THE HU­MAN GUINEA PIG

Cather­ine Woulfe talks to Michael Mosley, the doc­tor who has brought health and science to main­stream TV, of­ten putting him­self un­der the mi­cro­scope in the name of re­search

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Cather­ine Woulfe talks to Michael Mosley, the doc­tor who has brought health and science to main­stream TV, of­ten putting him­self un­der the mi­cro­scope in the name of re­search

Cross­ing your legs is not go­ing to make vari­cose veins worse. The ap­pen­dix does have a rai­son d’etre: it’s a reser­voir for “good” bac­te­ria. Po­ta­toes and pasta will spike your blood sugar some­thing ter­ri­ble but stick them in the fridge overnight, re­heat them and they ba­si­cally be­come su­per­foods. (In my head this def­i­nitely ex­tends to re­heat­ing KFC fries.)

I know these things to be true be­cause Michael Mosley, broad­caster, au­thor and or­a­cle, says it is so. The man is de­lighted by science, driven by it. He has made him­self its con­duit.

“I see my­self as an enzyme,” he tells me. “An ac­cel­er­ant. A cat­a­lyst.”

For 30 years — af­ter bail­ing out of bank­ing, then med­i­cal school, to join the BBC — the Brit has been boil­ing down the best of med­i­cal science into au­thor­i­ta­tive, snack­able con­tent.

He likes to play guinea pig: he has swal­lowed

tape­worm eggs for the cam­eras, taken truth serum and LSD, watched an agar model of his own body be over­taken by su­per­bugs. He’s re­spon­si­ble for dozens of doc­u­men­taries and a clutch of best­selling books; screeds of in­ter­views given and col­umns writ­ten. Net ef­fect: an aw­ful lot of good. His 1995 doco Ul­cer Wars cov­ered a find­ing about stom­ach ul­cers that would go on to win the No­bel Prize. At the time it was thought the con­di­tion was caused by stress, and it was of­ten “treated” by re­mov­ing part of the stom­ach. But Aus­tralian sci­en­tists put the blame squarely on a bac­terium — and found a cure could be as sim­ple as a course of an­tibi­otics. The show prompted a sea change in treat­ment. Now, Mosley reck­ons he’s topped that. He was di­ag­nosed with the Type 2 form of di­a­betes six years ago, back when it was con­sid­ered an un­stop­pable, Ti­tanic sort of disease: once on the col­li­sion course, pa­tients faced a cas­cade of dev­as­tat­ing health prob­lems — and a tragic end­ing. Front of Mosley’s mind was his late fa­ther; di­ag­nosed at about the same age, dead at 72. Mosley threw him­self into re­search and then into a par­tic­u­lar sort of crash diet that hinged on in­ter­mit­tent fast­ing. Stun­ningly, his con­di­tion re­versed. He’d turned the Ti­tanic.

Then he turned it into great telly, of course, and fol­lowed up with two books — The Fast

Diet and The 8-Week Blood Sugar Diet — that sold their socks off and that some doc­tors now pre­scribe to their pa­tients.

“I think that gen­uinely has changed the world of Type 2 di­a­betes and pre-di­a­betes,” he tells me. “I hope so.”

Hold that thought.

WE MET a few months ago when Mosley was in Auck­land to pro­mote a new book, The Clever

Guts Diet, which fo­cuses on the won­ders of the mi­cro­biome — the bac­te­ria in our guts. Now, his myth-bust­ing se­ries, Trust Me, I’m a Doc­tor, is now about to land on BBC Earth.

I have 50 min­utes. I have a list of re­ally great ques­tions. And I have a mi­graine that has dropped a shim­mer­ing cur­tain across my eyes. So I ditch my list, and lis­ten. The ac­cent is posh — he was born in Kolkata, ed­u­cated at Ox­ford. He sounds like Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall. Thirty years of telly have drilled home the habit of never say­ing “um”. “Aaaaah,” he’ll say, on the odd oc­ca­sion he’s asked some­thing he ac­tu­ally has to think about. “Er­rrr ...”

When he’s re­ally hit­ting his stride, he’ll bust out a rolled r, Kim Hill-style. In his writ­ing, on TV, in per­son, he exudes con­fi­dence and quiet faith.

“Yes,” he agrees. “And I end­lessly ques­tion it at the same time.”

As it turns out, the or­a­cle is a fret­ter, a dou­ble-triple-checker. He lies awake at night won­der­ing if he’s got things right.

“I pre­tend to be quite chilled, but I’m not,” he says. “If I’ve writ­ten an ar­ti­cle I worry about whether it was ac­cu­rate. If some­body con­tacts me and says, ‘I [fol­lowed your ad­vice] and I be­came quite ill,’ I worry about that.”

He was in a “real state of ter­ror”, he says, while writ­ing The Fast Diet.

“It was very con­tro­ver­sial at the time and there were limited stud­ies, and I was say­ing some­thing which frankly very few peo­ple had said be­fore.”

Put your­self in the woo-woo box and you’ll never get out, I say. “Ab­so­lutely.” A cou­ple of years later The 8-Week Blood

Sugar Diet was about to hit shelves and he was barely sleep­ing. This book was more specif­i­cally aimed at peo­ple fac­ing di­a­betes. The big study he hung it off was only half­way done; at the 11th hour he took its ar­chi­tect, Pro­fes­sor Roy Tay­lor, out for a drink. “I said, ‘Tell me. Has it been an ut­ter dis­as­ter, am I go­ing to have to pulp ev­ery edi­tion?’ He said, ‘No, it’s been bril­liant.”’ Breathe out. He says he’s never been suc­cess­fully sued, or had to re­tract any­thing of sig­nif­i­cance.

Yet some of what Mosley says — the science he con­veys — is hard to hear. He wor­ries about that, too.

He’s fairly mil­i­tant on ris­ing rates of Cae­sarean sec­tion, for ex­am­ple. He tells me we’re ap­proach­ing bull­dog sta­tus: the dogs have been bred in such a way that they’re now un­able to give birth vagi­nally.

“[Hu­mans] are ac­tu­ally mov­ing to that point, where we are de­liv­er­ing such fat ba­bies that they have to be de­liv­ered by C-sec­tion.”

Fur­ther, in Clever Guts, he sets out how science is link­ing C-sec­tions to higher life­time risks of al­ler­gies, Type 1 di­a­betes, asthma, eczema and obe­sity. The prob­lem, it’s sug­gested, is that baby’s mi­cro­biome gets off to a bad start, be­cause baby doesn’t get a gulp of the mother’s bac­te­ria on the way out.

I’ve had a C-sec­tion, I say, and my boy has asthma and eczema. I felt that like a body blow.

“In­deed ... I won­der some­times when I write things, whether I should write things.”

He al­ways comes down on: yes. Be­cause, he ar­gues, he doesn’t just de­liver bad news — he tells us how to do some­thing about it.

Mums can breast­feed to build up baby’s mi­cro­biome, for ex­am­ple. Or they might re­quest that a vagi­nal swab, swarm­ing with lovely bac­te­ria, be wiped over baby soon af­ter birth. When they’re wasted on mor­phine due to baby hav­ing just been hauled out of a wound in their ab­domen, I think to my­self. Also, not all mums can breast­feed.

I agree with him: knowl­edge is power. But if you can’t act on it, well then it just makes you feel shitty.

This is one area where Mosley seems to have a cer­tain cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. He be­lieves his di­ets and fasts and myr­iad tips — short sharp bursts of ex­er­cise, sleep more, cut down on stress, et cetera — are widely ac­ces­si­ble.

He vol­un­teers: “You’ve got this idea that it’s re­ally just a mid­dle class thing,” then coun­ters with the ex­pe­ri­ences of his wife and pro­fes­sional side­kick, Clare Bai­ley. She works as a GP in a de­prived area, yet many of her pa­tients see the sense in his rec­om­men­da­tions, he says, and suc­cess­fully put them into prac­tice.

I don’t push him on this. I should have, be­cause that’s ... not good ev­i­dence.

AC­CORD­ING TO Mosley the ideal diet would be sans sugar, sim­ple carbs, sweet­en­ers and all pro­cessed foods. Read: the cheap stuff. What to eat in­stead? A Mediter­ranean diet of fresh non-starchy vege, nuts, oily fish, high-qual­ity olive oil, eggs, dark choco­late, red wine. Top it up with fer­mented foods — ke­fir, kom­bucha, yo­ghurt, kim­chi. Add ap­ple cider vine­gar and co­conut oil to the shop­ping list, too.

Pic­ture the re­ceipts and then pic­ture a fam­ily try­ing to stretch $80 for food across a week.

I see my­self as an enzyme. An ac­cel­er­ant. A cat­a­lyst. Michael Mosley

Where the par­ents work shifts, come home knack­ered and stressed, and cook din­ner with a hun­gry child hang­ing off them.

