Fad diets, midday sun and … coffee on the sofa: 12 doctors on the everyday dangers they avoid
Aug 18, 2023
From cosmetic surgery to grapes, and from trampolines to alcohol, a dozen medics tell us the things their experiences have taught them to steer clear of
I’d be surprised if you found a plastic surgeon who said they love chainsaws. That is something you won’t catch me doing. I deal with a lot of hand injury work – if you cut through a tendon or nerve, it is us who will fix that. I once had to reattach someone’s arm that got caught in a bench saw: it took hours. I guess a lot of us do DIY at home, but we would never own anything like that.
Motorcyclists have the worst injuries by a long way, so I would never buy a motorcycle or let my kids ride one. I wouldn’t drink a cup of hot coffee sitting on the sofa cross-legged. If you get burns in your nether regions, they are difficult to treat. I am paranoid about open fires: when the kids were younger, they were practically locked inside if a barbecue was on the go. I don’t think I’d ever get a fire pit.
I wouldn’t have Botox until I was in my late-40s. There are a lot of people having it in their 20s, but there are risks. I wouldn’t let anyone I know have buttock implants. It is too dangerous and having a big bottom might not be fashionable for ever.
I wouldn’t go on a fad diet. There are certain diets that can upset the way your body functions. High-protein diets can give you gallstones, and ones that are very low in fibre can affect your bowel and make you constipated. Instead, I try to maintain a balanced diet and avoid overeating. My wife is a doctor, too – a consultant radiologist – and we make sure our children eat well, limiting sweets and chocolate, especially around Easter, but we don’t want them to be utterly miserable.
I love oysters, but wouldn’t eat them from somewhere that didn’t seem reputable; if you’re in a landlocked area you probably aren’t going to get the best seafood. I wouldn’t get a takeaway somewhere that didn’t look clean. At medical school, they tell you never to reheat rice, but that is a regular occurrence in our house.
I am very cautious of avoiding burnout. I never read work emails on holiday, because I need a mental break as well as a physical one. I have realised that something that can have huge ramifications on your health is your relationship with loved ones, so I don’t argue with my parents and siblings. Life is too short.
I am the kind of mother who likes to see their children climbing trees and getting muddy, but at the same time I would not let my seven-year-old eat a grape that wasn’t cut up, because I’ve seen the fatal consequences.
Before I had kids I thought I would use the naughty step. But when you look at the neurodevelopment of a child aged two, they have no ability to think in an abstract way like this. All you’re doing is removing love, rather than giving them time out to think. I didn’t sleep-train my children and would not recommend using the “crying it out” method because it has been shown to increase cortisol levels, which makes the child stressed – and continues even when they have stopped crying for their parents.
We watch television as a family, but I don’t let my children have individual screen time because I can see a difference in their behaviour from it.
I have seen a lot of fatal injuries from horse riding. I always wanted my children to ride and I know that they would love it. However, I’ve held the hands of children who have died from horse-related injuries; I’ve had others paralysed from it. For my own mental safety, I don’t want them to do it. We don’t have a trampoline but I might lose that battle this summer – there will inevitably be a broken bone.
I am a living example of what you shouldn’t do, in terms of the sports I did and the damage it has done to my body. I played rugby until I was 43 – that was undoubtedly a mistake. As a result I have a neck that doesn’t turn very well and my back is in an awful state. I’ve had a knee cartilage done and an ankle rebuilt. I had eight teeth knocked out, three broken fingers and I’ve got a screw in a wrist.
I love running, which I reluctantly gave up in my 50s and miss dreadfully, but I can’t do it because of my knee. As you get older you realise you shouldn’t be concentrating on just one sport – your body can’t take it – particularly if it’s high-impact.
I would never ski without a helmet. From Christmas to Easter, I see one skier after another coming back with injuries, and a lot of the time they have been minding their own business in the lift queue until some out-of-control person takes them out.
I have three grandsons who play rugby, which is particularly difficult as I am involved in the concussion debate and do whatever I can to get kids into their 20s minimising their concussion risk. I try to steer my lot towards cricket and tennis.
I would not have any operations unnecessarily. In gynaecology, for example, there is sterilisation but also other forms of contraception – I would always take the option that avoids surgery.
I didn’t want medical intervention when I gave birth: first time round, I was encouraged to be induced after my waters broke, but I knew the signs of infection and avoided early induction of labour. In my second pregnancy, I had midwifery care throughout and a vaginal birth.
I try not to worry where possible. I go for walks with my husband and talk to friends to help me relax. When I talk to pregnant women, I tell them, “Let’s worry about the next few weeks, not think ahead too much” because half of the things we worry about won’t happen.
