The headline that cried wolf

Oversimplification of research and inaccuracies in the detail often lead to very misleading messages. Certainly when it comes to early research developments (particularly those that show interesting findings from animal studies), there seem to be immediate extrapolations to potential life changing effects on human beings, just for the shock factor. Or perhaps it’s naivety but we simply can’t do this and as much as scientists might like to be able to predict the future, there often isn’t nearly enough evidence to  make any clear conclusions.

The problem is when the majority of pieces in the media are of this nature, the serious headlines and the accurate information gets lost or ignored. With the rise of social media, it’s also the non-expert views and non-evidence based claims that are equally damaging. So it has got to the point where the general public won’t take any health messages seriously.

When you read the public comments made in relation to such stories, they are often cynical, complain of constantly changing advice and of living in a nanny state.  I have read such comments on articles that I have contributed to (yes I did go to school and get a Degree and no I don’t have a big nose) and particularly regarding some of the celebrity ‘advice’ that seems to be so much more valid than a health professional’s (?!)

Here are just a few that caught my eye:

In other words, the previous food related health recommendations which were good for 15 minutes were replaced to some extent by competing food related health recommendations which will be considered provisionally useful for another 15 minutes until in turn replaced by contradictory food related health recommendations which may serve for yet another 15 minutes until they themselves are contradicted and superseded. And so on.

To be honest I tend to agree here! With diet and health being such popular subjects and the field of nutrition developing at a rate of knots, there are numerous new stories every day that have some connection with food. It becomes a competition to see who gets the ‘latest developments’ and get the most ‘likes’ ‘shares’ or comments. I read the above comment with amusement but the serious side to this is how on Earth are the public to know who or what to listen to when we are being told left, right and centre what to do? If everyone does switch off, then what hope have professionals got to help people change their health behaviours for the better?

Then there is the issue that people become misinformed and confused. This leads to incorrect understanding of the effects our lifestyle choices can have on our health:

The only thing starches are good for is some B-vitamins, which can be gotten elsewhere.

Wheat is not healthy, oats, rice, barley are fine in moderation.

The fat in butter (and meat, and everything) is good for you, it is what all predators need in their diet, but dairy is irrelevant, it not good for you.

Yes these statements are all wrong! (I’m not going into that can of worms here however!)

Then if we aren’t confused or misunderstood, we take the messages personally (regarding the new NICE guidelines on maintaining a health weight that were sold as children should NEVER be given sweets, say new NHS guidelines):

I think the only thing that needs to stop is the government, NHS and schools dictating to us how to raise OUR OWN KIDS!! 

Why don’t we get together and suggest what the NHS should be doing, such as saving lives, doing their jobs and reading about the freedom of choice act!

And of course there is always going to be the exception to the rule:

My husband has slept naked his whole life (33years) from the age of 25 he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (in relation to the sleeping naked could cut your risk of diabetes headline) 

My kids have sweets every day and they’re not overweight and have all their teeth! They eat really well. (Not that this says anything about their future health)

My worry is that if the media continue to Cry wolf then, like the fairy story, no one will listen to the real advice that is designed to improve our health and potentially save lives. NHS Choices have a great section on their website called ‘Behind the headlines’ Here they go through the headlines, summarise and critique the research before telling you if you need to take any notice of the story.  More often than not, you don’t! Why not take a look here

For any dietary advice, always check it is coming from a reputable professional; a professional organisation, registered nutritionist or registered dietitian.It is also so important that health professionals keep doing their bit and continue  promoting evidence based information and advice. To be honest, it is our professional responsibility to ‘keep going on’ and funnily enough Dr Susan Jebb has written a piece for BBC News called Why not nanny people about healthy diet? today. 

Lastly I’ll leave you with this comment that really made me chuckle 🙂

My dad had porridge every morning and was having sex at 84… mind you we lived at number 27.

Cut the Confectionery at the Checkout

For over 20 years, supermarkets have been criticised for displaying sweets , confectionary and other sugary items at their checkouts. Back in 1994, TESCO was the first British supermarket to remove sweets and chocolates from checkouts at larger stores but it took 21 years for them to agree to remove them from ALL their smaller stores, i.e. TESCO Express. As of January 1st this year, they have finally done this, Hurray! Definitely a case of better late than never, so well done TESCO for finally stepping up to the plate!

Although you might expect it to be, this decision was not one of those ‘lightbulb’ moments; TESCO conducted some research which revealed 65% of their shoppers wanted confectionery removed from checkouts to help them make healthier choices. 67% said it would help them choose healthier options for their children. Obviously they made the right evidence based decision.

