New York Summer – Central Park and Outdoor Screenings

I’m been feeling very reminiscent about my time in New York recently. I was there for two months last summer, and I can honestly say I spent some of my best days there; it’s such an incredible city. As urban and built up as it is, summer in the Big Apple is all about spending time outdoors. Whether that’s a movie screening or getting sporty in Central Park. Two of my favourite things…

Central Park

I love Central Park. I know everyone says its a calm oasis in right in the middle of the City, but it’s true. Well, sort of. Head to the boating lake on the weekend and you’ll find swarms of people and queues longer than Alton Towers on a Bank Holiday. If you go West to Strawberry Fields then good luck trying to get a Instagram-worthy picture of the iconic ‘Imagine’ memorial to John Lennon. Don’t let that put you off though, they really are both worth doing (I promise the line for boats goes quicker than you’d expect).

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However, for a more serene experience grab some guac and chips, hummus and crudités, and enjoy a relaxing picnic at sunset. You may think it’s risky to be in Central Park as daylight begins to fade, but as long as you stay close to the paths and street lamps, it’s completely safe. Spots I’d recommend are the Great Lawn, on the West Side (82nd St) and the East Meadow (97th St).

To get involved in Central’s active scene, I would definitely recommend doing the 6 mile cycle ride around the park. If you’ve got a Citi Bike key, then this is the most hassle-free way to do it. There are lots of station dotted around the borders of the park, so all you have to do is follow the cycle route. If not, don’t worry, they’ll always be someone from a bike hire company not far away, which usually cost around $15 per hour. It’s definitely worth it, and double the fun of being cycled around in a cart, where the driver can charge up to $5 per minute (yes, really!)

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To tick-off a run in Central Park, then the Jackie Onassis Reservoir is the best place to head. It has a dedicated running track which, although is also used by walkers, provides a scenic route without any interruptions or obstacles. It’s approximately 3km all the way around, and is best enjoyed early morning or at dusk, when the temperature is cooler.

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Outdoor Screenings

Over summer there are thousands of movie screenings in parks across all five boroughs. They are an integral part of the season, and they’re FREE. It’s no surprise that the most famous of these screenings are in two of New York’s most iconic parks: Central Park and Bryant Park. Other scenic spots include Union Square, a buzzing part of the City where King Leo has his New York base, and Brooklyn Bridge Park which boasts stunning views of the Manhattan skyline from across the East River.

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However, the one I went to was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A hip area of New York’s hottest borough, I loved exploring its boutique shops, quirky eateries and street art. The outdoor cinema series here was called Summer Screen, and it was on the 27th July, when 10 Things I Hate About You was being shown, that I visited. It’s held in an area of McCarren Park usually used for sport, so is closed off until doors open. After that, the crowd flood in to pick their spot and soak up the vibes until the film begins at dusk. There are a few food trucks, and sponsors giving away freebies, but really, the real reason to get there early is to just have a bit of chill time. Honestly, most spots in here have a decent view. A few tips: remember to bring a blanket, something comfortable to sit on (not a chair, but something like a big cushion) and a picnic supper.

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Want more on New York? Check out my Healthy Eats and Brunch + Rooftops posts.

‘The more the better’: The real message of 5-a-day

(Feature Article written for Communicating Scientific Ideas, UCL module)

The familiar ‘5-a-day’ phrase is being swept aside. We need to be aiming for more, says university research. Seven is good, ten is even better. Or is it? Maybe we should ditch the numbers, and just focus on eating more fruit and veg.

From as young as most of us can remember, we’ve been told to eat our veggies. Maybe we were even warned that pudding was off limits unless we did. Now we’re old enough to decide for ourselves whether or not to have a treat after dinner (regardless of how much broccoli was consumed) the inner rebel can’t help but emerge. Yet, that infamous ’5-a-day’ message is never too far behind us. The grown ups were right – we should be eating more fruit and vegetables.