Even if olive oil and salmon rained down like manna, the plan­ning and prepa­ra­tion — not to men­tion sheer bloody willpower — in­volved in a diet over­haul is sig­nif­i­cant. It’s be­yond me right now, and I have re­sources and time, fancy oils in the pantry and a gar­den full of kale.

Mosley urges me to do an ex­clu­sion diet to try to get rid of the mi­graines. Per Clever Guts that would mean weeks of no gluten, no sugar or pro­cessed stuff, min­i­mal dairy, no pulses.

“You sound un­con­vinced,” he says, when I de­mur. I’m con­vinced that it’s prob­a­bly a good thing to do, I say, but it just seems a bit daunt­ing. “No, quite. Pri­or­i­ties.” The thing is, of course, it’s the peo­ple who would ben­e­fit most from Mosley’s ad­vice who are least able to fol­low it. Obe­sity and Type 2 di­a­betes are ram­pant in New Zealand — a quar­ter of a mil­lion Ki­wis have di­a­betes, and one in four of us are headed that way — and if you look at the graphs, di­ag­no­sis rates rise along with de­pri­va­tion. It’s the same story for anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion, and heart disease, af­flic­tions known to be re­lated to weight and diet.

That night I scan the room at a lec­ture and book sign­ing Mosley’s hold­ing at the Eller­slie Events Cen­tre. I see man­i­cures, warm coats, newish cars. Peo­ple who are able to pay for babysit­ters, for petrol.

It’s clear that putting the onus on the in­di­vid­ual can only change things so far. And on this Mosley’s ab­so­lutely with me. Out­dated ad­vice and pub­lic health mes­sag­ing makes him truly, vis­i­bly an­gry.

“High on my list of re­ally stupid mes­sages is ‘eat lots of small meals’, which is the worst pos­si­ble ad­vice ever, yet I heard a di­eti­tian giv­ing it the other day. Stupid. Stupid. The idea that you should keep your blood sug­ars con­stantly topped up is the world’s worst, stu­pid­est ad­vice …

“You say to [over­weight] peo­ple, ‘Eat less and do more ex­er­cise.’ That’s kind of like go­ing along to your ten­nis coach and they say, ‘Hit the ball very hard and earn lots of points.’ It’s just fu­tile as a mes­sage. It just doesn’t bloody work ... I just want to slap the peo­ple who say it.”

I men­tion the menus of hos­pi­tals and rest homes: scones, mashed potato, juice. He sighs.

“It just makes you go bonkers.”

AND YET. That thought you’ve been hold­ing? About the fu­ture of di­a­betes? Some re­ally quite gob­s­mack­ing news landed last month, well af­ter our in­ter­view.

The UKs Na­tional Health Ser­vice is about to start pre­scrib­ing di­a­bet­ics a for-the-masses ver­sion of Mosley’s rapid weight-loss diet. Pa­tients will spend five months on spe­cial shakes and soups, drop­ping their daily calo­rie in­take from up around the 3000 range to the 810-850 bracket. In a trial run by Roy Tay­lor and funded by Di­a­betes UK, half of 300 di­a­bet­ics on the diet went into re­mis­sion.

“It has been a great week for those of us who have been ar­gu­ing for years that it is pos­si­ble to halt the epi­demic of Type 2 di­a­betes,” Mosley wrote in a Daily Mail col­umn. He added that he hopes this is the start of a rev­o­lu­tion. And he wrote about his wife.

He’s been con­cerned for years that in go­ing out on a limb and pre­scrib­ing di­ets, rather than med­i­ca­tion, to di­a­bet­ics, Bai­ley was leav­ing her­self vul­ner­a­ble. If any­thing went wrong her ac­tions would be mea­sured against the sta­tus quo — not the best new science. Now, Bai­ley and doc­tors like her are pro­tected. Again, breathe out.

She pro­vides many of the recipes in Mosley’s books; fields the more prag­matic, spe­cific ques­tions on tours; frog­marches him past pas­try shops when he wants to stuff him­self with buns. She’s set up a fer­ment­ing sta­tion on the bench at home.

She has heard his favourite anec­dote about their mar­riage 84,000 times but still laughs qui­etly when he rolls it out in pub­lic. Here it is: the dean at their med­i­cal school looked at the class of 100 stu­dents and de­creed that sta­tis­ti­cally, four of them would marry. And so it was. Maths: one. Ro­mance: none.

Mosley’s bury­ing the truth. Here’s the pro­posal story, which he doesn’t of­ten tell.

