The dark truth about chocolate

Grand health claims have been made about chocolate, but while it gives us pleasure, can it really be good for us?

Chocolate has been touted as a treatment for agitation, anaemia, angina and asthma. It has been said to awaken appetite and act as an aphrodisiac. You may have noticed were still on the letter A.

More accurately, and to avoid adding to considerable existing confusion, it is the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree that have, over hundreds of years, been linked to cures and therapies for more than 100 diseases and conditions. Their status as a cure-all dates back over 2,000 years, having spread from the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs, via the Spanish conquistadors, into Europe from the 16th century.

The 19th century saw chocolate drinking become cheap enough to spread beyond the wealthy, the invention of solid chocolate and the development of milk chocolate. Later came the added sugar and fat content of todays snack bars and Easter eggs, which time-travelling Aztecs would probably struggle to associate with what they called the food of the gods.

Recent years have seen chocolate undergo another transformation, this time at the hands of branding experts. Sales of milk chocolate are stagnating as consumers become more health-conscious. Manufacturers have responded with a growing range of premium products promoted with such words as organic, natural, cacao-rich and single-origin. The packets dont say so, but the message were supposed to swallow is clear: this new, improved chocolate, especially if it is dark, is good for your health. Many people have swallowed the idea that its a superfood. Except it isnt. So how has this magic trick-like metamorphosis been achieved?

Its foundations lie in chocolate manufacturers having poured huge sums into funding nutrition science that has been carefully framed, interpreted and selectively reported to cast their products in a positive light over the last 20 years. For example, studies published last year found chocolate consumers to be at reduced risk of heart flutters, and that women who eat chocolate are less likely to suffer from strokes. Consuming chemicals called flavanols in cocoa was also linked to reduced blood pressure. In 2016, eating chocolate was linked to reduced risks of cognitive decline among those aged 65 and over, while cocoa flavanol consumption was linked to improved insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease risk.

Such studies have generated hundreds of media reports that exaggerate their findings, and omit key details and caveats. Crucially, most recent research has used much higher levels of flavanols than are available in commercial snack products. For example, the blood pressure study involved participants getting an average of 670mg of flavanols. Someone would need to consume about 12 standard 100g bars of dark chocolate or about 50 of milk chocolate per day to get that much. The European Food Safety Authority has approved one rather modest chocolate-related health claim that some specially processed dark chocolate, cocoa extracts and drinks containing 200mg of flavanols contribute to normal blood circulation by helping to maintain blood vessel elasticity.

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Cocoa pods harvested on the Millot plantation in the north-west of Madagascar. Photograph: Andia/UIG via Getty Images

Prof Marion Nestle, a nutritional scientist at New York University, uses the word nutrifluff to describe sensational research findings about a single food or nutrient based on one, usually highly preliminary, study. She points out that most studies on chocolate and health get industry funding, but journalists generally fail to highlight this. Industry-funded research tends to set up questions that will give them desirable results, and tends to be interpreted in ways that are beneficial to their interests, she says.

Research has repeatedly shown that when food companies are paying, they are more likely to get helpful results. US researchers who reviewed 206 studies about soft drinks, juice and milk, for example, found that those receiving industry money were six times more likely to produce favourable or neutral findings than those that did not. Most nutrition scientists who accept money from industry are in a state of denial, according to Nestle, whose book Unsavory Truth: How Food Companies Skew the Science of What We Eat is due to be published in October. The researchers involved feel it doesnt affect the integrity and quality of their work, she says. But research on drug industry funding shows the influence is generally unconscious, unintentional and unrecognised.

The public are also misled into believing chocolate is healthy through what scientists refer to as the file drawer effect. Two of the aforementioned studies those on blood pressure and markers of cardiovascular health are meta-analyses, meaning they pool the results of previously published research. The problem is that science journals, like the popular media, are more likely to publish findings that suggest chocolate is healthy than those that conclude it has no effect, which skews meta-analyses. Its really hard to publish something that doesnt find anything, says Dr Duane Mellor, a nutritionist at Coventry University who has studied cocoa and health. Theres a bias in the under-reporting of negative outcomes.

Then theres the problem that, unlike in drug trials, those taking part in chocolate studies often know whether they are being given chocolate or a placebo. Most people have positive expectations about chocolate because they like it. They are therefore primed, through the conditioning effect famously described by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov to respond positively. They may, for example, become more relaxed, boosting levels of endorphins and neurotransmitters, and triggering short-term physiological benefits.

The responses of study participants can be affected by their beliefs and assumptions about chocolate, says Mellor. Research has also found people who volunteer for studies are more likely to be affected by their beliefs about an intervention than the population as a whole.

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So hard to resist: a chocolate shop in Bruges, Belgium. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the studies that involve people being given chocolate and tracking their health over time are short and have small numbers of participants. This adds to the difficulties nutritional scientists have in separating out the effects of consuming one food or nutrient from the rest of their diet and other variables and interactions within the body.

So when and why did chocolate companies become so keen on using science as a marketing tool? The answer depends on whom you ask.

During the 1990s, scientists became interested in the French paradox the now discredited observation that heart disease rates were low in France despite a national diet high in saturated fats. One proposed explanation was relatively high consumption of flavanols, a group of compounds found in red wine, tea and cocoa which, at high doses, had been linked to the prevention of cellular damage. US researchers caused a stir when from around the turn of the century they concluded that Kuna people off the coast of Panama had low blood pressure and rates of cardiovascular disease because they drank more than five cups of flavanol-rich cocoa per day.

This undoubtedly stimulated chocolate industry research. However in 2000, a Channel 4 documentary reported on the use of child labour and slavery in cocoa production operations in Ghana and Ivory Coast the source of most of the worlds chocolate. This triggered a wave of media reports and negative publicity.

Some say the industry poured money into science at this time to divert attention away from west Africa. Efforts by many of the large chocolate companies to demonstrate health effects started side by side with the outcry over the use of child labour and slavery, says Michael Coe, a retired anthropologist formerly of Yale University, co-author of The True History of Chocolate. Some of it was legitimate science, but it was stimulated, at least in part, by the need to say something positive about chocolate.

Industry figures strenuously disagree. There was no connection between those two things, says Matthias Berninger, vice-president for public affairs at Mars, Inc, when asked whether Coe is correct. The Kuna story sparked a lot of interest. The level of investment and energy and intensity of research was much more driven by that than it was by the idea of creating a halo around chocolate.

Critics have accused Mars in particular of using nutritional science to cast its products in a good light. Through its scientific arm, Mars Symbioscience, it has published more than 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers on cocoa flavanols and health since 2005.

The family-owned company has traditionally remained tight-lipped about its involvement in cocoa research. However, last month it published its policies on conducting and funding research. Asked whether it had previously been involved in using research to suggest chocolate was healthy, Berninger says: I do believe that that was so tempting, Mars couldnt resist it. If you look back 20 years, there was this idea that this could create huge opportunities for us.