Launched in 2003, the ‘5-a-day’ initiative has gone down as one of the most recognised health campaigns in UK government history. It’s so engrained in our psyche that we might even make a joke about strawberry laces in the pick n mix as one of our five a day. It’s become the framework in which we think about fruit and vegetables. Yet, just like anything that has been remotely successful, its had its pitfalls. You see, the success of 5-a-day presents something of a paradox. Whilst it has been effective in terms of awareness, few of us seemed to have actually listened.

According to the NHS review of Obesity and Eating Habits, just a quarter of the UK population meet the target. In its fourteen years of existence, this figure does not flatter the 5-a- day campaign. Why then, are we being told to aim higher? Take a second glance at the NHS review and we’re not doing too badly at all. In fact, the average person in the UK is eating 4.3 portions of fruit and vegetables daily. But despite these statistics, it might not be about the numbers after all. In fact, what the research actually says is, the more the better.

From 5 to 10

Currently the World Health Organisation advises that we eat around 400g of fruit and vegetables each day. As one portion is 80g, that translates as approximately five portions in total. But in 2014, research from University College London broke the news that we should be aiming higher. In fact, the team found that those eating seven or more portions of fruit and vegetables daily reduce their risk of death by 42%.

However, lead author of the study, Dr Oyinlola Oyebode explained that the main outcome of the research was the undeniable health benefits of fruit and veg. She said, “This is just one strand of evidence from medical sciences, but it all suggests that fruit and vegetables are extremely good for us as human beings.” She went on to emphasise, “I definitely took ‘the more the better’ as the conclusion”. Yet, 7-a-day ‘saves lives’ was how it was presented in the news.

Then, earlier this year, along came research from Dr Dagfinn Aune and his team at Imperial College London, with some staggering figures. The study estimated that if everyone ate ten portions of fruit and veg daily, approximately 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide could be prevented each year. Dr Aune said, “In our study we found further benefits with intakes of up to ten servings per day, particularly for coronary heart disease, stroke mortality and, to a large extent, cancer.” These findings can’t be ignored, but must we now fixate our diets on reaching 10- a-day?

What does ‘5-a-day’ mean?

According to the NHS, 90% of the public understand what the ‘5-a-day’ campaign is. Yet, it seems the message has been misrepresented. “It was always supposed to be at least 5- a-day”, said Dr Oyebode. No wonder so many of us were panicked at the recent 10-a-day reveal.

But it’s not our fault. In fact, ’5-a-day’ advice in the UK is slightly misleading. The message over in Australia is ‘Go for 2+5’. Whilst the American government opted for ‘Fruit and Veggies – More Matters’ back in 1991. Though the US may not be the nation to mirror public health policies on, they might be taking the right approach here.

Then there’s the question of what counts towards your 5-a-day (sorry, but strawberry laces do not count). Not even the study participants were required to track this. In fact, they were simply asked to describe in everyday portions the amount of fruit and veg they ate. A bowl of peas here, one banana there… That’s how we think about portions. Rarely do we weigh out 80g of broccoli.

Of course, labelling usually gives us a helping hand with our ‘5-a-day’ portions, but it’s not something to rely on. It’s never going to be there for loose fruit and veg, and it isn’t commonly added to bottom of the range produce. Even when it is there it’s never consistent, either. What is eight cherry tomatoes in Tesco, might be ten in Sainsbury’s. The only way to know, is get the kitchen scales out and weigh them for yourself – not likely to happen. But, if you have a few spare hours to learn all the portion rules, there’s a hefty guide on the government’s website – even less likely to happen.

Not-so Perfect 10

It may be that ten is not the perfect number. What if it was higher? Unfortunately (or fortunately) the research can’t make any conclusions for this, as 800g was the maximum amount that could be measured. Why? Because we physically can’t fit that much into our diets. We only get three meals a day after all, plus a few snacks. So, whilst Dr Aune expected the benefits to increase, he emphasised that 10 portions per day, “is a substantial level of fruit and vegetable intake”.

