s? It is often always a criticism of people on benefits or below the poverty line that they have a tv. The TV always gets a mention. I have 3 issues with this…

  1. They’re often always described as being a ‘big’, or ‘massive’ or ‘huge’ flatscreen tv……ALL tv’s are flatscreen’s these days. It’s just a TV.
  2. Who cares if they own a TV?! We don’t know the circumstances of how they came to own that TV or how much it cost. That TV is a source of entertainment for that family or individual, why is that an issue?
  3. It’s 2018, people have TV’s. What kind of Dickensian vision of poverty do the upper and middle classes of this country have of poor people?! And more importantly, is that vision how they think the poor should be?

There are many reasons why someone might struggle to eat a healthy balanced diet. Disability, chronic illness, employment or lack of, isolation, a potato famine. We need to stop blaming and misrepresenting people in poverty for things they cannot control, all that does is gloss over the chronic failings in our ability as a society to care for our most vulnerable in times of vast inequality, it ignores all other lifestyle factors and it completely disregards people suffering in order to justify an agenda that leads to widening inequality and punishing the poor just for being poor………………………………..…………….DIETS! DEFINITELY STILL TALKING ABOUT DIETS!…..

 

Karin McClure

Karin has been actively involved in skepticism for 4 years and has been involved with the Merseyside Skeptics for 3 years. She has given talks on the pseudoscience around diets and health at QED
Skepti-camp, Ignite Liverpool and Merseyside Skeptics and has been interested in diet and health for 3 years. Karin is also an artist and has sold her work at events around the country and online, information can be found on her website lunalynes.wordpress.com where she also shares posts about her experiences with mental health, as well as art updates.

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Gene edited crops arrive in the UK!

The observant skeptic might have noticed a brief flurry of media activity at the end of May that discussed a field trial of gene edited crops that is being conducted at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire (1, 2).

You might think, “So what”? There have been loads of field trials on genetically modified crops over the years, why is this news?

Not so, this trial is different as the devil is in its details. This is a trial of both genetically modified (GM) crops AND a trial of gene edited (GE) crops.

This is the first UK field trial of GE crops so although the difference might seem minor it could be extremely important for the future of scientific research and crop improvement in the UK and throughout Europe.

In general, GM involves the addition of foreign genes to your crop of interest. Classically this has included genes from bacteria that confer herbicide or insect resistance. However more recently has included the production of Golden Rice (3) and purple tomatoes (4) both of which have potential health benefits.

All skeptics will know that the debate surrounding the use of GM has been extremely controversial and currently the growth of these crops is prevented throughout the EU. The regulation of these crops is complex but unfortunately in the court of public opinion the positive case for the use of GM has been mostly lost due to the activity of those organisations that fundamentally oppose this technology.

Gene Editing is similar to breeding…but better.

GE is subtly but importantly different to GM. This technique allows the precise modification of genes that are already in the organism without the long term addition of a foreign gene (5). In turn this could alter some growth attribute of the plant. This allows scientists to use their knowledge of plant biology to predict how this alteration will alter crop growth, test it in the lab before applying for a field trial license if the results look good.

Importantly GE is a modern cousin of mutagenesis, a process that has been the genetic basis of conventional breeding throughout the history of agriculture. Over millennia humans have selected new crop varieties that are more nutritious or better suited to different growth conditions, the results of which is the food we eat every day.

Conventional breeding relies on random mutagenesis that ultimately takes many years to develop new varieties. GE allows scientists to target these specific mutations to improve crop growth and therefore remove the years that breeding can take. Importantly the end-products of GE are essentially identical to the products of conventional breeding so why should they be regulated differently?

A figure depicting the difference between genetic modification and genome editing as described in the text

The newly approved field trial at Rothamsted is really a test-case for the regulation of GE crops. The scientists have produced varieties of the potential oil crop Camelina sativa that will allow them to better understand lipid metabolism. At this time the crops won’t be used for food or feed but critically the UK Government Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has determined that this GE crop does not need to be regulated like GM crops, mostly because it contains NO foreign DNA (6).

This indicates that in future ACRE will regulate GE crops differently to GM crops and therefore might offer future opportunities for scientists and breeders to develop potentially useful crop varieties.

Unsurprisingly the EU is in regulatory limbo

This decision comes in the light of continued EU delays in a ruling that will decide the fate for the growth of GE crops across Europe. Recently there have been promising noises coming from the EU but as yet this decision has not appeared (7). The decision by ACRE shows that, like Brazil, Argentina, Sweden and the USA (8), the UK has a progressive and evidence-based position for the use of GE crops and is potentially great news for scientific research.

Skeptics: get the facts!

Over the coming months I predict that we will hear plenty about the debate about GE crops so I urge skeptics to arm themselves with facts about the differences between GM and GE. This will allow us to inform our family, friends and colleagues about the benefits of GE and that it really uses the same technique as conventional breeding but is just much cheaper, quicker and more precise!

Promising times ahead for the UK plant science community.

 

Dr Geraint Parry, PhD

Geraint is the national coordinator for GARNet, which is a network that supports uptake of new technologies and knowledge dissemination amongst UK and international plant scientists. He is the science communication manager of the EU INDEPTH COST Action (https://www.brookes.ac.uk/indepth/) as well as being the secretary for the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee. He tweets for GARNet from @GARNetweets and personally @liverpoolplants

 

 

(1)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/news/where-gm-meets-ge

(2)- https://t.co/G77fhPCc9S

(3)- http://www.isaaa.org/kc/cropbiotechupdate/article/default.asp?ID=16278

(4)- http://www.norfolkplantsciences.com/

(5)- The process of gene editing does involve the addition of a foreign gene but is removed during preparation for field trials.

(6)- https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/acre-advice-application-for-a-trial-of-gm-camelina-18r0801

(7)- https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/articles/edits-mutations-and-gm

(8)- https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/apr/07/gene-editing-ruling-crops-plants

 

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