But he says this changed long ago. As a marketing strategy, we have not engaged in that for more than a decade. In 2007, the European Union tightened regulations on nutrition and health claims. Meanwhile, research was making it increasingly clear that health benefits claims for commercial dark chocolate products were unrealistic because of their low flavanol content.

Yet campaigners highlight how chocolate companies, including Mars, have fought public health regulations that might undermine their profits using third parties. US public health lawyer Michele Simon produced hard-hitting reports in 2013 and 2015, documenting how the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the American Society of Nutrition (ASN), were receiving large sponsorship fees from major food industry companies. In 2014, the ASN had gone in to bat on behalf of its corporate backers, including Coca-Cola, Mars and McDonalds, against a US government plan for added sugar content to be included on food labels, and questioning the evidence on their negative health effects. A year earlier, the AND stated its support for a total diet approach, and opposition to the overly simplistic classification of specific foods as good or bad. Its about co-opting health organisations, and buying legitimacy among professionals and members of the public, says Andy Bellatti, co-founder of US-based Dietitians for Professional Integrity.

Chocolate manufacturers have also used the classic corporate strategy of using third-party lobbyists to manufacture artificial scientific controversy. Science is, by its nature, about evidence-based probabilities not absolute certainties. The exaggeration of uncertainty was perfected by the tobacco companies in the 1950s, and later copied by the asbestos and oil industries. Chocolate makers have done this through lobbying groups such as the Washington-based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which campaigned against added sugar labelling in the US, and opposed the World Health Organisations 2015 advice that less than 10% of daily energy intake should come from free sugars those added to food and drinks and occurring naturally in honey and fruit juice.

Criticisms of these tactics seem to be hitting home. Mars broke ranks with fellow chocolate-making ILSI members including Nestl, Hershey and Mondelz, which owns Cadbury, in 2016 when it denounced a paper funded by the group questioning research linking sugar consumption and poor health, and related health advice. Last month Mars announced it was leaving ILSI.

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Dont count on it: large quantities of the flavanols found in chocolate need to be consumed before they will have an impact on blood pressure. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA

Marss Berninger agrees that the chocolate industry could do more to prevent the spread of health myths. Chocolate is a treat you should enjoy occasionally and in small portions, not a health food, he says. Did we say that loud enough over the last 10 years? I would say no.

Public health campaigners welcome Marss new stance. Some see it as a genuine attempt to do the right thing, while others highlight how large food companies are seeking to reposition themselves in the face of growing environmental and health concerns. Whatever the motivation, the gulf between the chocolate industry and its critics seems to be narrowing.

Children hoping to celebrate Easter in the traditional chocolatey style on 1 April will be reassured to hear the two sides also agree on another aspect of the debate. While chocolate is probably not healthy, its also not harmful when enjoyed in sensible amounts, says Mellor. Chocolate is candy, adds Nestle. As part of a reasonable diet, its fine in moderation.

You can say anything with figures

The role of the media in helping chocolate makers exploit our failure to grasp the complexities of nutrition science was laid bare in a 2015 expos. German television journalists set up a three-week study in which they asked one group of volunteers to follow a low-carb diet, another to do the same but add a daily chocolate bar, a third to make no change to their diet. Both low-carb groups lost an average of 5lb, but the chocolate group lost weight faster. By measuring 18 different things in a small number of people, the spoofers made it likely they would find statistically significant but fake benefits of eating chocolate.

The peer-reviewed International Archives of Internal Medicine agreed to publish a hastily written paper within 24 hours of receiving it for a fee of 600. John Bohannon, a Harvard University biologist and science journalist in on the hoax, put together a press release. Within days stories had been published in more than 20 countries. The Mail Online, Daily Express, Daily Star and Bild were among those that fell for it.

I was just really ashamed for my colleagues, says Bohannon. These are people who regurgitate whole chunks of press releases and almost never call on outside sources. In my book, thats not even journalism. Its just an extension of PR.

Big Food: Critical Perspectives on the Global Growth of the Food and Beverage Industry, edited by Simon N Williams and Marion Nestle, is published by Routledge

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/mar/25/chocolate-the-dark-truth-is-it-good-for-you-health-wellbeing-blood-pressure-flavanols

Is vitamin D really a cure-all and how should we get our fix?

Evidence is growing that the sunshine vitamin helps protect against a wide range of conditions including cancers

Vitamin D is having quite a moment. In the past few months, evidence has been growing that the sunshine vitamin not only has an important role in bone and muscle health, but might also help prevent a range of cancers, reduce the chance of developing rheumatoid arthritis, protect against multiple sclerosis and cut the risk of colds and flu.

But is vitamin D truly a cure-all? And if the benefits are real, should we all be taking vitamin D supplements or even fortifying our foods?

Vitamin D is not one chemical, but a label that covers a group of substances, including vitamin D2 and D3. The latter is the form made when sunlight hits your skin and is also found in other animals. Non-animal sources such as fungi and yeasts primarily produce the D2 form. Once in the body, these substances are converted into biologically active steroids that circulate in the blood.

One area where the impact on health appears to be clear is vitamin Ds role in keeping bones and teeth healthy and improving muscle strength.

The musculoskeletal stuff is really good and really strong, said Helen Bond, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, pointing out that vitamin D is important in calcium and phosphate absorption.

Too little vitamin D can be serious: the skeletal disorders osteomalacia and rickets are known to be caused by a vitamin D deficiency, and the latter is on the rise in the UK, a finding some put down to the impact of poverty on poor nutrition.

But do the wider health claims stand up?

Intuition suggests that it cant all be right, said Julia Newton-Bishop, professor of dermatology and vitamin D expert from the University of Leeds. But while a recent review of evidence by the scientific advisory committee on nutrition only found strong evidence in the case of bone and muscle health, Newton-Bishop says a growing body of research is exploring other conditions.

Newton-Bishop says the fact that receptors for vitamin D are present on a huge array of body cells suggests the substance might indeed play a central role in our health, adding that human history offers further evidence: as humans moved to higher latitudes, skin tone became paler. [One] explanation is that vitamin D was so important that that was a selective pressure, she said. The fact that Inuits arent pale-skinned and for millennia they have had an exclusively fish diet is an argument for the fact that vitamin D was a driver, because why would they be different to everyone else?

Martin Hewison, professor of molecular endocrinology at the University of Birmingham, who carried out the recent study into vitamin D and rheumatoid arthritis, said evidence from cell studies backs up the idea that the vitamin is important.

In most of the models, vitamin D appears to have quite a positive effect, he said. If you are using cancer cell lines or cancer cells, vitamin D has anti-cancer effects, and likewise in cells that have been used for models for infection and immune disorders, vitamin D has quite clear antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects.

But when it comes to studies in humans, the picture is far from clear-cut. While some studies find links to diseases, others do not.

That, say experts, could be partly down to the way they are conducted for example, not all studies take into account the starting levels of vitamin D in participants, or they may have been carried out in populations with different genetic factors that might affect the impact of vitamin D.

Other experts have doubts about vitamin Ds influence. Prof Tim Spector, author of The Diet Myth, wrote in the Independent: The evidence so far suggests (with the possible exception of multiple sclerosis and some cancers) that low vitamin D levels are either irrelevant or merely a marker of the disease.

Hewison says that while vitamin D might help prevent certain conditions such as tuberculosis, respiratory infections and autoimmune diseases,it should not be seen as a cure for them. It is good at protecting against things, he said, but once a disease is settled in, it is unlikely you are going to be able to give somebody who has got prostate cancer vitamin D and it is going to get dramatically better.

What about the case for supplements? With some having previously been found to cause more harm than good, Newton-Bishop says caution towards this apparent panacea is unsurprising. Everyone within the cancer world is nervous about supplements, she said. I would say to patients dont take supplements, with the exception of avoiding a low vitamin D level.

But how low is low? With the amount of sunlight needed varying with genetics, skin colour, time of day, how much one covers up and a host of other factors, the scientific advisory committee on nutrition said it was too difficult to say how much sun we need to make sure our vitamin D levels are up to scratch. In any case, from October until March the sun in the UK isnt strong enough to do the job.

The upshot is that national guidelines now recommend that during the autumn and winter at least, individuals should consider taking supplements or boosting their intake of vitamin-D-rich foods to get an intake of 10 micrograms a day, with higher-risk individuals such as some ethnic minority groups advised to follow the guidelines all year round.

However, Bond says it is hard to get enough from diet alone.

There are very few naturally rich sources of vitamin D, and most really good sources are of animal origin, which doesnt bode well for vegans and vegetarians, she said. A serving of oily fish like mackerel will give you easily your 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day, but if you drop down to a tin of canned tuna, you are only getting 1.5 micrograms.

And as Adrian Martineau, clinical professor of respiratory infection and immunity at Queen Mary University of London, points out, even in the summer, sunshine isnt going to be the answer, especially because there is an associated risk of skin cancer.

If you are considering taking supplements, it might be worth checking which form of vitamin D they contain. Some people dont want an animal form of vitamin D, said Hewison. However, What studies have shown is that if you want to raise your blood vitamin D levels, vitamin D3 is much more efficient at doing that.

Dr Benjamin Jacobs, a consultant paediatrician and spokesperson for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, says supplements are not enough as it is hard to make sure people actually take them. Instead, he suggests the UK consider food fortification.

Some countries, including Canada and Finland, have embraced fortification of milk. But although infant formula and some breakfast cereals, plant-based milks and fruit juices are already fortified in the UK, most foods are not.

Hewison believes the government should consider a national fortification plan and that the risks of it resulting in dangerously high vitamin D intake are negligible: I think most people in the field agree that if you want to have a large-scale improvement in peoples vitamin D levels then it can only really be done through fortified foods.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/mar/09/is-vitamin-d-really-a-cure-all-and-how-should-we-get-our-fix

Seven ways to boost your libido

Exhaustion, stress, drugs and poor technique can all cause your sex drive to stall. How can you get it back on track?

Is it a problem?

A lack or loss of sex drive is only a problem if the person experiencing it believes it is. Medical conditions such as diabetes or heart disease can undermine desire, as can prescription drugs or difficult life events. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) reported in September that 34% of sexually active women and 15% of sexually active men in Britain had lost interest in sex for three months or more during the previous year.

Its good to talk

Relationship problems are a leading cause of waning libido: Natsal concluded that finding it hard to talk about sex with a partner doubled the chancesof a diminished sex driveamong women and increased them by 50% in men. A lot of couples dont communicate and end up avoiding sex, says Cynthia Graham, professor of sexual and reproductive health at the University of Southampton, and the studys lead author. Open communication increases the chances of your libido bouncing back. For women, having a partner with a different level of sexual interest increased the chances of loss of sexual interest more than fourfold, and having one with sexual likes and dislikes they did not share did so by almost threefold.These issues increased the chances of loss of desire by just 17% and 16% respectively among men.

Sleep on it

Burning the candle at both ends is a passion killer. Testosterones role in male libido is overstated, but it is true that men with the lowest levels of the hormone report low sexual desire and one US study found that sleeping fewer than five hours a night reduced testosterone levels in young men by 10-15%. A lack of sleep also kills female libido: a 2015 study concluded women who had an extra hours sleep were 14% more likely to have sex the next day.

Fly solo

Research shows far fewer women masturbate than men. Some research suggests doing so can help boost self-awareness, social competence, body esteem and improve intimacy in long-term relationships. One reason women lack interest in sex is that sex isnt always very good with a partner, says Prof Graham. Masturbation can help women learn things they can then teach their partners about how to pleasure them.

Fantasise

Recently, researchers have emphasised that, especially for women, desire can occur largely in response to arousal. If thats news to you, you could do worse than read Come As You Are by the sex educator Emily Nagoski. Therapists often tell women they can increase flagging interest in sex by fantasising, reading erotica or watching pornography, and research suggests they are right.

Relax

The fight or flight system boosts levels of hormones that help us perform better in dangerous situations. It can also undermine nonessential function,s such as digestion, immunity and reproductive drive. Little wonder, then, that if youre frequently stressed out, youre rarely in the mood. Yoga, working out or meditation might help.

The drugs dont (always) work

Research suggests that taking the contraceptive pill can reduce the frequency of sexual thoughts and sex in some women. Alternative methods might be worth considering. Flibanserin became the first drug to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for low sexual desire in women in 2015. Trials suggest it has minimal effects: an extra 0.5-1 satisfying sex sessions a month compared with placebo. Side effects include low blood pressure, fainting and nausea. Viagra, Cialis and Levitra do not increase libido, but help men get erections. This may increase desire by boosting confidence.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/feb/26/sex-drive-libido-seven-ways-to-boost

Spare me your eternal happiness. I just want to sweat and go home | Johanna Leggatt

My ideal workout contains no Fitbits or philosophy, no one talks about love and we dont look forward to it

Spare me your eternal happiness. I just want to sweat and go home

My ideal workout contains no Fitbits or philosophy, no one talks about love and we dont look forward to it

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/06/spare-me-your-eternal-happiness-i-just-want-to-sweat-and-go-home

Is it time to ditch the Fitbit?

I have been pushing myself to hit 10,000 steps a day. But a new study shows I have probably been wasting my time

Is it time to ditch the Fitbit?