Plus, fixating on the amount of fruit and vegetables in our diet may steer out attention from other important food groups. Dr Aune was keen to highlight this: “We should remember that there are other plant foods that also are beneficial in reducing the risk of chronic diseases, including whole grains and nuts”.

Though Dr Oyebode and Dr Aune explained that their studies considered a number of factors, including smoking and physical activity, overall diet was not included. Oyebode admitted this may have distorted the conclusion. She said, “Perhaps, the people who are not dying of cancer are not dying because they have a diet that’s low in saturated fat, not because they have a diet that’s high in fruit and vegetables and we have not adjusted for that.” So maybe, when we eat our veggies, it’s more to do with what we’re not eating instead.

Ditch the numbers

There is something quite strange about what is essentially calculating your health. We’re told we should weigh out x amount of fruit and veg, y amount of times, to reduce our risk of death by z percent. Although we’re keen to attach numbers to food, (calories, meals etc.) we just don’t eat mathematically. We eat socially. We eat personally. Eating ‘to be healthy’ is only one factor behind what we do (or don’t) put into our mouths. Forcing veg down to just match up with the numbers is never going to be enough motivation.

Of course, there are times when we savour eating roasted carrots and fresh cucumber. When we feel like we have to, the joyful experience is lost. Snacking on fruit starts to feel like more of a punishment, and that extra side of spinach becomes a chore.

Celebrity Chef and Healthy Eating Campaigner, Jamie Oliver, has spoken out about these new recommendations. He said, “what I can tell you with absolute certainty is that the key to a healthier, happier life is to put veg and fruit smack bang at the centre of your diet.” After all, this is what the research says, too.

The real message, says Dr Oyebode: “However much fruit and veg you’re eating now, try to eat a bit more”. There’s no denying that fruit and vegetables play an enormous part in a healthy, happy life but calculating their part may have the reverse effect.


Do you think eating ten portions of fruit and vegetables everyday is realistic? Find out what happened when I tried it for myself.

Could you eat 10 portions of fruit and veg everyday? Here’s what happened when I tried it…

First it was 5, then it was 7 and now it’s 10. I investigate if the latest fruit and veg recommendations are realistic.

If you’re reading this thinking: “isn’t it supposed to be 5-a-day?” – sorry, but times are changing. In 2014, my very own UCL broke the news that it should really be 7-a-day. Then, Imperial said no, it’s more like 10-a-day. Given that only 25% of the UK meet the target of five, with most people barely managing one, how useful can these campaigns be? Curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to find out for myself if setting ourselves these targets is worthwhile – really, how hard could it be?! Here’s what happened when I completed the challenge of eating 10 portions of fruit and veg everyday for a week…

– I considered going Fruitarian

I wasn’t even entirely sure what a Fruitarian was, but I thought I was going to have to become one for the next seven days. I didn’t know how else I could fit that much fruit and veg into one day. I googled: a fruitarian is someone who eats mainly fruit, with the occasional portion of nuts and seeds, too. Given that ‘10-a-day’ recommends upping your veggies over fruit (veg has greater health benefits plus, fruit is higher in sugar) this didn’t seem necessary, or a good idea.

Banana and Berry Porridge

– I planned meals in advance

Comforted by the fact that I wouldn’t be forced to live on a diet of raw vegetables for the next week, I began to look at things more rationally. Dividing 10-a-day into less daunting numbers was my first step. If I ate three portions at each meal with the final portion as a snack, that seemed more achievable. Next, I thought about how I could sneak in three portions into every meal. Once again, I turned to google. But, in truth, I didn’t find much inspiration (Yes really, google wasn’t much help!) The answer was simpler than cooking up exotic recipes – I just added an extra potion or two to normal meals that I would eat.

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Avocado on Toast with Tomatoes and Spinach (my trusted favourite!)


