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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 20th February 2012

Ahead of the release of the UK government’s strategy for dealing with the problems caused by alcohol, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has begun speaking about alcohol and suggesting ways that potentially harmful drinking could be countered.

As we know from the situation with illegal substances, no amount of legal force will change the way people use alcohol. What’s required is a change of attitude and I’ve been thinking about how attitudes are formed and whether they can be changed.

My local swimming pool has a large room, built as part of a recent refurbishment project, that is used for a variety of activities like yoga, martial arts, country dance classes for young people and other community events. Recently, it has also become host to a weekly Weight Watchers meeting. The town where the pool is sited has a population of around 3,000 with, probably, another one thousand in surrounding villages who look to the town for services. What I find surprising is that, out of the 4,000 population a full 1%, 40 people, are attending those Weight Watchers sessions.

And that is not the only weight reducing activity in the town. There is another communal weight reduction session of some kind and the local pharmacist, who started an NHS supported weight and lifestyle advice service, has ‘full’ written across the sign in the window advertising the programme.

My point is that, though we know there can be problems arising from over-sensitivity about body image, there is an attitude about weight that makes a good many people want to reduce their own. In the past, there have been anti-binge drinking advertising campaigns based on how bad one looks when drunk but they haven’t created a widespread attitude that being drunk is undesirable. If people want to lose weight in order to, perhaps, look better on the beach how can we get them to want to not look stupid staggering around drunk?

Talking of losing weight, I’m troubled by the way some recent research has been reported. The NHS Choices website does its usual excellent job of looking at how robust a piece of research is and what it actually means. In this case, it was work suggesting that switching from sugar-sweetened drinks to water, or low calorie drinks, would help weight loss.

NHS Choices points out that the differences measured were not statistically significant and mentions, without comment, that the work was paid for by a bottled water manufacturer. It also gives a number of reasons why the research, conducted in the USA with most participants being black middle-aged women, may not have any relevance in the UK.

That, however, didn’t stop the UK press going for powerful headlines that don’t reflect the science. The Daily Express said ‘Water ‘Helps You Lose Weight’’ and Metro was more specific going with ‘Drinking water can help dieters lose at least five per cent of their bodyweight’

My concern about this type of reporting is that it could lead people to assume that the more water they drink, the more weight they will lose. And the belief that drinking lots of water is good for you can be fatally flawed.

The most famous death originally attributed to ecstasy occurred when Leah Betts misunderstood the advice about avoiding dehydration when using the drug and consumed seven litres of water in a matter of a few hours.