I have been pushing myself to hit 10,000 steps a day. But a new study shows I have probably been wasting my time

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2018/jan/31/is-it-time-to-ditch-the-fitbit

I feel less stuffed after dinners and less guilty: why I stopped eating meat

My journey towards vegetarianism started 30 years ago for practical reasons, but the more I eschew animal products the better I feel about everything

My experience of giving up meat has been a gradual process, starting about 30 years ago, when a vegetarian friend and her two little boys came to live with me and my daughter. For practical reasons, we ate less meat. Why bother to cook two dinners when you need only cook one? Anyway, we all loved macaroni cheese and baked potatoes, and the odd tuna bake, because fish seemed sort of halfway and my friend wasnt a strict enforcer.

Back then, meat still featured heavily when my parents visited. After all, I did love meat. I had been brought up on it and my mother was a superb cook. Her stews and casseroles, oxtail and neck of lamb; her roasts, turkey stuffing and chicken liver pat; her chicken soup and salt beef were delicious beyond words. There was something about meat-eating that my father found admirable, too, especially in boys. He once sat at the table with the children, watching my friends three-year-old son eat a large sausage. Look at that! he said with pride and joy. What a good boy! He failed to comment on my daughters equally impressive sausage-eating.

But my friends vegetarianism started me thinking. The only other serious vegetarian I had known was at school in the 50s and she had bad acne and funny-smelling breath, which put me off. Here was someone with clear skin, odour-free, robust, amusing, charming nothing like the mimsy, pallid, socks-sandals and bobble-hatted vegetarians of my earlier, ill-informed imagination. She didnt like eating meat, but she also had good reasons for not doing so some personal, but most ethical. So, I began to eat less. I knew already about the cruelty of veal and foie gras production, so I never ate them. I knew pink meats salamis and bacon were carcinogenic. Now I found out much more.

Quick guide

Megafarms

What is a megafarm?

There is no legal definition in the UK of a mega farm, but in the US concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are defined as those housing 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs or 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle. These are the biggest of the intensive farms, which in the UK need permits if they house more than 40,000 chickens, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. There are now 789 mega farms in the UK, and the number of intensive farms has risen by more than a quarter in six years, from 1,332 in 2011 to 1,674 last year.

Why are they controversial?

Mega farms and intensive farms are controversial because they require keeping tens of thousands of animals in a small space, which campaigners and independent experts say can hamper their ability to express natural behaviours, such as nesting. The animals are often kept indoors throughout their lives, though on some farms they are allowed access to outdoor areas at least part of the time. There are also concerns that animals on mega farms may be over-medicated, as if one gets sick the whole herd is generally required to be treated.

Why do some people believe we need them?

Mega farms and intensive farms take up much less space than traditional farms, and they allow animals to be kept securely, away from predators and potential carriers of disease, such as badgers. Their conditions are tightly controlled, allowing farmers to monitor the amount of daylight, water and feed for the animals, and if disease develops the livestock can be treated quickly. They are much cheaper to run than traditional farms.

Years later, my mother moved in. By then, red meat was bad for her and her false choppers made it impossible to chew anyway, so we were down to chicken and fish. Then along came the internet, Facebook and Twitter, with an avalanche of horror stories about intensive meat production: vast farms crammed with mutilated pigs, tormented cows, lambs and their mothers, chickens flung about and trampled, cruel and brutal abattoirs, the horse and dog meat trade, overuse of antibiotics, our resulting poor health and the wrecking of the planet. This torrent of grisly information made eating meat seem completely potty. The more you learn about meat-eating and farming, the easier it should be to give up. A teacher of animal husbandry tells me that, every year, by the time her students have seen lambing, the incubating and hatching of eggs and an animals complete life cycle, one-third of them have given up eating meat.

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A beet and Feta cheese salad with parsley. Photograph: Mizina/Getty Images/iStockphoto

But even with all my nasty new knowledge I still found it difficult. Most of all, despite it potentially causing cancer, I missed lovely, crunchy bacon. I tried soya bacon granules, but they didnt work for me. I missed the texture of meat something to chew. So, we still had turkey for Christmas and occasionally I ate meat when visiting friends, because they had cooked it. I pretended I was being polite, but really it just gave me an excuse to eat it again.

Unsurprisingly, a friend called me hypocritical when I ate her free-range roast chicken while whingeing about being a vegetarian; she pointed out that I fed my dogs meat, particularly chicken. My argument was that you cant have a vegetarian dog. I knew some people who did and the poor thing had non-stop squitters, which didnt seem fair.

Then, two years ago, I had a breakthrough. I kept eating fish and shellfish, but there was no turkey at Christmas. We had nut roast instead and delicious it was, too with all the trimmings, which are just as, if not more, tasty than turkey and less of a palaver to cook. Heaven knows why I had clung to this pointless tradition for so long. Now I felt that, at last, I was giving up meat properly and not being so feeble. I am sure my digestive system has improved as a result, I am far less bad-tempered and I feel less stuffed up and knackered after dinners and less guilty.

I have found that it is easier for a meat lover to give it up if you dont dwell on what you are missing, but think of all the delicious alternatives. It might also help not to ban meat absolutely from your diet for ever. There is nothing like something being strictly forbidden to make you want it more. You can relapse. Sometimes, in a restaurant, I have been desperate for liver and onions with mashed potatoes and I have eaten it a couple of times over the past few years. I am not proud of myself, but at least I eat much, much less meat than I used to. Hardly a scrap.

It is now a comparative breeze to give up meat. We all know animals are sentient. There is not half as much sneering at vegetarians as there used to be. Famous, admired, personable and muscular vegetarians and sportspeople abound; the availability, variety and quality of vegetarian food has increased enormously. Decades ago, an English salad was lettuce, cucumber and tomatoes with Heinz mayonnaise; we had never seen an avocado. Now we have olive oil and countless varieties of delicious dressings and vegetables from everywhere on earth.

Our current favourite salads are: aubergine roasted in zaatar, olive and sunflower oil, salt, lots of pepper, with raw cherry tomatoes and mozzarella; grated celeriac and carrot, oil and cider vinegar, garlic, mustard and chopped tarragon; oranges with fennel; and mixed green leaves with sprinklings of toasted sunflower and sesame seeds or chopped and roasted almonds. And, since it is winter, there are a squillion soups you can make with vegetables, adding beans for protein (forget Blazing Saddles). Try a soup with haricot beans, celeriac, tomatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary and thyme, with some olive oil and lemon juice added at the end.

Before I even start on all the complex mixtures with sprinklings, there are 101 things you can do with my own favourite vegetable, the potato: bake, roast, rosti, latkes, layered and baked with cream, colcannon, bubble and squeak and, of course, chips. I make them from red potatoes; I dont want to brag, but they are exquisite.