– I didn’t spend as much as I thought

Admittedly, this has a lot to do with meal planning and batch cooking. But if that’s what the 10-a-day challenges encourages you to do, then that can’t be a bad thing. On the other hand, it’s very easy to create food waste from optimistically buying lots of fruit and veg at the beginning of the week, that only goes off before you get round to eating it. Frozen fruit and veg are the saviours for this, and are equally beneficial as opting for fresh. Of course, you must choose wisely. Filling up on avocados, pineapples and any other tropical or out-of-season produce won’t be kind to your weekly food bill.

Veggie Rainbow Salad


– I became best friends with the kitchen scales

One portion of fruit and veg must equal 80g. But how many people know what 80g looks like? Probably very few, given that the supermarkets can’t even agree. Usually you’ll find portion guidelines on the packaging, but where one brand will tell you it’s two spears of broccoli, another will say it’s three. Of course, not all fruit and vegetables are packaged either, so the scales became a necessity. I must admit, there was something very strange about weighing out ‘health’. It’s basically saying there’s a formula that must be followed with precision if we are to live a healthy life; and formulas are never fun.

‘Vegan Machine’ at Camden Market


– I know portion sizes by heart

… and just how many rules there are! With dried fruits, forget the 80g, a tablespoon is considered plenty. But don’t eat them as they are, eat them as part of a meal for ‘dental hygiene reasons’. Having one satsuma is also pointless, as you need to eat two for it to be considered one portion. The same goes for kiwis and plums. Beans and pulses do count towards your daily target, but no matter how much you eat, they only be one portion. And remember, fruit juice is a no-no towards your 10-a-day target. If all this sounds super exciting, feel free to read the nineteen page document of guidelines on the government’s website.

Banana Bircher Muesli with Apple and Raisins


– I worried about eating out

When food-related social plans came up for this week, I automatically panicked. Can I find something on the menu with at least 3 portions of fruit of veg? If I could, would there be another dish I would definitely rather be eating? Would I get food FOMO? I did have to be more careful of my choices when eating out, and it made me feel like I was on a restricted diet rather than trying to eat more vegetables.  I love visiting the health cafes and they do make it much easier to achieve. But you can’t always eat in these kind of places, and I don’t think keeping up the 10-a-day could work in most restaurants. Whilst happy to make the sacrifice for the 10-a-day challenge, I don’t think I would be so willing if I was forced to keep it up forever. In fact, I would be pretty miserable.

The Mae Bowl with lots of veggies!


– I felt better about myself

It has to be said, there is something about eating lots of fruit and veg that makes you feel almost virtuous. I can’t help but feeling slightly smug about having succeeded in the 10-a-day challenge, even if it was only a week. But actually, I think it had more to do with what I didn’t eat, rather than all the extra vitamins and minerals I consumed. Focusing on fruit and veg forces you to be mindful about what you eat and automatically directs you towards healthier choices.

Butter Bean and Tomato Stew with Avocado, Peas and Spinach

Did I succeed in eating 10 portions of fruit and veg everyday day? Surprisingly, yes. Do I think it’s sustainable? Absolutely not. There are always going to be days when this just isn’t realistic and that’s totally fine, if not healthy. Even the experts say so. The scientists found that eating 800g of fruit and veg everyday brought the maximum health benefits, with a significantly reduced risk of premature death from conditions such as cancer, and heart disease. But if you delve a little further into these studies, what they’re actually saying is ‘the more the better’. So really, what we should do is forget the numbers and ditch the scales… but maybe think about eating just a few extra veggies.

My Favourite Banana Bread


Banana Bread has to be one of my all time favourite sweet treats. Admittedly, I am a bit of a banana fiend, but this recipe always seems to be a crowd pleaser. I love to offer this when friends and family come round, especially over a cup of tea. Of course, there are so many banana bread recipes out there and everyone has their own way of doing it. Saying that, I’ve finally mastered one that is just the way I like it!

