THE BLOG

Who's Afraid Of Roast Dinners?

03/02/2017 11:21 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 11:21 GMT

As a GP I'll often have patients coming into the surgery talking about a new health risk they've come across and ask to be tested. They might be overweight or smoking 20 a day, but it's the new test they're demanding.

The advice from the Food Standards Agency about the link between cancer and overdone toast or roast potatoes is an example of an attention-grabbing story that's got the potential to be misleading. How long before I'm asked about testing for acrylamide levels?

News stories about what's good or bad for us are always going to stick in the mind. We're going to share them with our friends, they're so relevant and appealingly everyday, perfect for social media posting. The problem is that bits and pieces of research evidence about food like

this, which might vary in terms of their quality and their source, are blown up into a health scare or else a story of a new superfood, when the reality is so much more complex.

In this case, the FSA advice is a sensible enough message based on real evidence - but in itself only adds to the fog that disguises the real health issues. It's not so much a case of "health myths" as instances of too much attention being paid to the minor specifics.

Because it's easy enough to think about acrylamide and to stop eating burnt toast. It's much harder to do something about the things that really have a negative effect on health, to make the permanent shift to a more healthy diet, to stop smoking, drink less alcohol, take more exercise.

When it comes to the research behind health stories, it's the quality of the evidence that matters, but we don't stop to ask questions about the nature and scale of the data, the methodology, whether the research might be funded by a commercial company with an agenda.

For example, when it comes to this latest story, keep reading down past the headlines and the FSA set out that there isn't yet any proven negative link between eating foods with higher levels of acrylamide and cancer in human, at this stage it's only in animals.

It's all about risk. The levels of risk raised by many of these health scares are actually microscopic. As the range of different stories that have gained attention over the years suggest, look hard enough and you might be able to find a threat from most types of food. Confusions around

The best attitude when it comes to any new health trend - whether that's the old standards like avoiding red meat or eggs because of cholesterol, or the more recent like consuming too much sugar - is to enjoy the story and the social media debates, but don't worry about taking action.

Any one, very particular piece of healthy eating advice is always going to be far less important than the general rules around having a balanced diet and taking exercise.