Skeptics with a K: Episode #230

Celebrity Big Brother, psychic venues, and the benefits of Green Tea. Plus potato superpowers, police boxes, injured feet, and orthogonal air. Making classic tea from a shrub, it’s Skeptics with a K.

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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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Be Reasonable: Episode #054 – Michael Davidson

Joining Marsh this month is Michael Davidson from the Christian “ex-gay therapy” ministry, Core Issues Trust.

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Skeptics with a K: Episode #229

New York City, hunting unicorns, tangible goals, and what happened at NECSS. Plus attentive moths, relationship ladders, the Impossible Burger, and consensual non-monogamy. With love springing forth endlessly from our hearts, it’s Skeptics with a K.

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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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Skeptics with a K: Episode #228

Walking on the beach, grounding rods, hot ankles, and the Monkey. Plus electric blankets, cheap shirts, screen recordings, and plane wi-fi. Covertly listening through your phone, it’s Skeptics with a K.

There are fewer than fifty tickets for the final QED of this decade remaining! Get yours now at qedcon.org.

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