Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Britain’s favourite TV doctor, Dr Hilary Jones, discusses some of the biggest health challenges we face today, and how we can solve them.
With the increasing health challenges we face today, Celebrity Angels sit down with Dr Hilary Jones to discuss the biggest health challenges and how we can solve them.
When it comes to our health what should everyone be concerned about, and conversely what receives too much attention?
I think mental health issues are of increasing concern. People are worried about what they hear in the news, people are worried about money, people are worried about jobs, people are working under a lot of stress, people are fearful of what they’re hearing about terrorism around the world.
We seem to live in a world where we have an increasing population but less and less sociability, and people are feeling isolated and marginalised. Another cause of mental health problems are difficulties with relationships, people who don’t have very good coping skills when the going gets tough. There’s so much reliance on emails, computers and electronic games that actually talking to people, eye-to-eye contact, empathy and sympathy seems to be diminishing and I think that this is one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many people who are stressed, so many suicides, particularly in young men—which is a huge global issue that nobody seems to be talking about.
We simply don’t have the ability to share our problems with people we trust and people close to us, and we don’t have enough resources in the NHS or elsewhere to help people quickly when they need it.
I think another issue is obesity. The epidemic shows no sign of abating so we’re seeing the consequences of that with cardiovascular disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes—it impinges on mental health as well so this is storing up huge problems for the future. Alcohol consumption continues to rise, a lot of people escaping from their stress into binge drinking or chronically heavy drinking and we’re seeing a huge rise in alcohol-related social problems and physical problems such as liver disease, amongst other things.
Antibiotic resistance is increasingly becoming an issue, if you look at the number of people dying from sepsis because there are no antibiotics that work quickly enough to treat infections. It also means that operations like hip replacements and abdominal surgery would have to be thought about very carefully as they could be a much higher risk in the future.
Do you think there are any health topics that get too much attention in the press?
Yes, we continue to tell people that there are miraculous weight loss products out there that can give you a short cut to weight loss—well there aren’t any, and I wish the media would stop pretending that there are. Weight loss has to be worked at and there are no magic potions that give you a shortcut.
I also think that we constantly see articles about the NHS in crisis and what annoys me about that is that yes, the NHS is struggling financially, but in patches it is nothing short of magnificent, largely thanks to the staff that work in the NHS and hold it together, people who work over and above what they’re paid to do and who really care about people and keep the NHS going. We need to cherish and preserve it—it is under threat but it’s not in crisis, and certainly there are many more people who are very satisfied with the service they get rather than those who’ve been damaged by it—although reading the papers you wouldn’t get that impression.
I also think that the press over play promises of breakthroughs. Whether it’s cancer or dementia, it’s great to read about research and things that might help in the future but we shouldn’t give people false hope as much as we do, and we should temper the research with information about what is actually happening on the ground today.
A recent survey of global trends found that obesity was second only to smoking as a cause of premature death in Europe, and that men are more likely to die prematurely than women if they are overweight—why is there this imbalance?
I think men have always tended to neglect their health. Compared to men, women are twice as likely to visit the doctor. Men have been brought up by their mothers on the whole and therefore if someone looks after their health rather than themselves they tend to self-neglect. They’re also less able to talk about their problems. Women are much better communicators and they’re willing to share their problems whereas men tend to bottle them up. Men might regard their beer belly as a badge of honour rather than a problem, and tend to make a joke of it, whereas women are more health conscious in that way.
Men tend not to care about their diet so much, and I guess are more likely to be embarrassed about approaching the doctor once they’ve got symptoms, they’re more fearful of the treatment than they are of the diagnosis. I think there are lots of reasons and this all applies to obesity as well. Men think it’s never going to happen to them, they still think they’re 21 and are going to play football for England, even at the age of 50 when they chain smoke and are five stone overweight.
See also: Vitamin Supplements
The latest food craze, ‘clean eating', seems to attach a moral dimension to food. Is this a healthy attitude?
Well it’s a trendy term for describing options that we already have. We’ve gone through the phase of calling food 'toxic', we talked about detoxing and we’ve talked about superfoods, and now we’re talking about clean eating. So it’s basically terminology, but it all boils down to the same thing which is if we eat too much processed, pre-packaged, altered, adulterated food rather than raw, organic, low fat, low salt, low sugar foods which are free of preservatives, stabilisers and flavourings, we’re asking for trouble.
I don’t think there’s been any revolutions in healthy eating, we can call it what we like and if 'clean eating' appeals to people as a concept then I have no problem with that, but at the end of the day, the right approach is moderation. I think the occasional treat is okay, but it’s important we don’t get addicted to them. We just need to be a bit self aware and disciplined and keep the foods that we might love but might not be healthy to a minimum and have them as the occasional treat rather than every day.
Do you think we have a problem with moderation when it comes to food?
There’s very little middle ground and there should be. It’s not all black and white, there’s no one food that is bad but it might be if that’s all you’ve ever had, and that’s the trouble. So many foods are available everywhere and there are so many fast food chains and so much attractive packaging and TV advertising, that it’s very easy for people who are stressed and in a hurry and say they haven’t got time to cook for themselves to just reach for something that’s very satisfying. Often that’s the wrong choice, so I think we need to give ourselves more time to prepare and enjoy healthy food and develop a palate and a taste for those things.
Would you say that media coverage of health issues can sometimes create confusion? For example, the case for and against saturated fats seems to change all the time, with a recent study linking a diet rich in saturated fat to early death.