I don’t drink alcohol when I will be working the next day in case I have to operate. I limit what I drink generally: it is a slippery slope with women my age.
I don’t take paracetamol for a headache unless it is really bad. I see a lot of people with headaches in my clinic and they can usually be avoided by a healthier lifestyle. Quite often patients get headaches from popping too many paracetamols, or other over-the-counter medications. It is a vicious cycle: we call it an analgesic overuse headache.
I try not to skip sleep. If you want to get a headache, go to bed late and get up early. Sleep and downtime are important. Exercise is good to destress – 20 to 30 minutes two to three times a week of something that gets you short of breath. And I wouldn’t skip breakfast: everyone needs to eat at least three times a day. Also drink lots of water, two litres a day or more. Dehydration can really contribute to headaches.
Smoking is the single worst thing you can do to damage your body, so I don’t smoke. I see many patients with vascular dementia caused by blood vessels that have been damaged from smoking. I drink alcohol a bit, but excessive intake can cause seizures. The fact that I am constantly seeing people with smoking- or alcohol-related illness does have an impact on me.
As a doctor you have a different concept of risk. People worry about rare things, but the biggest risk for most of us is road traffic accidents. Whereas others might drive a flashy fast car, I am quite happy in my 1956 Morris Minor: it gets me there and back in one piece.
I would never take drugs. When I was younger, I used to go to parties and there was cocaine around but I wouldn’t touch it, because I was always so worried about the impact. I see young people coming in having had heart attacks with no other obvious causes.
I have a really sweet tooth but I try to be cautious about that. A lot of people at work call me Dr B. Once another doctor said to me: “Do you realise why you are called Dr B? It’s because you are Dr Biscuit!” Sometimes on a shift you don’t have time for lunch and you just wolf down whatever you can find on the ward.
I often see the fatal impact that stress can have on people. Sometimes people have heart attacks because they are overworked. I try to use my time off properly and don’t work too much in the evenings.
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I think I’m a pain in the neck as a parent. I make sure my teenagers exercise and I am adamant about making healthy food choices and not eating junk food on a regular basis. We eat home-cooked food: we don’t have fast food unless we are travelling back late from somewhere, and don’t have sweets all the time. But Friday is our aberration night when we can break our good habits and everyone gets a chocolate bar.
I work in brain injury and see many people who have had catastrophic traffic accidents. So a big thing for me is cycling: I would never cycle in central London. I am a leisure cyclist and do it in the countryside and on cycle paths. But cycling in London is a hard no.
I don’t use my mobile phone as an alarm clock. I don’t bring it into my bedroom and have a ban on screens there. Even if your phone is on silent, it can affect the quality and quantity of your sleep. And if you’re not getting sufficient good quality sleep, your cognitive performance will be noticeably worse. Chronic sleep deprivation is extremely detrimental to our health.
I couldn’t rest easily without knowing I have a lasting power of attorney. I’m involved in a lot of complex mental-capacity assessments, where the patient is unable to make decisions for themselves. Having made a lot of “best interest” decisions on behalf of patients, it is vitally important that if I were ever in that position, my wishes are taken into consideration. The only way you can guarantee anyone will know what they are is by writing them down.
I don’t eat processed foods. The reality is that we often don’t know what is in them and we certainly haven’t evolved to eat them. I grow my own veg and keep chickens, not just because I like knowing where my food comes from, but also because there are clear benefits in having more of a connection to the natural world.
If I go to a party and tell people what I do, everybody immediately gets very uncomfortable because they are holding a glass of wine or beer. I do drink alcohol but I’d say I’m more careful than the average person: I wouldn’t drink more than the guidance of 14-16 units a week. I’m always counting how much I’ve had.
I have 14-year-old twins and I don’t give them alcohol but it seems unlikely we will avoid it until they are 18. I sometimes tell them stories about what I have seen at the hospital – such as patients in their 30s with terrible liver disease – so they are aware of what can happen.
Obesity is another risk factor for the liver, so we try to eat healthily. I avoid eating red meat and processed meats. If I go to a restaurant, I never order a big steak. I have a colleague who has gone vegetarian, because he is convinced about the link between meat and bowel cancer. If you are eating red meat three, four or five times a week, your risk of cancer is going to be significantly higher. I’m no zealot: I let my kids have burgers but I won’t get a burger for myself.
I don’t put salt on my food. The amount of salt in our diet is high already, so we discourage our kids from putting extra salt on things. You just get used to the taste, then put more and more on. And that is a big risk factor for high blood pressure, strokes and heart disease.