In 2013 the Co-op banned displays of high fat, sugar or salt products from their checkouts and kiosks. Sainsbury’s now has a policy of no sweets or chocolate next to checkouts in its supermarkets (as do Waitrose), but not in the smaller Sainsbury’s Local stores. Why is this? If you make a decision to do something, just do it! You can’t give with one hand and take it away with the other.  To me this shouts a half-hearted commitment, where they prioritise profits over customer health. Are the customers who shop at the local stores more health conscious and able to resist persistent pest power from their children? I think not. 2013 was also the year Asda, Morrisons and Iceland were named the “worst offenders” for selling junk food at checkouts.

Back to some more good news. Like TESCO, Lidl also carried out some research (in 2013). Not that dissimilar to TESCO, Lidl’s showed that 7 out of their 10 customers would choose a sweet-free checkout over the traditional one laden with chocolate bars. It also showed 68% of parents said they were pestered by their children for chocolate at the checkout, and 66% gave in some or all of the time. So in January 2014, Lidl committed to clearing out the junk and offering healthy snack instead. Well done Lidl, great stuff!

Finally, Aldi joined the good guys this very month (January 2015) and have also committed to this campaign to clear out the junk from checkouts. So we are making progress, albeit pretty slow at times but it’s positive. We can do so much better though!

We are in the midst of a growing obesity epidemic; poor diet is to blame for overweight and obesity, tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cancers…….I could go on. As a nation we should be reducing unnecessary sugar, saturated fat, salt and calories from our diet and one of the ways to help us do this is for supermarkets to help curb our impulse buys. You know the ones – standing in a queue, twiddling your thumbs as they check a price for the customer in front. The 3 for 2 chunky Kit Kats or £1 bags of liquorice allsorts suddenly seem so necessary and such good value too, they effortlessly land onto the conveyor belt. These impulse buys at the checkout can add several hundred unplanned calories to a family shopping basket.

When it comes to the checkout, these unhealthy products are cunningly positioned around 1m from the ground  – perfectly and very conveniently placed at eye level of a young child. Sheffield University did some research a few years ago and found no less than 90% of the products children saw, as their parents queued to pay were unhealthy!

Many supermarkets have signed up to the Government’s voluntary Responsibility Deal where they have pledged to help customers make healthier choices. They have committed to making some of their ranges lower in sugar, fat and salt . They have made more space for fruit and veg to help us reach our 5 a-day target, so what’s with all the checkout junk?!

Yes, we the public have freedom of choice but the supermarkets who are trailing behind on this matter are undermining all the efforts anyone is making who want to follow a healthier diet, particularly when it comes to our children.  I really don’t want to hear that the parent is the person who ultimately decides what a child chooses and the parent can always say ‘No’. For anyone that has taken their child shopping and encountered the relentless pestering and lie-on-the-floor-screaming-tantrums as we try to unload, pack up and pay for the shopping, will appreciate how the shopping experience can become impossible. Rather than blame and judge the parents (or grandparents etc) for this disruptive behaviour (yes I have seen the stares, eye rolling, tutting and suggestions as to why my son is creating such a scene), blame the shop!

So I would really like to know what excuses Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s Local, Asda, Morrisons and Iceland have which makes them refuse to take FULL responsibility. Every store needs a blanket policy. Surely there is more than enough evidence that DIET causes many of the UK’s health problems. Other stores have made the leap and it’s paying off for them. Why not promote healthy snacks like Lidl did last year instead?! Surely they employ nutritionists anyway, so it’s not even as if they need to employ someone to help them make the necessary changes. Blimey, even I could do it! It’s also not as if we are asking them to stop selling these products! Just move them to an aisle and display healthier snacks.

There was a great article published in the Guardian last August. It contained this paragraph:

Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, calls it “the walk of shame”. If you queue at an assisted checkout in M&S in Islington, you first must withstand a barricade of walnut whips (two boxes of three for only £2.50!). Then comes an onslaught of boiled sweets in nostalgic packaging, mints, magazines and batteries. Worse awaits if you wish to use a self-service checkout. You must pass through a queue management system lined with 7.5 metres of impulse buys – an obstacle course of popcorn, gummy sweets, magazines, dried fruit and “handy items” such as disposable shoe wipes. Make it through that lot, and there’s Percy Pig to greet you.

Now I will confess I have a soft spot for Percy Pigs but I don’t need them shoved in my face at every turn whilst trying to get out of the store.  If I want to buy Percy Pigs, I am pretty sure I can find them without the use of a Sat Nav.

Seriously, the Government are being too nicey nicey, the voluntary responsibility deal is not working and stores are reluctant to change. If nothing happens soon, another 20years will go by and we will have moved no further on. It really is time to get the junk off the checkouts once and for all.

I would really like to take this forward so please share this post and tweet it to your chosen store or post it on their Facebook page. Perhaps they should experience some pester power for a change.