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Culture, Interviews

OX Meets: Dr Michael Mosley

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DR MICHAEL MOSLEY

Intermitting fasting, low-carb diets, and the benefits of a ketogenic diet are widely recognised as healthy lifestyle choices now, but in 2013 when Dr Michael Mosley’s The Fast Diet was first published, these concepts were genuinely ground-breaking.

A trained doctor, Mosley took a sideways turn into the doors of the BBC after completing medical school. Now author of numerous books and presenter/producer of dozens of tv series, he is embarking on a national tour with his wife, Dr Clare Bailey, to share the secrets to eating (well), sleeping (better) and living (longer). It sounded like a great fit for our optimism-themed January issue, so I jumped at the chance to have a chat and find out more.

Why a theatre tour?

I did one about three years ago and I really enjoyed it. In fact, I came to Wycombe Swan which is my local theatre and I’m a big fan. This time I’m doing it with my wife, Clare, she is going to be doing live cooking demos. It’s just kind of a different experience and it’s great to have an opportunity to chat to people – I remember last time a lot of people wanted to talk after, have selfies, sign books, things like that and that’s fun. 

What can the audience expect?

We’ve got the framework of what we're going to do, and we know the areas we want to cover but there’s also a bit of free form because who knows what the audience is going to ask. That’s a really interesting part of the process: you get the feeling about what people are curious about.

I know your wife, Dr Clare Bailey, works as a GP. How did she get into recipe creation and cookery?

I think she was inspired by her mum, because her mum was a very good cook and from a young age insisted that Clare joined in with her brothers. Cooking was very much a family thing so when I first met Clare, back in 1980 when we both started at medical school, she was already interested in food. She kind of fell into becoming a recipe writer because of what I was doing, and then she started giving them recipes and advice and it snowballed from there. She's on Instagram now offering healthy food tips and recipes (@drclarebailey).

Health care seems to be becoming more research-driven and that research is quite commercial. Is good health becoming something that you can only have if you can afford it?

There is some weirder stuff going on, like transfusing blood from healthy young adults or cell regeneration. That’s in part being funded by American billionaires so that’s kind of the worrying stuff but the reality is that for most of us, it’s really about what we put in our mouths and how we move.

The reality is that an awful lot of ageing is actually about lifestyle. As as part of this series that I’ve been making on super-agers I was in Okinawa, talking to a geneticist there who was saying certainly up to the age of 80 it’s 80% lifestyle 20% genetics. Whether it is going to be affordable to live to 120 is not high on the list of things I worry about. My concern is more how do I make it to 80 in decent shape. No male member of my family has made it beyond 74 so far, and I’m 66 now so 74 seems to be approaching fairly rapidly. 

That’s really interesting because I’ve always had the – perhaps naïve – idea that genes are critical, and lifestyle is the ‘dressing’. 

No. It’s absolutely the other way round. Type 2 diabetes runs in my family, as do strokes, which is why I keep an eye on those. I’m a big fan of doing tests, like measuring your blood pressure, your blood sugar and things like that. I’ve got a whole range of tests which I’m going to show in the live show. You can send off for exotic genetic tests but in the end just look at your family history. What did your relatives die of?

Do you think that government has a role to play in shaping the health of the nation?

Oh 100%, I mean I think it’s probably the most fundamental thing. I made a series for Channel 4 a couple of years ago called Who Made Britain Fat? and my conclusion is that the thing which has driven obesity is the rise and rise of ultra-processed food, which the government has done almost nothing to curb. The only thing that’s been done in the last 20 years has been the Sugar Tax, which was partly effective and partly ineffective.

I think it is like cigarette smoking – you can tell people until you’re blue in the face that smoking is bad but that doesn’t stop them. When I was a teenager half the population smoked, now it’s about 16%. Putting warnings on cigarettes had almost no effect, telling people it was bad for them almost no effect: banning smoking in pubs had a massive effect. You almost immediately saw a drop in cigarette consumption, followed a couple of years later by a massive drop in heart diseases and rates of dementia. So, I think if you actually want to change the health of the nation then it is fundamentally the responsibility of government. I would love simple things; banning advertising of junk food to kids, extending the sugar tax from fizzy drinks to other things, maybe subsidising healthy foods rather than unhealthy foods.

Is a healthier lifestyle the province of the rich? If you are time-and-cash poor you may be more likely to opt for offers and convenience food. 

One of the things with Clare’s recipes is they are cheap. We've done the economic calculations on them. It doesn't have to be fresh fish or veg, it can be frozen or tinned. There are all sorts of alternatives and some of the cheapest foods in the world are things like legumes – it’s knowing what to do with them. Obviously there are things which are more expensive, like olive oil, but on the other hand if you cut back on the junk...I’m always amazed how much KFC costs, a bucket is quite expensive. You think of those sorts of foods as cheap but I come across people who are spending thousands of pounds on takeaways and that’s because these days you have the apps and the apps give you discounts. They drive you to it and if you live in a poor neighbourhood all the food you’re going to get is junk food. Clare works in a socially deprived area. Her patients are not rich so they’re not after fancy ingredients. The art is to produce food which is tasty and filling and nutritious but not expensive. 

And inspiring?

Absolutely. I think Clare must be one of the very few popular cookery writers who also happens to be a doctor and is interested in this area and has first-hand experience of what patients actually eat.

Tell me about your new work on sleep.

I recently made a three-part series with a sleep lab. We took 30 people who suffer from terrible sleep problems and tried to see if we could cure them in eight weeks. The study is going to be published [in a new book]. There have been a lot of books on sleep which tell you if you don’t get enough sleep you’re going to develop dementia and die, things like that, and not enough about what sort of things work and what things don’t.

It is also about acceptance. An academic historian recently argued that actually it’s quite normal to wake up in the middle of the night and that the idea of one continuous block of sleep is quite modern. I wake up at three or four in the morning and I don’t worry about it anymore. I mainly do slow deep breathing exercises which I call 4-2-4 [inhale for four beats, hold for two and exhale for four] and that’s one of the things I learnt from Just One Thing.

Do you think you'll collate everything from the tour into one book?

My new book on sleep will obviously be a big part of [the tour] and Clare has written a book on treats which is going to be published in time for the tour and she's going to talk about that.

And, what’s the treat that you can’t resist?

Chocolate. Chocolate biscuits particularly. I have a very sweet tooth; if it’s there in front of me I’ll eat it. There is some evidence around the impact of eating more fibre on your sweet tooth but it never goes away.

I was going to ask for your single best piece of advice for sleep, eat and living but you might want to save that for the tour?

I think I will, but broadly speaking it lies within the Mediterranean-style diet that’s been shown to be so effective for pretty much everything.

Dr Michael Mosley and Dr Clare Bailey are embarking on a joint UK theatre tour, with their new stage show EAT (Well), SLEEP (Better), LIVE (Longer!). They will be at Warwick Arts Centre on 14 February, at Cheltenham Town Hall on 16 February and at the Wycome Swan on 20 February.

For more information, other venues and to book tickets visit eatsleeplivetour.co.uk

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