What’s great about banana bread is that, although a traditional recipe, it can be made healthy and nutritious very easily – with few ingredients, too. As banana bread has a much denser texture than other cakes, I’ve used buckwheat and ground almonds in this recipe. This makes a thick batter and helps the loaf hold its shape once baked. As the bananas are both wet and sweet, I’ve kept the maple syrup to a minimum, despite my excessive sweet tooth! The warming spice of cinnamon also adds sweetness to the banana bread, that pairs wonderfully with maca. This is optional, but if you can get hold of some, its malty caramel flavour is quite special.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying my banana bread for breakfast. Topped with nut butter and pumpkin seeds, it’s the perfect morning fuel. But you can definitely get creative with this! Natural yoghurt (dairy or coconut – whatever your preference) and blueberries is another of my favourites.

Ingredients:

500g Bananas
150g Buckwheat Flour
50g Ground Almonds
75ml Maple Syrup
1 tsp Cinnamon
1 tsp Maca (optional)

+ Coconut Oil for greasing

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius and grease a loaf tin with coconut oil.
  2. Place the bananas into a large mixing bowl and mash together. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Transfer into the loaf tin and bake in the oven for 35 minutes.
  3. Transfer to a wire track and leave to cool for 10 minutes. Then slice, and enjoy!

 


Artificial Intelligence may be the best thing to happen in Healthcare – but we need to be careful

AI systems can provide more accurate diagnosis and treatment, without replacing doctors

How many of us have consulted Dr Google with our symptoms? With one in twenty google searches being medical-related queries, it’s got to be quite a few of us. In fact, last year Google updated its mobile app to incorporate ‘self-diagnosis’. By collating internet data and consulting experts at Harvard Medical School, Google said it allows potential patients ‘to get quickly to the point’, before seeking medical advice if necessary. Could this be the future of our healthcare system? Quite possibly, yes. But it must work with us and doctors.

The Google app harnesses an Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm to gather medical information, and it’s not the only one. Across the world, the benefits of using AI in healthcare are being widely researched. Most notable of all is IBM Watson, who claims to go ‘beyond artificial intelligence’ and ‘think like a human’. Although not directed at healthcare specifically, IBM Watson can structure, synthesise and analyse medical data, reading 200 million pages of text in 3 seconds.

But, before we delve into this topic any further, we need to dismiss the Sci-Fi stereotypes. That is, crazy depictions of AI as anthropomorphic robots. I don’t think we need to worry about walking, talking robots sitting behind the GP’s desk asking us about our symptoms. If this were to happen in future, then I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was wrong, but that’s not the direction AI in Healthcare seems to be going.

So, how exactly can Artificial Intelligence be used in Healthcare? In recent years AI technology has seen a paradigm shift. Programmers no longer relentlessly waste hours of their time loading computers with information that will only ever give out what has been put in. AI is now all about deep-learning. This is a technique that uses algorithms to train AI systems to think in the same way that we humans do, whilst holding more information than the human brain can. As Omar Latif, Vice President at Care Manager says, “one of the biggest challenges facing healthcare today is information overload”. An individual doctor cannot know everything, even within their specialist field. Using AI will not only gather all existing knowledge, but process new information and produce diagnosis and treatment suggestions to facilitate decision making.

As a recent example, a team at Stanford University have developed an AI system able to detect skin cancer. To train the deep-learning algorithm, the system was fed over 128,000 images of skin lesions corresponding to various diseases. It was then presented with 2,000 previously unseen images, where it was asked to differentiate between those malignant, and those benign. The results were tested against the opinion of human dermatologists, and found that AI was in fact more accurate.

It’s no surprise that the higher accuracy of AI compared with doctors has led to the speculation that they will soon replace doctors; an unsettling thought. Unsettling not only because we would be putting our lives in the hands of a ‘non-living’ machine, but that it undermines our human ego as the most powerful group on the planet. Now, with our dominance over nature, we could potentially be creating a technology able to take over our control.