I havent found many prepared vegetarian products that I am wild about, but you can make a passable bolognese with Quorn mince and some people can do wonders with tofu. Try it rolled in cornflower, salt and loads of pepper and deep fried. I have found a pleasant, chewy mozzarella veggie burger, plus vegetable pies, quiches and pizzas. A local burger bar serves divine portobello mushroom burgers, which are tastier than the meat burger. Honestly. A friend tested them both.

I miss meat less and less, because I still have fish (often fried with the chips). But once you are on this path, where do you stop? I feel I ought to take the next step, of giving up the fish and shellfish, which I also love. Last year, in the fish shop, I saw a man holding up two live lobsters, asking how soon he should boil them; could he keep them alive in water for a bit? There they were, waving their arms in the air, distressed, I assumed. So, no more lobster for me. I have learned that octopuses, the stars of Blue Planet II, are very intelligent and may be able to see with their skin, so no more of them, either. Veganism is probably the end of this road, but I dont know whether I will make it.

Meanwhile, that three-year-old boy who ate the sausage never ate meat again. Those are his salad recipes above and he is now a strapping fellow. My daughter has given up meat and is considering veganism, along with increasing numbers of people. There were 542,000 vegans in the UK in May 2016, up from 150,000 10 years before (a 360% rise). Almost half of them are young, aged 15 to 34. On top of this, there are about 1.2 million vegetarians (1.8% of the UK population).

So, I am really just going with the flow and hoping that the tide becomes stronger. In the first six months of 2017, 28% of Britons cut down on meat a sensible move, seeing as it increases your risk of obesity, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, food poisoning (particularly from chicken) and premature death. Although the world will never stop eating meat, perhaps more of us could, at least, stop eating such huge amounts of it. Then we could all have longer, healthier, happier lives. I have just got to sort out the dogs dinners.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global/2018/jan/01/i-feel-less-stuffed-after-dinners-and-less-guilty-why-i-stopped-eating-meat

There is a thrill to seeing your stomach getting flatter: why I run

Since I started trudging up hills and around parks four years ago, I have become healthier, slimmer and sunnier and sometimes I even enjoy it

It is a damp, grey morning in south London and I am outdoors, still half asleep. The wind cuts like a knife and all I am wearing is shorts, tights and a polyester jersey. My muscles have clenched from the cold and no amount of stretching or rubbing will loosen them. But I tighten my laces and start to run. Uphill, as if things werent bad enough. My body jars with every step. Before I have gone 100 metres, I am thinking about packing it in. But no: if I give up today, maybe I wont even get this far next time. So on I plod. Thud thud thud, trudge trudge trudge, up through Norwood Park, past the swings and skateboard ramps, through the boggy, doggy hollow, then left along the main road towards the Crystal Palace transmitter. I gain a little more height before peeling off down a side street to windswept park number two.

Beyond are more ups and downs, followed by the long, gentle decline of Beulah Hill

Four kilometres in, I am dripping with sweat. I push up my sleeves and try to forget that, because of the way I have looped back on myself, home is just a short walk away. I focus on the positives (I am almost halfway through; the bits that were hurting at the start arent hurting any more) and do my best to ignore the negatives (I am not halfway through; the bits that werent hurting at the start are hurting now).

On it goes more quiet streets and silent despair. Somehow, I make it home, to a cup of tea and a sausage sandwich.

How was it? my wife asks, breathing from the side of her mouth so that she doesnt have to smell me.

It was all right, I say, thinking: It was hell, but knowing I will be doing it again. And, secretly, both dreading it and looking forward to it.

I have been running regularly since early 2014, when I decided I had to do something about my ever-expanding gut. After moving to London from the French mountains, where wild swimming and hiking had kept me fit, I had found the pounds sneaking back on. Although I had never once run for pleasure, I liked the idea of an activity that was cheaper than gym membership, could be done almost anywhere and fit easily into the weekly routine.

I probably wouldnt have managed it without the NHSs couch-to-5k plan, a set of free podcasts that use cheesy pep-talks and detailed, real-time instructions to guide you through a series of gradually lengthening runs. Although I had barely run since I was a schoolboy, the podcasts gently-gently approach made the transition as painless as possible. I occasionally got breathless, but I never felt as if I was being pushed too hard. By the ninth and final week, I was just about capable of running 5km without a break, which seemed pretty good for an overweight fiftysomething. A year later, I was into double figures and running every two or three days.

Little by little, the distance has crept up. I now run about five times a week, totalling 40-45km. I have done it in London and Barcelona, Cornwall and Moselle, Dunbar and County Durham, down city streets and dirt tracks, on mountaintops and marshes. If I cant get out first thing in the morning, I will go for a runch at work. My shortest regular route is 5km, through the wooded hills of Dulwich and Sydenham, the longest a flat 14km to the Guardian offices in Kings Cross. I have raced in two half-marathons and one full.

I am not the fastest thing on two legs: it takes me five or six minutes to cover a kilometre, nine or 10 for a mile. The New Forest marathon took an embarrassing five and a bit hours, not least because I ran out of steam and ended up walking some of it. The only reason I can imagine for doing another is to prove to myself that I can run the whole 42.2km. I am, however, a lot fitter and slimmer than I used to be down from 100-odd kilograms to 84. It is not all because of running I have cut down on the cakes, chocolate, biscuits and booze and even done a bit of Weight Watchers but running has definitely helped. It has built muscle and stamina, too. I will never be ripped, but I am in better shape (in all senses) than I have been since my 20s.

This may sound like bragging, but I need to remind myself why I do what I do. Sometimes I enjoy running, but mostly I endure it. I frequently hate it. As for the much-touted runners high, the closest I come most days is a panted: Thank Christ thats over.

Because, above all, running is hard work. To put the full horror into words, you have to stick one foot in front of the other, again and again and again. On a good day, running just happens; on a bad day, every step must be willed into existence. On my most recent outing a joyless slog through Islington and Hackney I had to bully my legs almost 6,000 times. That is four pleas of Again, you bastard for every word in this article.

It only takes two or three bad runs in a row to feel as if you are not getting anything out of it. Running can be boring, too, especially when you are pressed for time or short of ideas and just do a circuit you have done 100 times before past the same houses, down the same streets, thinking the same thoughts. Every now and again, I just give up, mostly with the words: Sod it, I cant be arsed, rather than: Sod it, this is too painful. I tell myself that the feeling will pass, and usually it does, but sometimes it persists until the very last step.

For me, at least, running successfully is about psychology as much as physique. So, I have learned to do everything I can to shake things up, from listening to podcasts, audiobooks and music (nothing gets me moving like Agatha Christie or the KLF) to trying new routes constantly. There is a wonderful app called RunGo that lets you map out a path, then provides turn-by-turn directions through your headphones. Without it, I would either be running up and down the same main roads or getting lost down side streets, stopping to work out where I was, then trying to remotivate myself to run. With it, I can happily navigate my way across London or through a foreign forest.

