Wednesday 21 February 2018

Rude health: Two fruits and five veggies

Wading into the big global debate about healthy eating and getting your five-a-day, this week, Maurice Gueret and his dog take off to the wasteland for a lesson in Greek medicine

Advice: Up your veggie consumption to five a day, as well as two fruits
Advice: Up your veggie consumption to five a day, as well as two fruits
Dr Maurice Gueret

It's 12 years since the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched its initiative to fill our fruit bowls and veg trays. Few will remember its waffle about the gains you will make in DALYs (disability-adjusted life years) if you consume 400g a day, but the message that did sustain was the advice to eat five portions a day.

Five wasn't a scientific figure, it was just a convenient carrot stick with which to nudge the population. We now reckon that barely one third of the Western population actually follows the fruit-and-veg advice of the WHO. It's always the 'haves' and the 'worried well' that respond best to public-health urgings; the sick and the 'have-nots' are less inclined.

In Australia, they supersized the advice and urged two fruit servings and five veggies a day. It appears they might have got it right. Last year, a study from University College London suggested that seven portions saved more lives than five. They also found that vegetables and salads are better than fruit, and that regular consumption of canned fruit may actually increase your risk of death. No significant benefit was found for people who juice their fruits. A serious blow to the modern smoothie cult of fancy, expensive juicers.

Yarrow plant

I tend to slip up on the vegetable end of healthy living, but my dog is religious about getting his daily walk. Seven days a week, weather permitting, he follows World Canine Organisation advice. Dublin allows us to do beaches, piers and small mountains as a rule, but this summer we went off-piste and started to explore wastelands, which the Celtic Tiger has left us in abundance. The dog has plenty of olfactory distractions, but to make the wasteland more interesting for myself, I've developed an amateur interest in the wildlife that develops on desolate, overgrown sites. I won't lecture you about the birds and bees, but I will mention a common medicinal plant, yarrow, that seems to be thriving everywhere Ireland has failed. The yarrow has a distinctive white appearance between May and October, with its flat-topped clusters of tiny flowers. The real name of this sweet-scented plant is achillea millefolium - named after the warrior Achilles and the thousands of tiny fern-like leaves on its stem. The Greek hero used to bring it into battle to staunch soldiers' wounds. Its haemorrhage-stopping properties also led to it being known as carpenter's weed and the nosebleed plant.


John in Waterford has been in touch to ask about twin circular scars on his right upper arm. He received them kicking and screaming in his mother's arms 70 years ago, and was told later that it was "cutting the pox" - the old-fashioned method of smallpox vaccination, where the skin was cut to introduce the dose. Ireland had a long, troubled history of smallpox infection. It caused horrendous skin eruptions and death was the result in a third of cases. In medieval times, it was often misdiagnosed as leprosy. Smallpox was the great dread of the public, particularly in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The last recorded death from smallpox is said to have taken place in the north Dublin workhouse of Balrothery in 1907, but in 1921 cases were noted in Enniskillen, Drogheda, and Shillelagh, Co Wicklow. Ireland ceased smallpox vaccination in 1972 and the world declared it gone a few years later. In the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York, fears about bio-terrorism spurred the then Minister for Health, Mary Harney, to spend a couple of million euro on 600,000 doses of smallpox vaccine. My only fear is the expiry date.

Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the 'Irish Medical Directory'

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