This is perhaps the scariest thought of all – that Artificial Intelligence will one day become more intelligent than us. Though this might seem more ridiculous than a robot prescribing us drugs, it’s not as far out there as we think. As philosopher and technologist, Nick Bostrom, points out, the limits of machine processing go far beyond biological tissue. The human brain is limited in its size, as it physically has to fit inside the cranium, whereas AI could take the space of a whole warehouse if it needed to. Additionally, neurones in the brain travel at a speed of approximately 100 metres per second. For AI, it’s closer to the speed of light. Suddenly, the reality of AI overtaking human intelligence not only seems likely, but imminent.

If this were to happen, AI could start to favour its own interests over human values. What these interests or their impact would be, nobody knows. But before we lose sleep over picturing such a world, I don’t believe this is something we need to worry about if we are careful about how we introduce Artificial Intelligence into Healthcare. That is, consciously implementing it as a tool for medical professionals to facilitate diagnosis and treatment. ‘Tool’ is crucial here, as doctors must retain their decision-making power. Though AI might be able to think like a human, it cannot empathise or possess human values.

The next step could be public access to AI. In a similar way to the google app, it is hoped that AI can be used on portable electronic devices covering various aspects of healthcare. Andre Esteva, co-author of the Stanford research on skin cancer detection, is optimistic that this technology can be applied to an app. He called this the “eureka moment” of his work, with the confidence it will make healthcare cheaper and more accessible.

Naturally, the practical issues have been identified. They crop up with every technology, but it’s about understanding them, as well as if and how they can be overcome. For example many doctors, including Dr Anjali Mahto from the British Skin Foundation, have expressed their concern over using AI in self-diagnosis. Potential patients may not be aware of ‘warning signs’ and serious conditions could go ignored. On the other hand, the technology could cause false panic, turning us into maniac hypochondriacs constantly interrogating the AI.

Yet, what AI does indicate is that the boundaries of healthcare go beyond hospitals, surgeries and laboratories. It’s every bit a part of society as it is science. Regardless of who is given access to this technology, everyone is their own expert on their body – we live with them all day, everyday. Doctors can only ever get a snapshot of your health during the occasional appointment, and this is never going to be good enough. It makes diagnosis and treatment extremely difficult, often scary. When your doctor provides you with a possible treatment, all you can do is hope it will work. Nothing is certain.

When we do seek medical help, having an AI system in place has huge potential to improve the care we receive. The proven accuracy that AI is able to suggest diagnosis and treatments cannot be ignored. Additionally, if we had a way of getting reliable medical knowledge ourselves to assist any health concerns before going to see a doctor, then this must lead to greater efficiency. If it also meant we didn’t have to wait weeks on end for a GP appointment, then that’s got to be a good thing!

Peanut Butter Cookies

I spent last weekend at what was my idea of heaven – Fare Healthy. As a wellness, food and lifestyle festival, it was a celebration of all things healthy with lots of my favourite brands in the business there. From Pip and Nut to the Mae Deli, and many more that I had not yet discovered, it was a foodie paradise. I was there with Livia’s Kitchen, selling our Raw Millionaire Bites (which I have not stopped eating since working here!) and listening to Olivia’s talk with Ella Mills and Pippa Murray. It was great to meet so many people interested in the more nutritious way of baking, and talk to other like-minded brands, too.

One brand located near our stall was ManiLife. They make all natural peanut butter using nuts sourced from Argentina, and it is dee-licious! I’m a complete nut-butter addict, so I just had to take some home with me. In order to stop myself from eating it straight from the jar, I decided to make some cookies with it. This recipe uses ManiLife’s deep roasted peanut butter, which is much darker and less sweet than regular peanut butter. It’s also crunchy, whereas I would normally, and perhaps controversially, opt for smooth. However, I think this adds the all-important crunch to these cookies, and the deep roast really adds a richness to their flavour.

