Never trust the large print

Sugar is going out of fashion, so the food industry kindly accommodates us - yet again - and is making adjustments. Have a look around the supermarket and you'll find new versions of trusted brands announcing "30% less sugar" in their product, or "no added sugar" or "now with less sugar!". But can you trust the claims? Are these products really 30% better? I have had a look at the labels. 

Ever heard of NSV?

Healthy, sustainable weight loss can be slow, but the scales are not the be all and end all. Apart from the fact that you might lose 2lbs of fat and gain 2lbs of muscle - which would not show on the scales, but increase your metabolic rate and mean a loser waistband - they do not know about what else has changed: You could feel so much better than you did before. Ever heard of NSV? Read on to find out what they are. 

If you are only going to change one thing ...

Have you given up on New Year's resolutions? Was it your experience in the past that you wouldn't stick to them anyway? Maybe it was just that the goals were too loosely defined ("lose weight") or too big ("run marathon") and that's what's tripped you up. Here's a list of good places to start, if you're only going to do one thing for better health. 

Who says it's got to be turkey?

Don't get me wrong: There's nothing particularly wrong with turkey and all the trimmings - at least nothing you don't already know. Yes, it's usually too much, and yes, it can be a bit high on the carb side (but doesn't have to be), but hey, it's Christmas! Nobody eats like that all the time, and in any case this particular post is not about the calories. 

If you know me, you'll know that I'm not British. I'm German, and I have always been fascinated by the fact that apparently every family in a whole country (and some other countries) eats the exact same thing at Christmas, every Christmas. In Germany, we don't do that. 

Christmas, turkey, Christmas Dinner, trimmings, weight loss, weight, fat

Christmas Dinner is something you see on restaurant menus everywhere right now and in fact many Britons have had three or four Christmas Dinners already before Christmas even arrives. Many of you – as I know from asking friends - don’t even care all that much for turkey with all the trimmings. “It’s bland,” some say. “Turkey is such a dry meat.” – “You have to keep eating it until the New Year, when it’s FINALLY gone!” Many truly HATE Brussels sprouts, and yet they’ve got to be bought, cleaned and cooked, even if they are destined for the bin.

Our 'big day' at Christmas is Christmas Eve - at least that's the day when we open our presents. Some choose to have their big meal then, others have it on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is not a bank holiday, so shops are usually open in the morning, and some offices are, too. Growing up, we had a grocery shop and of course Christmas Eve was very, very busy and our dinner was kept simple: potato salad and Wiener sausages - and that's actually a very common meal on Christmas Eve in Germany. 

WHEN the main Christmas meal is may differ, but so does what we'll eat. Yes, there is a traditional German Christmas Dinner: goose, potato dumplings, braised red cabbage with apple, gravy - but I honestly don't know anyone who would ever actually have that at Christmas. For many families a whole goose is too big a bird anyway. But it's something that is on offer in restaurants around Christmas time and - like the Christmas Dinner here - a popular option for work Christmas lunches. 

So, what do we eat? Whatever we fancy, is the answer. Christmas is a time when we might cook something that’s perhaps a little expensive and luxurious, something we wouldn’t normally allow ourselves to have. Or maybe it is something more elaborate and time-consuming, too special to have on a ‘normal’ day. Or it’s something easy, yet social, such as fondue or raclette – which can mean many happy hours around the table.

Yes, Germans overeat at Christmas, too, and yes, the Christmas meal is not usually the healthiest, there is plenty of alcohol flowing and desserts, biscuits, Lebkuchen and chocolate are on offer 24/7. We, too, flop on the sofa after the meal, waistband taught, watching the usual Christmas TV offerings. There’s no difference there at all, but this post is not about health (for once), but enjoyment: Who says that you have to endure a dinner you don’t really like? Would the world end if you didn’t have a traditional Christmas dinner? Wouldn’t it be exciting to rebel and cook something different?

Push the boat out! Be brave! (And while you're at it, you could theoretically even have a healthy Christmas dinner. Only saying.)

Have a merry, yummy Christmas!

What is the appendix for?

One of the most interesting fields of research for me right now is the microbiome. New research in the area comes out every day and the more we learn, the more scientists realise we don’t know.

Although not all bacteria and other microbes have yet been identified – let alone everything they do – we do now know that diversity is key to good health: the more different species there are, the healthier the individual. Hunter-gatherers have a much, much more microbiome than we do in the Western world, and we get many diseases that are unheard of in primitive cultures, e.g. Crohn’s disease.

appendix, appendicitis, microbiome, gut flora, immune system

Appendicitis - infection and inflammation of the appendix - is so common that everyone knows someone who has had it and has had an appendectomy as a result, an operation that probably saved their life.

For as long as we’ve known that this little dead end in our gut exists, doctors and researchers have been wondering what it is for. It was thought to be vestigial, like the coccyx (tailbone) or erector pili (the muscles that make hair stand on end) and body hair. In fact, if you google ‘vestigial organs’ you’ll find the appendix at the top of the list. It is thought not to do anything much, because no purpose has been found and, more than anything, people without one live on without suffering any negative consequences at all.

For other vestigial organs we can find out what there purpose might have been if we look back at our ancestors or closely related species, such as the great apes or monkeys. Our ear muscles, for example, don’t do much anymore, but monkeys use them to twist their ears in different directions, to pick up the sound of approaching danger sooner. Vestigial organs usually have shrunk and/or atrophied: they’re there, but unable to do anything anymore. When it comes to the appendix, however, it appears that apes and humans have a larger and better developed one than monkeys – which suggests that the appendix must be doing something useful.

Most people never get appendicitis, but 6% do, and that’s a lot of people. Of those who do get it, 50% survive it without an operation. Because it’s so common, appendectomy is now routine surgery. So without any medical help, 1 in every 32 people would be wiped out by appendicitis. If it was that dangerous an organ that doesn’t appear to serve any particular purpose, you would expect that over millennia evolution would have made us lose it, not promote it.

It wasn’t until 2005 that it crossed one American scientist’s mind, that perhaps the appendix was a reservoir for bacteria! In order to come up with this idea, there first had to have been knowledge of the gut flora and immunity. The appendix is filled with bacteria, antibodies and lymphatic tissue. Why?

We have more of the same all along the gut, but if we a struck down with infection and disease that causes severe diarrhoea, e. g. cholera, we will lose our gut flora and antibody protection in a very short space of time. Add to that these days enema before colonoscopy or antibiotic treatments. We’ll end up with a very clean gut indeed! But as we now know that is not a very good way to be.

The appendix appears to provide a save haven for bacteria during any such attack, and it is from here that bacteria emerge to recolonise the gut once the threat has passed. So, while we can live without an appendix, there is great benefit in having one. And by the way: appendicitis is another disease that is extremely rare in developing countries. Could the fact that we are so prone to it also have something to do with our Western lifestyle?

For further reading: Rob Dunn - The Wild Life of our Bodies, Harper Perennial, 2011.