myth busters

Want to know how to live a long and healthy life? In this ex­tract from The Longevity List, Pro­fes­sor Mer­lin Thomas myth-busts the top five things to do.

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what should be on our longevity list for a longer health­ier life? Do we re­ally have to give up the choco­late and cof­fee we so en­joy? Af­ter we have cut out all the starch, fat and added sugar, what will we have left to eat? If you want to know the an­swers to these big ques­tions and more, in The Longevity List Pro­fes­sor Mer­lin Thomas uses the lat­est sci­en­tific re­search to help you un­der­stand what the fuss about some things is re­ally all about, and how easy choices can im­prove your health and your chance of liv­ing a long life.

1 Do I re­ally have to cut out choco­late?

Why is it that when we think about all the things we might have to do away with to im­prove our health, our choco­late fix is al­ways first on the chop­ping block? Choco­late de­liv­ers a po­tent drug called theo­bromine. Its chem­istry is about 98 per cent the same as caf­feine, so it has a sim­i­lar ‘pick-me-up’ ef­fect on our brain to a cup of tea or cof­fee, help­ing us to fo­cus, lift­ing our mood and cre­at­ing a sense of op­ti­mism. High lev­els of theo­bromine are only found in prod­ucts made from co­coa pow­der, with much smaller amounts in the fat-rich co­coa but­ter. Reg­u­lar milk choco­late has smaller amounts of theo­bromine than dark choco­late, as it is made of al­most four times less co­coa pow­der. the bot­tom line It’s not un­healthy to love choco­late, but only in mod­er­a­tion. In the con­text of a healthy diet, the best way to eat less is to thor­oughly en­joy when we do it. So don’t give up choco­late. Just buy the pure, good stuff (which is more ex­pen­sive so you’ll eat less of it any­way) and thor­oughly en­joy it!

2 Do I re­ally have to cut down on the caf­feine?

Cof­fee and tea are many things for many peo­ple. But first and fore­most they are drug mules, de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles for a chemical stim­u­lant known as caf­feine. Caf­feine does noth­ing for the flavour or aroma of tea or cof­fee, but af­ter we drink it, it quickly en­ters our brain and blocks the re­cep­tors that are re­spon­si­ble for dulling brain ac­tiv­ity, so we feel a sense of in­vig­o­ra­tion and sub­tle eu­pho­ria. This is known as the cof­fee buzz. Given the acute ef­fects of caf­feine on our brain, it is hardly a won­der that tea and cof­fee are widely viewed as vi­tal ton­ics. But the long-term ef­fects of caf­feine also ap­pear to be sur­pris­ingly pos­i­tive for hu­man health. Some stud­ies sug­gest that peo­ple who drink tea and cof­fee have a slightly lower risk of dis­eases that might kill them, in­clud­ing the usual sus­pects like heart dis­ease, stroke, di­a­betes, some can­cers and de­men­tia. Not by a lot, but still enough to add up. the bot­tom line

Cof­fee and tea might seem to be some of life’s lux­u­ries, but that doesn’t mean we have to give them up in the aus­tere pur­suit of good health and a long life. A reg­u­lar in­take is quite safe. Caf­feine im­proves mood and helps us con­cen­trate when our brain is dulled. At best, the ef­fect on our health is not enough to war­rant tak­ing it up if we don’t like it. But if we do, all the bet­ter to en­joy it.

3 Do I re­ally have to eat less fat?

The fat in our food has a bad name. And for good rea­son. More than any other com­po­nent in our diet, fat is the arch­en­emy of our waist­lines and, con­se­quently, our health. Whether it’s sat­u­rated, mono- or polyun­sat­u­rated, fat pro­vides en­ergy for our me­tab­o­lism. All fat will make us fat­ter if we eat too much of it rel­a­tive to our level of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity. So whether one kind of fat or an­other is a di­etary hero or vil­lain comes down to whether it has any other ef­fects be­yond its im­pact on calo­rie balance.

the bot­tom line Ob­vi­ously, eat­ing too much fat read­ily adds to our calo­rie count. So cut­ting out un­nec­es­sary fat is one sim­ple way to cut calo­ries as well. Most of the sat­u­rated fat in our diet comes from meat and dairy. So if we can make a habit of only eat­ing the lean meat or sub­sti­tut­ing an amount of some­thing else that doesn’t have the fat (such as legumes for mince), we lose noth­ing ex­cept for calo­ries. Most of the un­sat­u­rated fat in our diet (as well as a quar­ter of the sat­u­rated fat) comes from oils and spreads, which to­gether con­trib­ute as many calo­ries to our waist­lines as all of the sat­u­rated fat we cur­rently eat. It is pos­si­ble to cook with­out oil, or at the very least, with less oil. This means fewer calo­ries, not less food.

