‘Who will follow the latest guidelines on alcohol consumption?’
- Credit: PA
There is a classic moment in the old Woody Allen film The Sleeper, when two scientists in the year 2173 are discussing late 20th century health food.
One asks, incredulously, 'You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies? Or hot fudge?'
The other replies, 'Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.'
In that one exchange, from a 40 year old film comedy, we can sum up why people are so confused about what they should and shouldn't eat – and why the latest guidelines about alcohol consumption are likely to be widely ignored.
Over the years we have been given a huge range of conflicting advice.
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In the 1970s, we were all told to substitute margarine for butter.
Forty years later, we now know that the natural product is far better for us, and that margarine – full as it is of trans fats, free radicals, emulsifiers and even bleach – is potentially very harmful to our health.
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In the 1980s, we were all in thrall to the 'French Paradox': the theory that red wine was actually good for us, containing anti-oxidants which would strengthen our heart.
So what are we to make of the latest government advice, that any level of alcohol consumption raises the risk of cancer, and that the only group to see any heart benefits from drinking are women aged over 55?
I'll tell you what we should do with this advice – take it with a pinch of salt (if only salt hadn't also been banned by the nanny-state 'experts').
The problem with this kind of advice is that it completely misconstrues the concept of risk.
The new recommended weekly alcohol limits (or 'targets', as I like to view them) are designed to keep drinking to a 'low risk' level.
What exactly does this mean? It turns out that 'low risk' is defined as giving you less than a one per cent chance of dying from an alcohol-related condition.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton professor of the public understanding of risks, has put this in context: 'An hour of TV watching a day, or a bacon sandwich a couple of times a week, is more dangerous to your long-term health.'
This kind of muddled, inconsistent and poorly communicated advice is likely to be roundly ignored – and in any case, it will probably be contradicted by the next research scientist in search of a headline and/or a taxpayer-funded research grant.
So allow me to offer my own advice. It's not based on any kind of rigorous science, but rather on common sense – which let's face it, means that my advice is rather more likely to stand the test of time.
First of all, eat food which has been made in a kitchen, not a laboratory.
If the ingredients list has a sounds like the components of a chemistry experiment, steer clear.
Secondly, it's all about balance. If your diet consists of predominantly one kind of foodstuff, you are probably getting it wrong.
Thirdly, eat fruit and vegetables. This is one piece of advice which no-one disagrees with, and which has not changed over the years.
Fourthly, don't stress about the occasional unhealthy treat.
The happiness it brings you is likely to be advantageous for your health, and will almost certainly outweigh any physical damage it does you.
Just don't do it all the time; bingeing, whether on food or drink, is never good for you.
Finally, remember that quality of life is every bit as important as its length. If the scientists really are telling me that having a glass or three of wine with my dinner for the next 40 years is going to shorten my life by three years, then I'll take the risk. I simply don't want those extra three years if it means 40 years of denying myself one of the greatest pleasures in life. Cheers!
•The opinions above are those of Andy Newman. Read more from the EDP columnists each day in our paper.