Medical contradictions: So bad it's good for you...

Does sunbathing give us vital vitamin D – or just cause skin damage? Will alcohol increase longevity, or drive us to an early grave? Clint Witchalls unravels those medical contradictions

A few decades ago, the medical establishment told us that margarine was healthier than butter, eggs were bad – they raised cholesterol levels – and we should brush our teeth vigorously, especially after fizzy drinks. Now we know margarine is full of hydrogenated fats, the cholesterol in eggs has negligible impact on serum cholesterol levels and brushing your teeth vigorously, especially after acidic drinks, erodes tooth enamel, and your gums. Thanks to the medical advice of the 1970s, I now have furred arteries, receding gums and I missed out on many fine omelettes.

Scientists keep telling us that science isn't based on certainty. Findings are always provisional, subject to change when new evidence emerges. I find this odd because I have yet to come across a medical professional who sounds tentative and uncertain. When I had an NHS MOT, the nurse told me I was overweight and I should aim to bring my BMI down from 26 to below 25. When I told her there were several studies that found that being slightly overweight in my middle years may increase my lifespan rather than curtail it, she pooh-poohed me.

Is salt really bad for me? Do the positive effects of moderate drinking outweigh the negative? Can there be such a thing as too much sunlight if you live in soggy old England? Here are a few contemporary uncertainties.


The prevailing view is that salt causes the body to retain water, which increases blood pressure and leads to heart disease. But the May issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to contradict this. A study led by Dr Jan Staessen, of the University of Leuven in Belgium, followed 3,681 Europeans. The researchers found participants with the lowest salt intake had the highest rate of death from heart disease (4 per cent). An analysis of seven studies on salt and cardiovascular disease, published in the American Journal of Hypertension, found no strong evidence that consuming less salt reduces the risk for heart attacks and strokes in people with normal or high blood pressure. Yet there are earlier studies that contradict these studies. One, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2009 found that a high-salt diet increased the risk of stroke by 23 per cent.

Verdict: If you suffer from hypertension or heart disease, go easy on the salt.


Sometimes there are so many health pros and cons it's difficult to decide whether it's worth the risk. Drinking coffee may protect against prostate cancer, breast cancer, stroke (especially in women), type-2 diabetes, gout, cancer of the liver, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. On the other hand, it may increase your risk of having a heart attack (people who drink coffee have elevated levels of LDL cholesterol and homocysteine), it causes spikes in blood-sugar levels, it's addictive and it has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis.

I've decided I like coffee based on its taste and the buzz it gives me.

Verdict: There seem to be far more pros to drinking coffee than cons.


Everybody knows getting sunburned is bad for you. But sunlight is necessary for synthesising vitamin D and a deficiency is linked to heart disease, various cancers, multiple sclerosis and rickets. Research published in The American Journal of Nutrition showed 86 per cent of English people and 92 per cent of Scots are failing to maintain optimum levels of vitamin D.

Writing in the BMJ last month, Dr Des Spence, a GP from Glasgow, argues that current policies on sun exposure are "counterintuitive" and "bad medicine". The rise in the detection of melanoma coincides with the rise in the number of skin biopsies.

Verdict: Try to get 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure each day.

Fish oil

Omega-3 fatty acids were hailed as a super-supplement. They would stop your kids misbehaving, help to ease depression, make you smarter and prevent cataracts. There is scant evidence to support these claims. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, there is evidence from multiple studies that fish oil "lowers triglycerides, reduces the risk of death, heart attack, dangerous abnormal heart rhythms and strokes in people with known cardiovascular disease". But a study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, found a link between a high intake of omega-3 fats and an increased risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer.

Verdict: If heart disease runs in your family, taking a daily supplement of fish oil may be a wise thing.


Hendrikje van Andel-Schipper of the Netherlands lived to 115. She put her longevity down to a pig fat and vodka. Research published in PLoS Medicine earlier this month found that women who drink in moderation are far more likely to reach 70 in good health than heavy drinkers or teetotallers.

Another study, published this month in Atherosclerosis, found that daily moderate drinking – two drinks a day, seven days a week – decreased atherosclerosis in mice. If only the story ended there. Unfortunately, alcohol is also implicated in cancer. In the body, alcohol is converted into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde, which can damage DNA.

Verdict: There are many health benefits associated with moderate alcohol consumption. The problem is, one glass of red wine a night can easily become two or three.

Fruit juice

A study found that drinking one glass of orange juice a day can increase a person's risk of getting type-2 diabetes by 18 per cent. And the Eastman Institute for Oral Health published a report in 2009 saying that orange juice is more damaging to teeth than over-the-counter whitening products. "The acid is so strong that the tooth is literally washed away," Yan Fang Ren, the leader of the study, says. But researchers at California Davis found that drinking 100 per cent juice reduced the risk for several chronic diseases, including cancer.

Verdict: Water is for drinking. Fruit is for eating.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea