Celebrity Health – Dr Michael Mosley

Science presenter, journalist and creator of the 5:2 diet Dr Michael Mosley offers some advice for how to stay healthy and keep stress at bay during these unprecedented times

I hope you are keeping well during these uncertain times. Your two sons contracted Covid-19. Are they back to full health now? And have you managed to remain healthy yourself?

Michael: “I can attest that with two sons contracting coronavirus (and thankfully on the mend now), I have felt higher feelings of worry and anxiety than normal. The Covid-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on many people’s mental health. Indeed, a new study shows there has been a spike in people reporting significant levels of depression and anxiety after the UK’s lockdown. While nothing can replace seeking professional medical support, accessing medication or counselling may prove challenging during lockdown. Therefore, as well as eating healthily and exercising to maintain a healthy weight, my wife Clare and I are also turning to nutrition and exercise to support our mental health, for example adding turmeric to our dishes as there are studies that show turmeric (particularly the curcumin in turmeric) is beneficial for your mood.”

A lot of people are worrying about their health at the moment. What can people do to keep themselves as healthy as possible?

Michael: “While coronavirus can affect any of us, for people with pre-existing health conditions, the impact of being infected seems to be more severe. This is particularly the case if you suffer from something called ‘metabolic syndrome’, a collection of medical conditions which includes a large waist (too much visceral fat), raised blood pressure, raised blood sugar levels and raised cholesterol score. Simply being heavier can also put you at risk. That is because excess body weight is associated with poor sleep and breathing problems, which can lead to pneumonia if you get infected by the coronavirus. If you are currently on medication then I would not recommend starting on any form of rapid weight loss diet at this time, because it should ideally be done with your doctor’s help. Instead I would suggest switching to a Mediterranean-style diet, low in sugar, but rich in healthy fats such as salmon, mackerel and nuts. Eating fruits and vegetables, as well as full fat yoghurt, is also encouraged.”

Do you have any tips for keeping stress at bay during these challenging times?

Michael: “While prescribed medication and counselling can be helpful, research now shows that our diet can also play a key role in managing stress and sleeplessness. The link lies in our gut; two to three kgs of microbes live in the digestive system, and amongst other things they produce neurotransmitters. These chemicals convey messages from the gut, through the nervous system to the brain – impacting our mood and anxiety levels. Eighty per cent of our serotonin (our happy hormone) is produced in the gut, so the healthier the gut, the more emotionally resilient we are. And the better we are feeling, the easier it is to sleep. Create a positive cycle of eating better, sleeping better and reducing stress. Combine these and you will also improve your body’s ability to fight infection.”

You are well known for creating the 5:2 Diet. What was the inspiration behind it?

Michael: “I took part in a BBC2 Horizon documentary to find out if I could reverse my diabetes without medication. In the course of making that documentary, I invented the 5:2 diet, lost 22lbs and brought my blood sugar levels back into the normal range, where they have stayed ever since. For those who wanted quicker weight loss I developed the Fast 800 programme, as most rapid weight loss studies are now based on 800 calories a day, which is high enough to be sustainable and give the nutrients you need, and low enough to lead to rapid weight loss and other beneficial health changes. It’s mostly a Mediterranean diet that involves calorie-restricted eating (the Fast 800), moving onto the 5:2 diet. The 800-calorie diet is an intensive, 12-week, Med-style low-carb diet. It is based on the findings of the UK-based DiRECT trial, which showed that a 12-week very-low-calorie diet (VLCD) was capable of bringing about not just substantial weight loss, but reversal of Type 2 diabetes, over a one-year period in a primary care setting.”

Why do you recommend the Mediterranean diet in particular?

Michael: “Eating a low-carbohydrate Mediterranean diet rich in different coloured fruits and vegetables will give you the best chance of getting the wide variety of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients your body needs. The high fibre content is a great way to boost your microbiome – the trillions of microbes that live in your large intestine and which are so important for your health. Olive oil, common within the Mediterranean diet, helps reduce gut inflammation. Try it as a salad dressing or drizzled over some cooked vegetables for a double whammy and it makes all that veg, beans and lentils taste so much better. Prebiotic foods form the foundation of a psychobiotic diet – a vegetable and fibre-rich one that’s good for your brain, keeps your mood up and anxiety levels at bay. They act as the ‘fertilizer’ for the good bacteria and encourage them to proliferate and, in time, counter the effects of more harmful bacteria. Leeks, onions and garlic are all prebiotics. Fermented foods like kefir, miso paste, kombucha and sauerkraut all help strengthen the good bacteria in the gut, while fruit, vegetables and whole foods rich in fibre feed the gut microbiome and allow it to thrive. It’s also important to try and avoid (or at least cut down) on processed foods as these destroy the active healthy bacteria in the digestive system. Treat your microbiome with care; feed it well and it will look after you.”

What would you suggest for a typical day’s menu on this type of diet?

Michael: “Start the day with eggs – boiled, poached, scrambled or as an omelette – they’ll keep you fuller for longer than cereal or toast. Delicious with smoked salmon and a sprinkle of chilli. Full-fat yoghurt is also good: add berries, like blackberries, strawberries or blueberries, for flavour, or a sprinkling of nuts. Eat more healthy fats and oils along with oily fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel) and consume more olive oil.

A splash makes vegetables taste better and improves the absorption of vitamins. Use olive, rapeseed or coconut oil for cooking. Legumes, such as lentils and kidney beans, are healthy and filling. Use butter instead of margarine; cheese in moderation is fine. Nuts are also included: they provide a good source of protein, minerals and vitamins, contain healthy fats and have a high fibre content. You can nibble them or chuck them in salad or stews. They make a good low-carb alternative to flour for baking by using almond or coconut flour. However, there are certain foods to look out for as well. Cut right down on sugar, sugary treats, drinks and desserts: no more than once or twice a week and preferably less. You can use sugar substitutes like stevia and xylitol, but try to wean yourself off your sweet tooth. Minimise or avoid the starchy ‘white stuff’: bread, pasta, potatoes, rice. Switch instead to quinoa, bulgur (cracked wheat), whole rye, whole-grain barley, wild rice and buckwheat. Low-fat products are often filled with sugar in order to make them palatable and are not as healthy as many people think. Avoid sweet fruits: berries, apples and pears are fine, but sweet tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple, melon and bananas are full of sugar.”

What are the most effective forms of exercise in your opinion?

Michael: “There was once a time when exercise meant a few sessions each week spent training or playing sport. Today, science has come a long way from that. Studies have shown that in order to lose weight you need to combine three types of activity: high-intensity interval training (HIIT); low-intensity, or ‘incidental’ activity; and resistance training. Insulin resistance, which leads to raging hunger and all sorts of problems including raised blood sugar levels, often starts with inactivity. If you don’t use your muscles enough then, over time, fat builds up inside the muscle fibres and insulin resistance develops. The best way to reverse this is to get more active. So set an alarm and try to stand up and walk around for a few minutes every 30 minutes. Take short, brisk walks; walking is also a great way to reduce insulin resistance and keep hunger at bay. The important thing is to make your walking brisk. The greatest benefit comes from occasionally pushing yourself, getting your heart rate up. This can be done while walking, running, swimming or on a bike. The idea is that you go as hard as you can for short bursts, no longer than 20 seconds, just enough to get your heart rate going. With any exercise regime it is important that you do this properly and build up gradually. Check with your doctor first if you have a heart problem or are very inactive.”

You have presented many documentaries over the years on all aspects of health and wellbeing. Is there a subject that you would like to investigate that you haven’t yet covered?

Michael: “Perhaps something looking more at mood and happiness. Compared with previous generations we are richer and we are living longer. But we aren’t happier.

If anything we are becoming ever more anxious and depressed. There are lots of reasons why this is happening, but I think that diet is partly to blame. We eat ever more processed foods, and they are harming not only our waists but our brains. So, what should you be eating more of, and what less of? A recent study, looking at the link between mental health and diet, called ‘Smiles’, provides some useful pointers. For this study, carried out in Australia, they randomly allocated patients with moderate or severe depression to either psychological support or going on a traditional Mediterranean diet, rich in oily fish, veg, legumes, nuts and olive oil. Within a couple of months there were striking differences between the two groups, with far more of those on the Mediterranean diet seeing big improvements in depression and anxiety.”

Dr Michael Mosley, who was pre-diabetic before he started watching what he ate, has recently launched the Fast 800 weight loss programme and book. Visit thefast800.com

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