Oh very much so, I think that’s one of the reasons why people have turned away from medical advice is because we have created this confusion—50 years ago doctors rarely contradicted each other, but these days there’s always one expert to give you a complete opposite view of another expert. We’ve had big controversies about HRT, whether it’s the best thing since sliced bread or whether it’s dangerous, similar things about the oral contraceptive, whether it’s the best form of contraception ever or whether it’s potentially harmful. We’ve also had conflicting reports on alcohol and how much is safe to drink, including in pregnancy, conflicting evidence about exercise and whether you need to do 30 minutes four times a week or whether you can do this high intensity training for five minutes once a week, and get the same effect.
This applies to low fat and high fats as well. If you take out fat, you have to replace it with something else and in the last 20 years we’ve been replacing it with sugar and carbohydrates, and that’s undoubtedly fuelled the rise in obesity rates and type 2 diabetes. We should all be eating more protein to satiate our appetites and we should eat less starch, and have healthy fats, because what’s important is not the total amount of fat but eating polyunsaturated fats: nuts and seeds and vegetables rather than too much of the processed foods which contain a lot of saturated fat.
What are the biggest myths surrounding healthy eating and exercise?
I don’t believe there is any such thing as a ‘superfood’. Some foods are healthier than others, full stop. But a good variety of all of them is the way forward. Deprivation doesn’t work, so anything from the cabbage diet onwards that deprives you of the things you occasionally like is not going to work.
The genetic issue—discoveries on a daily basis of the genes that make you fat, well we don’t know a tiny percentage about the genetics of obesity yet, and whilst there will be some genetic influence it will be minor and it’s much more important that we adopt healthier lifestyles.
Bariatric surgery gets a huge amount of coverage. It’s easy to see why people might believe that this is the answer to all their problems, part of their healthy stomach removed or stapled, or sewn up and bypassed, and there are now over a million people in this country who might be eligible under the criteria for stomach surgery, but it’s not the answer. Each operation carries a risk, costs £6,000 or thereabouts, and we know that if people get the right help almost everybody can lose weight without recourse to surgery. I’d much rather we spent the same amount of money that we’re thinking of spending on bariatric surgery on helping people to prevent getting overweight in the first place.
Public health officials think we should now take vitamin D supplements in autumn and winter. Should we take this seriously?
There’s no doubt that a lot of people are deficient in vitamin D, and this might be making them feel low in energy, with aching muscles, and they don’t know why. A lot of people don’t get much vitamin D in the autumn and winter months, as the sun is hardly sufficient, and then we use sunblock to prevent sun damage these days so that’s also blocking out a lot of the sunshine on their skin that creates most of our vitamin D. We can either take supplements or eat things like fortified cereals and bread, and eggs, to counterbalance this.
What about spending 10 minutes out in the sun every day without sunblock? Would that help?
Oh absolutely. I think we’ve underestimated the fact that exposure to sun is actually beneficial as well as potentially harmful—I think the harmful part of it is spending hours and hours in the sun getting burnt on regular occasions. As long as we avoid burning and we just have some exposure during the spring and summer, ten to 15 minute's sun exposure is probably all we need.
Antibiotic resistance is another area of increasing concern, as you mentioned earlier. What can we do to combat this?
It’s potentially fixable but it’s a huge threat at the moment—W.H.O. (the World Health Organisation) consider it one of the biggest threats to global health today. What’s happened is that antibiotics have been overused since their development during the Second World War, when they were truly miraculous and saved millions of lives. Then we started using them for every minor ailment unnecessarily, and consequently microorganisms have developed this resistance to many of the commonly used antibiotics, so this has resulted in infections which don’t get better.
We’ve got multi-resistant tuberculosis that’s beginning to kill more people now, we’ve got people dying of sepsis who would have survived before when antibiotics were more potent, and for the future we’ve got this risk of straightforward operations being too dangerous to perform.
What we have to do is first is stop bullying doctors to prescribe when we get a cold, and doctors need to be stronger at saying no. Of course this will only work if it’s done globally because as everybody knows you can go into a pharmacy in Spain and buy antibiotics without a prescription—that’s crazy, that has to be stopped. Also we need pharmaceutical companies to be given financial incentives to develop new antibiotics that work in different ways, to overcome microorganism resistance. If someone takes an antibiotic for one week they’re not going to earn nearly as much profit for a company as someone that’s going to take blood pressure tablets for 30 years. So we need to change the way pharmaceutical companies are rewarded for their research and development in antibiotics.
If you could give your patients five key pieces of advice when it comes to healthy living, what would they be?
Number one would be to exercise regularly, I would much rather prescribe exercise than any drug. Exercise is such a brilliant preventer of illness, it also perks people up, it makes them feel happy and energised, it keeps their weight down. It has so many benefits psychologically and physically that it has to be my number one piece of advice—but of course it has to be fun, find something you enjoy.
My second one would be for people to devote one hour every day to themselves, for their mental and physical health. Put one hour aside in your diary everyday to have a think about where you are, what’s going wrong in your life, what’s going right, where you want to be, whether you’re looking after people around you. We should be able to find an hour a day in 24 hours to look after ourselves.
My third tip would be to normalise weight because that causes so many problems. My fourth would be to do what makes you happy, provided it doesn’t hurt anybody else, and it’s not damaging you.
Five: be nice to other people. I think there’s a great reward to be had for sharing out the love, it sounds like a cliché but you can see the look on people’s faces when somebody says something that makes them smile, makes them laugh, you see it around the world even in the poorest countries—people are cheered up by the kindness of others and we can have a bit more of that in our society.
Read more on Celebrity Angels about caring for your health with Dr Hilary Jones.