For me, one of the best things about baking with more nutritious ingredients is that the treats are great for almost any time of the day. Peanut butter is an excellent source of healthy fats and protein, which should set you up for the day and keep you going. As well as providing a great texture to the cookies, the jumbo oats are also a source of fibre and help to regulate blood sugar levels. So, these cookies can be enjoyed for any occasion -from breakfast, to an afternoon snack, or anytime your sweet-tooth creeps up. Although, I have to admit, the raw cookie dough is absolute heaven! You must eat some straight from the bowl before baking!

Makes 9

Ingredients 

200g Buckwheat Flour
100g Oats
150g ManiLife Deep Roasted Peanut Butter
50ml Maple Syrup
30g Coconut Sugar
75g Coconut Oil, melted

Method

  1. Place all the ingredients into a large bowl and mix well. I find it’s best to get stuck in with your hands for this.
  2. Shape into round cookie shapes and place on a baking tray with greaseproof paper. Bake for 25 minutes.
  3. Leave to cool slightly, before devouring!

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The Politics of Protein

(I wrote this for the Investigating Contemporary Science module, as part of my UCL studies)

When I told my 80-year-old Grandma that I had become vegetarian, her immediate troubled response was: “But what about your protein intake?” I assured her that my health would be perfectly fine, yet from this brief encounter, neither of us had realised just how many social issues we had touched upon. This is because such issues are not exactly those we would regularly contemplate, or even realise. However, they influence almost every aspect of the inseparable, though often fraught, relationship between science and society. We may call them, the Politics of Protein.

So, what are the issues relating to the Politics of Protein exactly? I will admit that such a question is impossible to answer in the space of this article, but in summary, they demonstrate the influence of protein outside of the laboratory. If you’re wondering exactly how something, that really is just a type of molecule, can have social implications, then stay with me on this.

It is doubtful that many readers will have never heard of the word ‘protein’ before. Though its origins may lie within the realms of scientific vocabulary, it is a common word used as part of everyday conversations. Most will probably say they have a decent understanding of what the word ‘protein’ entails, too. All living things, including us, are made up of protein and so we need to make sure that we get enough into our diet, right? In short, yes. Protein is essential for growth and repair in the body, and this just one reason behind its longstanding reputation as ‘the sacred nutrient’. In fact, the word ‘protein’ comes from the Greek ‘proteios’, meaning ‘of prime importance’.

Protein’s crucial role for life on earth is not the only influence behind its superiority, however. This is because we readily associate meat as protein and protein as meat. If we refer back to my Grandma’s concern about my protein intake, it seems to stem from her belief that meat is the main source of protein. Such is the divide that has become culturally established between ‘first class’ animal protein, like meat, and ‘second class’ plant protein. Although, it is true that not all sources of proteins are equal. Meat contains much higher levels than nuts and beans, for example, and is a complete protein (i.e. containing all nine amino acids that the body cannot produce itself). However, studies have shown that we do not have to eat complete proteins to stay healthy, in fact, they tell us that eating a variety of plant proteins will keep us in good health.

But, what does the government have to say about protein intake? According to current guidelines, we should be aiming for 45.0g – 55.5g per day. Naturally, policy-makers have turned to scientists for this advice, with the general acceptance that the scientific evidence will be objectively translated into useful information. Such is the reputation that science enjoys. However, the varying protein recommendations over the last few centuries proves that this is not the case; cultural knowledge has most certainly made its mark.

For example, in the nineteenth century German scientist, Carl Voit, found that humans require just 48.5g of protein per day in order to stay healthy. Yet, he recommended a daily intake of 118g – much more than double. Indeed, up until the outbreak of WWII when rationing came into play, experts were still advising 120g. Why were the scientific findings seemingly ignored? Because, meat has historically been a symbol of wealth and success. If you were rich, you would eat a lot of meat. If you were poor, you would rely on staples such as bread and potatoes. In fact, the poor were often mocked for being lazy and inept from consuming little meat.