This doesnt do anything for the hypochondria, unfortunately. I often feel a little discomfort tired muscles, too-tight tendons early in a run, although this usually passes as I get into the rhythm. I suspect its psychosomatic, with my body offering an excuse to cut things short.

But that doesnt mean you can afford to ignore it. Sometimes you really do damage yourself. I have been lucky so far: my only real injury was a couple of years ago, when my hips started to hurt after a string of long runs. It turned out that I had been pushing my muscles too hard before they had had time to adapt; a few weeks of physio put things right. Other than that, I am happy to say that I have never felt better. I am pretty sure that the next time I injure myself it will be by tripping on a tree root, slipping on ice or trusting a car to stop at a zebra crossing.

Not that this stops non-runners telling me I am doing irreparable damage to my hips, knees, ankles and heart. Although study after study has shown that running is good for your joints and can extend your life by several years, many armchair experts will not be told. It is hard not to think that at least some are looking to justify their own indolence.

So, why do I keep running, when my mind and body and so many other people tell me not to? Two reasons. First, when I am not actually pounding the pavement, I am pretty clear about the good it is doing me. When everyone around you is getting just a little bit chubbier and a little more out of breath, there is undeniably a thrill to seeing your own stomach getting flatter and your endurance increasing. Also, I am in a better mood when I have run. After two days of idleness, I get restless and irritable. I am not sure if this is my default state and running relieves it or if I am now so addicted that I get withdrawal symptoms when I stop, but the result is the same.

I am happy with my own company and I normally run without a partner. I relish the chance to be alone with my thoughts, even if they are mostly about how uncomfortable I am.

Plus, every now and again, maybe once or twice a month, I love, love, love the experience enough to make up for all the horrors that have gone before. I am not too hot and not too cold, just the right amount of tired, with the feeling I could run for ever and then nature gives another nudge. It might be early on a December morning, with dawn gilding the eastern horizon, or midday in August, with rabbits scattering across a field. Once it was in Catford, with a thunderstorm soaking my clothes and washing the sweat away. For a few moments, it feels as if I am flying.

I dont think a habit like this can last for ever, although some people carry on into their 80s. Fauja Singh ran a marathon at 100. I will be happy if I make it to 70.

And then? I dont know. Cage fighting looks like fun.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/dec/30/there-is-a-thrill-to-seeing-your-stomach-getting-flatter-why-i-run

Only one in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables, CDC study finds

Only 12% meet the daily fruit recommendation and 9% the vegetable recommendation, and people living in poverty have especially low rates

Only a sliver of Americans eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Just 12% of Americans eat the minimum daily fruit recommendation of one and a half to two cups per day, and only 9% consume the minimum daily vegetable recommendation of two to three cups per day, according to the study, published on Thursday.

The study confirms years of data demonstrating that Americans do not eat their veggies, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, told the Guardian. Assuming this result is close to reality, it suggests the need for taking much stronger action to make it easier and cheaper to eat fruits and vegetables.

The study, which broke out groups of Americans by state, class, race and gender, found some subgroups were even less likely to eat enough produce.

Men, young adults and people living in poverty all had especially low rates of fruit and vegetable intake. While 15.1% of women eat the recommended amount of fruit each day ,just 9.2% of men do the same. Similarly, 11.4% of wealthy Americans eat enough vegetables, but only 7% of poor people did the same.

Because a poor diet is linked to cancer, obesity, heart disease and diabetes, public health authorities have long endorsed a diet rich in fruit and vegetables.

Sarah Reinhardt, a nutritionist and food systems analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), said there was a growing awareness about the importance of healthy foods. We have a lot more work to do to make sure they reach every corner of the country, she said.

The CDCs findings also showed the disparities in fruit and vegetable consumption by state. For example, just 2.2% of South Dakotans between 18 and 30 years old eat the recommended daily serving of vegetables.

While people in West Virginia, which often tops lists of the least healthy and poorest US states, were the least likely to get enough vegetables on average just 5.8% of West Virginians ate the recommended amount.

Residents of Alaska were most likely to eat the recommended amount of vegetables, though the percentage is low only 12% of adults there eat enough.

Improving these rates is particularly challenging because just 2% of US farmland is devoted to growing fruits and vegetables, according to UCS. Reinhardt said farmers would need to grow almost twice as much produce just for Americans to get the recommended amount of servings.

The food industry is not exactly working with public health on this, theres a multimillion-dollar industry working to get people to eat [processed foods], Reinhardt said.

The new research comes from the CDCs 2015 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which looks at how Americans eat and behave. Researchers called American adults landlines and cellphones and asked how often people eat beans, dark greens, orange vegetables, other vegetables, whole fruit and fruit juice.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/nov/17/just-12-of-americans-eat-enough-fruit-and-vegetables-cdc-study-finds

The joy of eggs how ‘nature’s multivitamin’ shook off the scare stories

Decades of dud healthy-eating guidance sent the humble egg into nutritional exile. But with new advice about runny yolks suggesting that salmonella in raw eggs is a thing of the past, its time to lick the cake bowl again

Every morning for breakfast I eat a runny-yolked egg, often boiled, sometimes poached, or fried. In any given week Ill consume eggs in other meals frittata, souffle, as a binder for breadcrumbed fish, in baking, quiche, kedgeree, fresh pasta, perhaps. I reckon that I personally get through anything between 10 and 15 eggs weekly. I do it not only because I cherish their near-magical cooking properties, but also as a two-fingered salute to a dogmatic government dietetic establishment that has pumped taxpayers money into convincing us that this most perfect of natural foods is something we should restrict, even fear. Guess what? Ive maintained a healthy, normal body weight, and lived to tell the tale.

So forgive me if I dont applaud the latest Food Standards Agency (FSA) edict telling us that pregnant women, babies and elderly people can now eat eggs raw or soft-cooked without calamitous consequences, as if this was some sort of thunderbolt revelation, a recent achievement. Its more a case of: Youre 30 years too late guys, but better late than never.

For
For decades, we were told to eat no more than two eggs a week. Photograph: Alamy

Eventually, after demonising eggs for a quarter of a century or more, the authors of our governments egg script that eggs could clog your arteries and poison you are stealthily dismantling the flashing red lights they have put around this elemental food in the public mind. Now, like offenders participating in restorative justice schemes, we need the civil servants and scientific advisers who unnerved us about eggs to say mea culpa, and reflect on how their adherence to bankrupt healthy eating orthodoxy sent one of natures cleverest food packages into nutritional exile.

Its hard to think of any food that can compete with eggs in overall health terms. They provide us with high-quality protein that contains all nine essential amino acids in the precise proportions required by the body for optimum growth and maintenance. Eggs outperform all other proteins from both animal and plant sources. Protein is the macronutrient that most efficiently satisfies appetite. It also reduces the secretion of ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger. A body of research suggests that eggs might help us stay slim. For instance, one trial found that women who ate eggs for breakfast felt more full and consumed fewer calories for the rest of the day and for the next 36 hours. Thats certainly my experience.

