If You Know What’s Good For You…



In light of recent news that coffee-drinking might actually be good for you, Ethan Troy-Barnes investigates the merits of some other well-known health tips and faux-pas

Do we really know what’s good for us, and what might harm us? Okay, so we all know that microwaves are safe, mobile phones won’t shrink our brains, and drinking gallons of water every day won’t make us any younger. We also know that smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and overeating are not recommended in the pursuit of a long and healthy life.

That said, the list of foodstuffs, activities and physical factors that cross our path on a daily basis is endless – and the delineation between what will do us good and might put us in an early grave is becoming ever murkier, with experts often reluctant to come down hard on one side or the other.

Take coffee as a recent example.

Just last month, evidence emerged in the New England Journal of Medical Science that a daily cup of Joe might now be a health food. It conducted a study which concluded that, despite coffee’s ability to cause short-term increases in blood pressure (not to mention insomnia if you drink to much of it the night before an exam), coffee-drinkers “who drank at least two or three cups a day were about 10% or 15% less likely to die for any reason during the 13 years of the study.”
That kind of news is pretty significant. In Ireland, that would equate to around 3,000 fewer deaths per year. From any cause: cardiovascular, cancer, you name it. So, don’t go guzzling ten cups a day, but feel free to give yourself a pat on the back next time you knock back your early morning pick-me-up.

In contrast: there are a great many bona fide ‘health foods’ that aren’t quite as wholesome as they might claim to be. A good example are the so-called healthy snacks – nuts, seeds, dried fruits et al., all of which put themselves forward as being a healthier alternative to a packet of crisps or a bar of chocolate. However, this is not necessarily the case.

A small packet of crisps could contain as little as 130 calories, compared to a cup of sunflower seeds which, despite being higher in fibre, comes in at a colossal 840 calories. Okay, so you may not be swilling whole cups of the things in place of your packet of crisps, but these unassuming little powerhouses of energy are a lot easier to eat and it has been observed that some people are likely to overeat something such as seeds, which they perceive as being healthier than their usual go-to junk-food, despite packing much more of a punch in terms of kilojoules.

Exercise is another example of something that carries some genuine health risks. While regular exercise can, for example, strengthen muscles and ensure mobility lasts long into old age, as well as help people keep their BMI in check, it doesn’t actually do anything to directly prevent big killers like cancer or heart disease. So, those doing it simply to balance their calorie books may do themselves a favour by simply eating less.

This is because exercise hurts, and not just in terms of those last sixty seconds on the treadmill. Sports people run the risk of developing sports-related injuries such as Runner’s Knee or Tennis Elbow, as well as more serious injuries such as bone fractures which can have permanent debilitating ramifications.

But don’t let all your time spent jogging to the point of exhaustion and munching raisins get you down, because there’s some good news in store if you’re the sort that likes to play video games.

In response to the argument that video games are simply the modern equivalent a good novel, journalist Charlie Brooker once quipped that this only holds true if your idea of a good book is one that you can take home and throw through a hoop for a few hours. Adverse effects on a person’s ability to socialise and their tendency to participate in any sort of physical activity aside, video games have actually demonstrated some promise in the development of a person’s cognitive and neurological faculties.

One study, conducted a few years ago by researchers at Iowa State University, found that surgeons who played video games for at least three hours each week made fewer mistakes when performing laparoscopy operations, and performed them faster than other doctors.

This is attributed to the positive effects of video games on the individual’s hand-eye coordination, spacial awareness and reaction times. A proficiency in these areas is also required for complex operations such as a laparoscopy (also called key-hole surgery), which is performed by inserting remote-controlled instruments through small apertures in the patient’s abdominal wall, and visualising what’s going on via a small inserted fibre optic camera attached to a monitor.

Nowadays, many professionals are trained with the aid of computer simulations of tasks they’ll be performing (often on people) in the real world – due in part to the fact that occupations such as surgery or aviation are becoming more and more reliant on computer-aided tasks in their day-to-day operations as times goes on.

So, don’t be surprised to see the likes of computer gaming, and who knows what else, getting slightly less of a bad rap in years to come. Fingers-crossed that chocolate digestive biscuits become a superfood before the decade’s out.

by Ethan Troy-Barnes