Af­ter they’d been to­gether a while, Bai­ley went to work with Save the Chil­dren, in the Ama­zon. Sev­eral months in, Mosley was get­ting twitchy. He de­cided to join her. Couldn’t call first — no way of get­ting in touch — so he flew the long-haul to Lima, then on to Pu­callpa, where he hopped on a mail plane stop­ping in the spot Bai­ley was meant to be. Imag­ine our in­trepid suitor: ex­hausted, bleary, hope­ful ... bug­ger.

“She wasn’t there. She was some­where up the Ama­zon. They sort of vaguely pointed — ‘that way’ — so I hired a guy with a ca­noe and we spent a few days trundling up the Ama­zon.

“Any­way, so we ar­rived, and the sun was set­ting, and I was so pleased to see her I pro­posed on the spot. On a grassy knoll, up the Ama­zon.”

The pair mar­ried in Lon­don in 1987. Mosley has said that it’s Bai­ley who taught him about emo­tional re­la­tion­ships — that he be­came alien­ated from his par­ents when they packed him off to board­ing school aged 8.

HOW DID he jug­gle par­ent­ing his own four chil­dren with such a con­sum­ing ca­reer? He held the fort at home for nine months when the kids were young, he says, so that Bai­ley could fin­ish

I’m quite happy, in my death, to be tele­vised and for [view­ers] to watch my body de­cay, rot ... I don’t give a damn af­ter I’m dead. I think it’d be quite fun.

med­i­cal school. And he stepped side­ways at the BBC, from di­rect­ing to ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ing, which cut right back on travel. “Clare has done the bulk of it, to be hon­est.” The nest is nearly empty. Their youngest, Kate, is in her late teens. She re­cently dis­cov­ered she was gluten-in­tol­er­ant and, un­der Dad’s guid­ance, phased it out of her diet.

“Her symp­toms had pre­vi­ously been mood­i­ness, bloat­ing, re­ally bad headaches. When she came off gluten, ev­ery­thing went. Her mood im­proved enor­mously, no pain, noth­ing. And oc­ca­sion­ally we have ac­ci­den­tally slipped gluten into her diet by get­ting the wrong sort of soy sauce and im­me­di­ately it comes back.”

He last saw Kate a few days ago when she FaceTimed him from some­where in Viet­nam, or maybe Thai­land. She’d been glutened. She was vom­it­ing into a bucket. Pag­ing Dr Dad.

Up next?

When we talked, Mosley was work­ing on a two-part TV se­ries about what hap­pens af­ter death. As in, what hap­pens to the body, and all those bac­te­ria. (Af­ter read­ing Clever Guts I’m bet­ting on some­thing like the Natalie Port­man sci-fi An­ni­hi­la­tion, in which hu­man bod­ies dis­solve into clouds of alien mi­crobes).

He’s made two other doc­u­men­taries that in­volved film­ing a per­son dy­ing. Took ages, and un­be­liev­ably ex­pen­sive, he says. He says things like that. Jour­nal­ists, eh?

“[These shows are] al­ways in­tensely mov­ing, but the big­gest pain is that you get these vol­un­teers — you get some­body pre­pared to be filmed dy­ing — and then you come along with a cam­era and they live for an­other six months be­cause they’ve got a new lease of life.”*

He’s 61. What will get him in the end? For once, the or­a­cle pauses be­fore an­swer­ing. He stalls, pulling words from his mouth like gum.

“Iiii ... sus­pect it’ll be can­cer. I’m rea­son­ably, er­rrrr, con­fi­dent it’s not go­ing to be heart disease. It might be get­ting run over by a bus, or … I would love to think it’s go­ing to be paraglid­ing, arhhh, but arhhh ... I sus­pect it’ll be can­cer. Can­cer is ju­u­u­ust, a lot­tery.” Death of the guinea pig. Will it be tele­vised? He laughs. Re­laxes. His fam­ily would get the cast­ing vote, of course.

“I’m quite happy, in my death, to be tele­vised and for [view­ers] to watch my body de­cay, rot ... I don’t give a damn af­ter I’m dead. I think it’d be quite fun.”

* As I fin­ished writ­ing, Mosley tweeted that work on the se­ries was “sadly some­what stalled for rea­sons out­side our con­trol. You can imag­ine the sen­si­tiv­i­ties.”

TRUST ME, I’M A DOC­TOR PRE­MIERES ON BBC EARTH, WED­NES­DAYS FROM OC­TO­BER 2, 8.30PM, SKY CHAN­NEL 74.

Michael Mosley.

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