However, meat also holds another symbol: masculinity. If we look back to history again, men carrying out manual work in labouring families would normally receive the lion’s share of the meat. For women and children, it was considered a luxury. This provides some explanation as to why we tend to gender foods. For example, just as meat a stereotypically ‘male’ food, salads and chocolate are usually seen as ‘female’. Behavioural psychologists from University College London have proven that this is not an innate, biological preference either, but the product of social conditioning.

So, how is this reflected in modern society? If, like me, you are young, female, middle-class and an urbanite, then you are the dominating demographic found within current vegan and vegetarian trends. Some may say I’ve fallen into the trap all too easily. I know that ‘trap’ is certainly the wrong word here, as everyone has their own reasoned influences behind diet choice. Yet, what this does demonstrate is that more women are choosing to avoid animal protein, than men. This is perhaps unsurprising, as a 2011 study of the relationship between meat and masculinity found that vegetarians tend to be rated as weaker and less masculine.

Cutting down on animal protein is not just an issue of gender, however. Overall, UK trends show that veganism has increased by 360% in the last decade. Of course, there are many reasons for this, from animal welfare to environmental concerns. However, the supposed health benefits are thought to be the main drive. This is particularly relevant if we look back to this time last year, when red and processed meats dominated the headlines, after Cancer Research UK classified them as “probably” and “definitely” causing cancer respectively.

Countless studies have been conducted on the relationship between protein and cancer, including The China Study, officially published in 2005. Following this, scientist and author behind the corresponding book, T. Colin Campbell, has called daily protein recommendations in the US, “irresponsible”. Despite current guidelines being set significantly lower than a century ago, he argues the that scientific research still does not justify current levels. Furthermore, he claims there is enough science to conclude that we should consume as little animal protein as possible, in order to prevent heart disease, diabetes and other diseases of wealth.

If such evidence is as clear-cut as Campbell is suggesting, why aren’t governments taking action? This is because such results are heretical. They do not meet with lifestyle and cultural eating habits, which is something that policy finds difficult to intrude upon. This doesn’t mean no one is trying though. The new Mayor of Turin has recently announced plans to become a vegetarian or vegan city once a week, with the aim of improving public health and taking responsibility for the environment. But, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t been greeted too warmly by the locals. With a strong local meat trade in Turin, many argue that the initiative will damage the economy, as well as culinary traditions.

Similarly, across the UK, ‘Meat-free Monday’ is being promoted by many businesses and establishments. University College London was a supporter of this campaign, only selling vegetarian foods in its cafes each Monday. However, a decision has recently been made by the Union Council to scrap it. As is human nature, when something is forcibly imposed, resistance kicks in.

It seems that our relationship with protein, particularly meat, is an unstable one. Should we love it, or should we loathe it? It would appear that protein could be blamed for many social, global and health issues, and that the overall trend is showing more and more of us are doubting the ‘first class’ label of the animal kind. However, whatever the science might say, or even history and gender theories, we humans are a stubborn bunch. The reputation of animal protein is far off being totally damaged; the love affair is not over, yet.

Studies mentioned:

Campbell, T. (2006). ‘The China Study’. Dallas,Tex: BenBella Books. Print.

Magee, A. (2014). ‘The paleo diet: can it really be good for you?’. The Telegraph. [Online]. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/10586465/The-paleo-diet-can-it-really-be-good-for-you.html [Accessed: 07/11/16].

Quinn, S. (2016). ‘Number of vegans in Britain rises by 360% in 10 years’. The Telegraph. [Online]. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/news/number-of-vegans-in-britain-rises-by-360-in-10-years/ [Accessed: 01/11/16].

Ruby, M. Heine, S. (2011). ‘Meat, Morals, and Masculinity.’ Appetite. 56(2). pp. 447-450.