When I was at medical school, my general disinterest in the subject matter and yawning gaps in my knowledge meant that I hated questions. Now I love them. Perhaps that's to do with the fact that I now have a chance of being able to answer some of them, having spent more than a decade in the field of nutritional medicine. I reckon seeing real people with real problems in clinical practice has proved invaluable when it comes to offering readers health advice. For instance, when I'm advising magnesium supplementation for cramp, there's a certain confidence to be had from having seen this work dozens of times. For other queries, such as the one about bottled and tap water, I do my best to base my answers on the available evidence.
I suppose one thing I did learn at medical school was how to review the scientific literature with a degree of objectivity. That said, I am well aware that science can give us some, but not all, of the answers. Because of this, I do think my academic credentials sometimes count for nowt. My preference is for individuals to concentrate not so much on the messenger, but the message.
Your questions answered
Q I bet you are asked this all the time, but can you tell me what you eat?
A Actually, this is the first time a reader has asked me this. I normally start with a big fresh juice made from carrot, apple, beetroot and ginger. I will also have some cafetiere coffee and some mineral water. If I'm peckish late morning, I have some fresh or dried fruit or nuts, perhaps with some goat's yogurt. Lunch is usually a salad (normally dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar) with chargrilled lamb or grilled fish on top. My evening meal is usually meat or fish with buttered, cooked veg. About three-quarters of my diet is organic. I'm no angel and do indulge in some dark chocolate or liquorice from time to time. Apart from my morning coffee, I only drink water during the day. I do drink alcohol, however, sometimes to excess. I am on a personal crusade to return the Campari and soda to its rightful place in popular drinking culture.
Q Can you suggest an antidote to cramp? I get frequent and extreme cramp in legs and feet which can be paralysing.
A Yes, more magnesium usually does the trick in the long term. This nutrient is very important for normal muscle function and is also commonly deficient in the UK diet. Nuts are rich in magnesium, so you might like to eat more of these. However, I also recommend you supplement with magnesium at a dose of about 400mg per day. It may take some weeks or months for you to feel the benefit, but this should resolve your cramps over time.
Q You recently recommended drinking more water to help alleviate headaches, but should this be tap or bottled? Do you have a preference?
A I prefer bottled water over tap. The sanitation of tap water taints it with chlorine and by-products of the chlorination process that have toxic potential. Studies have linked the consumption of tap water with an increased risk of certain cancers (such as those of the bladder and rectum) and pregnancy-related problems including low-birthweight babies. Mineral water is naturally free of the chemical contaminants used in the processing of tap water, and so I believe it really is better.
Q You often recommend oily fish and fish oil to provide omega-3 fats in the diet. Is there any way for vegetarians to obtain these fats?
A I covered this in a column last year, but have had more questions on this than any other subject, which leads me to conclude a recap is in order.
The three main omega-3 fats in the diet are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) - both found most abundantly in oily fish - and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) - found in some nuts and seeds. Most of the research has focused on the health-giving properties of EPA and DHA. There is evidence that ALA can have benefits for the body (including a reduced risk of heart disease), though these are generally taken to be more limited than those of EPA and DHA. However, it is also true that small, but perhaps significant, amounts of ALA can convert to EPA and DHA in the body. A rich source of ALA is flaxseed oil, and I generally recommend supplementing with this at a dose of about 1 tbsp (15ml) a day. Two other omega-3 sources are omega-3 rich eggs (eg Columbus eggs, available in supermarkets) and supplements of vegetarian DHA. Such supplements are not easy to find, but are available from the company Healthspan.
Q Does honey have any nutritional benefits?
A While honey is almost all sugar (and therefore not something to be eaten in quantity), research suggests that its consumption can boost body levels of several nutrients including vitamin C, iron, magnesium and zinc. Honey also contains antioxidants - substances that help quench the activity of damaging free radical molecules that are believed to speed the ageing process and increase the risk of health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer. From a nutritional perspective, it seems that dark honeys are generally best; studies show that deeper honey hues are a sign of higher antioxidant levels.