4 Do I re­ally have to eat less added sugar?

Sugar seems like the new pariah of mod­ern di­ets: pure, white and deadly. The mere act of adding 2 tea­spoons of sugar to a cup of cof­fee nowa­days is al­most as hereti­cal as light­ing up a cig­a­rette or or­der­ing a soft drink with our meal. And just like with ci­garettes and soft drinks, there are calls for taxes to dis­suade con­sumers cor­rupted by their ad­dic­tive plea­sures. But the same ‘toxic’ sug­ars found in a can of soft drink are also nat­u­rally found in fruit. One large ba­nana or one apple con­tains as much sugar as 2 cans of soft drink. Yet no one com­plains about ap­ples or tries to ban them from schools. So it can’t just be added sugar that’s caus­ing all the prob­lems. It cer­tainly adds to our woes, but we are get­ting fat­ter not be­cause we eat too much added sugar, but be­cause we just eat too much. The big­gest prob­lem with added sugar is not so much what it adds, but what it doesn’t. Sugar on its own be­haves dif­fer­ently when it is part of an apple than when it is found in a soda can – not be­cause the sugar is dif­fer­ent, but be­cause the apple also has fi­bre, re­sis­tant starch and other phy­tonu­tri­ents. When over 10 per cent of all the calo­ries in a diet come from added sugar, you’re never going to be get­ting enough of the im­por­tant things. the bot­tom line Just tak­ing away all the added sugar is not the so­lu­tion, how­ever. It makes a diet less flavour­some and less re­ward­ing. Reg­u­larly eat­ing a fresh, flavour­some diet makes added sugar su­per­flu­ous. Sugar then need only be added for spe­cial oc­ca­sions, when it can be hap­pily en­joyed with­out guilt.

5 Do I re­ally have to cut out the starch?

For most peo­ple, starchy foods are their ma­jor sin­gle source of sugar (car­bo­hy­drate) and there­fore their ma­jor sin­gle source of calo­ries. For this rea­son, starchy foods are widely vil­i­fied. When most peo­ple think about going on a diet, af­ter cut­ting out the fat and sweet things, starchy foods are usu­ally next on the list. Some­times higher. In re­cent years, low-starch (ie, low-carb) di­ets have be­come very pop­u­lar. The big prob­lem is that, over the long term, re­mov­ing foods that are rich in car­bo­hy­drate from our diet means we don’t eat widely across all the food groups. And can also mean we eat too much fat in­stead. If we are not care­ful, tak­ing away the starch in any low-carb diet can also some­times mean not get­ting enough of the other things, in­clud­ing fi­bre and re­sis­tant starch, min­er­als and vi­ta­mins like fo­late. the bot­tom line

Starchy foods like bread, ce­re­als, rice or pota­toes are more than just the sum of their sug­ars or their calo­ries. Make no mis­take, sug­ars and calo­ries count in re­gards to our waist­line and our health. And while aban­don­ing these foods by going low-carb or low-gi can have an im­me­di­ate and ob­vi­ous ef­fect, in the long term they are no bet­ter than other meth­ods for weight con­trol. At the same time, if we aren’t eat­ing enough veg­eta­bles (which, let’s face it, we aren’t), our ma­jor source of re­sis­tant starch and fi­bre is the starchy grains we are plan­ning to give up. The ob­vi­ous so­lu­tion is to com­pro­mise. Eat a lit­tle bread, but maximise its fi­bre. Eat rice and pasta, but maximise their re­sis­tant starch. Eat more beans, nuts and whole­grain ce­re­als.

The Longevity List by Pro­fes­sor Mer­lin Thomas (Ex­isle Pub­lish­ing, $34.99) is avail­able now from good book­stores.

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