Free-range
Free-range hens foraging for food in the Lake District. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Eggs are often referred to as natures multivitamin pill, with ample justification, because they contain vitamins A, D, E, and a range of B vitamins, in significant amounts. They are also an oval treasure trove of minerals, 10 of them calcium, phosphorus, zinc, selenium, potassium, sodium, copper, iodine, magnesium and iron; and more obscure, but nevertheless vital micronutrients, choline, lecithin, lutein and zeaxanthin. If ever there was a genuine superfood, the egg is it.

And yet many Britons fret about eating eggs because weve been drip-fed fear of this most versatile food, and like biddable citizens, many of us have swallowed it.

For decades, public health gospel was that we should eat no more than two eggs a week. The egg was an early victim of the late 20th-century fixation with cholesterol; yolks contain it. This thinking, progenitor of the supposedly healthier egg white omelette in the US, was that the cholesterol that naturally occurs in food causes heart disease and stroke. It doesnt. Actually, cholesterol is a vital component of cell membranes. Among other things, it heals and repairs the body, supports our cognitive function, and helps our bodies make vitamin D and hormones.

Belatedly, when scientific research made it too embarrassingly apparent that cholesterol in eggs had almost no effect on blood cholesterol profiles, official UK nutritional guidelines were quietly altered. Now NHS Choices says: There is no recommended limit on how many eggs people should eat. But any diligent citizen who pays attention to the governments Eatwell plate its pictorial image of its recommended healthy diet, which is heavily weighted towards processed carbohydrate foods might nevertheless conclude that a bowl of cornflakes is still nutritionally preferable to an egg.

Edwina
Edwina Currie, the MP who started the salmonella in eggs scare in 1988. Photograph: Brian Bould/ANL/REX/Shutterstock

Nutrition apart, the FSAs latest pronouncement is that we can now eat raw or runny Lion-stamped eggs without courting food poisoning. The major reduction in the risk of salmonella in Lion eggs is testament to the work carried out by egg producers. The measures theyve taken, from vaccination of hens through to improving hygiene on farms and better transportation, have dramatically reduced salmonella levels in UK hens, says FSA chairman Heather Hancock. But were eggs really ever a major, or even a minor, source of food poisoning in the UK?

Edwina Currie started the whole salmonella enteritidis and eggs saga in 1988 with one sentence: Most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella, triggering either Britains first major food scare, or its first mass-media moral panic over food, depending on how you see it. At that time, egg producers loudly contested her assertion and the putative linkage of eggs with food poisoning, and to this day, many microbiologists agree with them. Dr Richard North, a leading independent food safety consultant who has conducted lab tests on salmonella in eggs, and evaluated 60 salmonella outbreaks in the UK, is a case in point. Only one, or at most two of the outbreaks I studied credibly had egg as a source. He attributes the rise in salmonella food poisoning cases in the late 1980s to two alternative causes. First, a surge of salmonella infection, not in egg-laying hens, but in factory farmed broilers (chickens reared in intensive systems for their meat). Salmonella is one of the recognised diseases of intensification that dog this type of production. Second, North points to the 1980s fashion among food manufacturers, at the supermarkets behest, for a blander, lower-vinegar mayonnaise: Mrs Beetons classic mayonnaise recipe was actively bactericidal.

Lion-stamped
Lion-stamped free range hens eggs. Photograph: Alamy

Contrary to the FSAs line that vaccines dealt with a genuine problem, North maintains that the whole salmonella and eggs debacle was a classic food scare based on myths and dodgy science. And its one of those never-to-be-resolved debates anyway, now that the FSA has given eggs its blessing. Feel free to lick the cake bowl once again. Even Currie now says: If you buy eggs in the UK you can be pretty sure theyre safe.

I buy free-range organic eggs every week from a local producer. I know him by name and can look into his eyes. His eggs dont have the Lion stamp or need it. He has confidence in the cleanliness and safety of his production methods and after years of eating them, so do I. His small flock of grass-fed, free-ranging hens are not kept in close confinement and so are much less susceptible to disease of all sorts. Supermarkets love a nationwide protocol, such as the Lion stamp, to reassure customers of safety, but this doesnt mean that any eggs that dont bear this stamp are risky.

Whichever retrospective interpretation of the salmonella and egg saga you believe, theres no doubt that eggs are more good news these days than bad. Back in Curries time, 92% of hens were kept in cruel battery cages. Nowadays, thanks to concerted campaigning from animal welfare groups, such as Compassion in World Farming, the equivalent figure has almost halved and cages have been marginally improved or enriched with welfare in mind. All the key supermarket chains are pledged to phase out shell eggs from caged hens by 2025. In practical terms, Compassion in World Farming recommends Soil Association-certified organic eggs for the highest welfare they must be free-range and no controversial beak trimming is permitted and failing that, free-range eggs from more traditional breeds of hen, because they are put under less pressure to produce. Caged eggs are still routinely used in food manufacturing and catering, but a growing number of companies, including Unilever, Sodexo and Nestl, have also committed to sourcing only cage-free eggs in their global supply chains, again by 2025.

Supermarket
Supermarket chains are pledged to phase out shell eggs from caged hens by 2025. Photograph: Alamy

Its worth noting that the fipronil egg scandal, which broke in August, where imported egg products were contaminated with an insecticide often used as flea killer affected only pre-prepared eggs used in food manufacturing and catering. Cake mixes used by industrial bakeries were withdrawn, along with liquid pasteurised eggs bought by chefs, and pre-cooked, factory-made supermarket convenience foods: certain salads from Asda and Sainsburys, some Morrisons egg sandwiches, and Waitrose deli filler were affected. The moral of the story here is: if there are dodgy eggs to be offloaded, theyre not likely to still be intact in their shells, but pre-processed in some way.

Eggs are definitely poised for a comeback, although it has to be said that throughout all the years that eggs were dispatched to the nutritional wilderness, many people, sceptical about public health advice, never stopped eating them. In the UK we eat on average between three and four eggs a week. In the 1960s, our national average egg consumption was five. But over the past 12 months, retail egg sales have risen by 4%. In the current grim landscape, where more and more citizens need to use food banks just to put a meal on the table, eggs, which are so affordable and offer such unbeatable nutrition and sustenance, never more deserved a place on our plates. Just think of the character of Katie in the film I, Daniel Blake. She surely needed an egg, not a can of sweet baked beans, yet many food banks have no fresh food to offer, often for safety reasons. Similarly, government-stoked worry about safety has deprived whole demographics the elderly, children, people in care homes and hospitals of the pleasure and incomparable nutrition of properly cooked, that is not overcooked, eggs.

Katie,
Katie, the character in I, Daniel Blake, would have benefited from an egg from the food bank. Photograph: Allstar/Eone Films

Last week in Galway, at the international Food on the Edge chef symposium, South African chef Margot Janse spoke about how her Isabelo charity in Franschhoek now feeds 1,400 disadvantaged pre-school and primary school children every day, often the only healthy meal they receive. She started by giving out home-baked muffins, with mixed results. Some children didnt find them sweet enough. But it was boiled eggs that the kids really loved and that grew full attendance at school. There are lots of hearts of gold that care [about fighting poverty] but an egg also has a heart of gold and is a lot more practical, she concluded.

Whatever your current status starving, peckish, dieting, feasting, economising, working, travelling, convalescing, or just going about your daily business its hard to beat an egg.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/oct/17/joy-eggs-scare-stories-new-guidance-runny-yokes-salmonella

‘Western society is chronically sleep deprived’: the importance of the body’s clock

The 2017 Nobel prize for medicine was awarded for the discovery of how our circadian rhythms are controlled. But what light does it shed on the cycle of life?

The cycle of day and night on our planet is age-old and inescapable, so the idea of an internal body clock might not sound that radical. In science, though, asking the questions why? and how? about the most day-to-day occurrences can require the greatest leaps of ingenuity and produce the most interesting answers.

This was the case for three American biologists, Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young, who earlier this week were awarded the Nobel in medicine or physiology, for their discovery of the master genes controlling the bodys circadian rhythms.

The first hints of an internal clock came as early as the 18th century when the French scientist Jean-Jacques dOrtous de Mairan noticed that plants kept at a steady temperature in a dark cupboard unexpectedly maintained their daily rhythm of opening and closing their leaves. However, De Mairan himself concluded this was because they could sense the sun without ever seeing it.

It was only when Hall, Rosbash and Young used fruit flies to isolate a gene that controls the rhythm of a living organisms daily life that scientists got the first real glimpse at our time-keeping machinery that explains how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earths revolutions, the Nobel prize committee said.

Using fruit flies, the team identified a period gene, which encodes a protein within the cell during the night which then degrades during the day, in an endless feedback cycle.

Prof Robash, 73, a faculty member at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachussetts, said that when his paper was published in the 1980s he had no grandiose thoughts about the importance of the discovery. During the intervening years, the picture has changed.

Its [now] pretty clear that it has its fingers in all kinds of basic processes by influencing an enormous fraction of the genome, he said.

Scientists discovered the same gene exists in mammals and that it is expressed in a tiny brain area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. On one side, it is linked to the retina in the eye, and on the other side it connects to the brains pineal gland, which pumps out the sleep hormone melatonin.

Modern lifestyles may no longer be constrained by sunrise and sunset, but light remains one of the most powerful influences on our behaviour and wellbeing. This realisation has fuelled a sleep hygiene movement, whose proponents point out that bright lights before bedtime and spending the whole day in a dimly lit office can dampen the natural circadian cycle, leaving people in a continual mental twilight dozy in the morning, and too alert to fall asleep promptly at night.

Rosbash welcomes this new awareness. Its been overlooked for a long time as a real public health problem, he said. All of western society is a little bit sleep deprived and, when I say a little bit, I mean chronically.

There is growing evidence that this decoupling from the natural circadian cycle can have long-term health consequences much more far-reaching than tiredness.

At first, it was assumed that the brains master clock was the bodys only internal timekeeper. In the past decade, though, scientists have shown that clock genes are active in almost every cell type in the body. The activity of blood, liver, kidney and lung cells in a petri dish all rise and fall on a roughly 24-hour cycle. Scientists have also found that the activity of around half our genes appear to be under circadian control, following undulating on-off cycles.

In effect, tiny clocks are ticking inside almost every cell type in our body, anticipating our daily needs. This network of clocks not only maintains order with respect to the outside world, but it keeps things together internally.

Virtually everything in our body, from the secretion of hormones, to the preparation of digestive enzymes in the gut, to changes in blood pressure, are influenced in major ways by knowing what time of day these things will be needed, said Clifford Saper, a professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. The most common misconception is that people think that they do not have to follow the rules of biology, and can just eat, drink, sleep, play, or work whenever they want.

This discovery explains why jet lag feels so grim: the master clock adapts quickly to changing light levels, but the the rest of your body is far slower to catch up and does so at different speeds.

Jet lag is so awful because youre not simply shifted, but the whole circadian network is not aligned to each other, said Prof Russell Foster, chair of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford. If you were completely aligned but just five hours shifted you wouldnt feel so crappy.

It is also helps explain the extensive range of health risks experienced by shift workers, who are more likely to suffer from heart disease, dementia, diabetes and some cancers. Theyre having to override their entire biology, said Foster.

Obesity is also more common among those with irregular sleep patterns. Sapers team has found that animals that dont get enough sleep, but keep their circadian pattern, do not gain weight. But when they are placed on a 20-hour light-dark cycle, they eat more impulsively and develop glucose intolerance.

I would suggest that for humans, staying up late, watching video screens with high levels of blue light and eating high fat foods, is potentially a major cause of obesity and diabetes, said Saper.

Evidence is also emerging that our risk of acute illness rises and falls with a predictable regularity. People are 49% more likely to suffer a stroke between 6am and 12 noon than at any other time of the day and a similar pattern is true for heart attacks. This is linked to a circadian rise in blood pressure in the early morning, which happens even if youre lying in bed not doing anything.

As a result, it makes sense to take certain blood pressure medications first thing, before getting out of bed. By contrast, cholesterol is made more rapidly by the liver at night. So, statins, which lower cholesterol, work best if taken before going to bed.

Foster said that a failure to consider the circadian influence in past animal experiments may even have led to promising drug candidates being shelved. Toxicity can change from 20% to 80% depending on the time of the day you test a drug, he said.

As the impact of scientific advance slowly trickles down, the medical profession and society at large are waking up to the power of the biological clock.

A paper last year showing that jet lag impairs baseball performance, prompted some professional sports teams to take on circadian biologists as consultants on schedules for training and travel. The US Navy has altered its shift system to align it with the 24-hour clock, rather than the 18-hour day used in the old British system. Schools are experimenting with later school days, better aligned with the teenage body clock, which runs several hours later than that of adults.

As circadian rhythms have journeyed from obscure corner of science to part of the zeitgeist, companies are launching an increasing number of products on the back of a new anxiety around sleep and natural cycles. This is the western world; if somebody can make a buck theyre going to try to do it, said Rosbash.

The 73-year-old, who describes his own relationship with sleep as borderline problematic, prefers low- tech remedies, however.

I havent quite figured out how to do better, he said. I try not to take sleep medication. I dont drink alcohol too late in the evening, I read a good book. The common sense things, I think they help.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/oct/06/western-society-is-chronically-sleep-deprived-the-importance-of-the-bodys-clock