I have seen so many families have the worst day of their lives, seeing the person they love the most in the whole world die unexpectedly. This makes me really conscious not to leave the house on an argument and always tell the people you love that you love them. Because you never know when it will be the last time and you never, ever want to have any regrets.
I box and have been doing martial arts since I was six, but am not worried about getting hurt. All boxers should wear head protection. I don’t step in to the ring competitively any more, because, as a doctor and MP, I can’t show up with a bruised face or a black eye.
With my daughters, I feel a great deal of responsibility that what they do as children can have an impact on their health later on in life. I don’t ban any food in the house. I want them to understand that everything is OK in moderation. I forbid the use of derogatory terms towards people’s bodies. We talk more about what is internal and external, healthy and unhealthy. I make a point of looking at people of all shapes and sizes and saying: aren’t they beautiful? I feel very aware of raising two girls in an age of social media, and it is so important that they are proud of their body shape, whatever that is.
I would never use a sunbed and actively talk people out of it when they tell me they do. There is absolutely no doubt that using sunbeds can increase your risk of skin cancer. Current celebrity culture continues to popularise the idea of wanting tanned skin, and social media beauty ideals drive it, too, but sunbeds will increase your risk of developing melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer in the long term.
Would I sit in the sun at midday in a tropical country? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t go out in the sun at all. Because I do think that there are positive benefits to the sun, the biggest one being vitamin D production in the skin, but also the mental health benefits. And if you exercise or train outdoors, if you’re a keen runner or enjoy playing golf or gardening, these are all positive reasons to be outside. It is just about making sure that you aren’t going to let your skin burn, because it is the burn that increases your risk of cancer.
I would not spend a lot of money on skincare. This idea that the more you spend on skincare the better it is for you is rubbish. I personally don’t spend more than about £20-30 on any product.
I have not had cosmetic surgery but that might change when I am older. There is no judgment from me as long as you’re not looking for it to fix your self-esteem.
There is this idea that doctors live healthier lives because of what we know and encounter through medicine – but I’m not sure this is true, or even what the measure of it is. As an oncologist, it might for me mean not smoking or drinking too much, whatever stands statistically to lessen my risk of developing a malignancy.
But any change for me, in how I live, comes more from a particular sort of encounter with medicine – from meeting life’s fragility and our mortality every day. I witness others who go from being well – over a short period of time, sometimes just weeks – to being very unwell, their lives changing sharply and utterly.
We see this every day in oncology, so I’m surprised we’re not wiser. The question for me, presented so clearly with something as obvious but as hidden as death, is how to live well inside our short, breakable lives. Because it seems that, while illuminated by death, doctors don’t necessarily do that. We might work hard to care for others, but we’re as capable of resentments, anger, greediness and hubris as anyone else, very possibly more.
For me, some days, suddenly and without warning, leaving a bedside or a conversation, I’ll be gripped by the fact of this shared mortality, and it will affect me, however momentarily. Less by spurring either a cautious or hedonistic lifestyle, less carpe diem, less even so much about me. More that I’ll be left softened by the world, moved maybe by the light on the way home, or by those I love or ought to love, noticing distances and feeling compelled to bridge them. Driven to live by what we owe one another in the time that we have, feeling deference and awe and connection, or to at least die trying?‘I once had to reattach someone’s arm that got caught in a bench saw’: Naveen Cavale, plastic surgeon‘I love oysters, but if you’re in a landlocked area you probably aren’t going to get the best seafood’: Ajay Verma, gastroenterologist‘I wouldn’t let my seven-year-old eat a grape that wasn’t cut up’: Cat Rose, paediatrician‘I played rugby until I was 43 – that was undoubtedly a mistake’: Bill Ribbans, trauma and orthopaedic surgeon‘I try not to worry’: Rita Arya, obstetrician and gynaecologist‘Others might drive a flashy fast car. I’m happy in my 1956 Morris Minor – it gets me there and back in one piece’: Tom Solomon, neurologist‘I see the fatal impact stress can have on people. I try to use my time off properly’: Shrilla Banerjee, cardiologistPrivacy Notice: ‘I couldn’t rest easily without knowing I have a lasting power of attorney’: Masuma Rahim, clinical psychologist‘If I go to a restaurant, I never order a big steak’: Philip Berry, hepatologist‘Always tell the people you love that you love them. You never know when it will be the last time’: Rosena Allin-Khan, A&E doctor (and MP)‘Would I sit in the sun at midday in a tropical country? Absolutely not’: Anjali Mahto, dermatologist‘The question for me is how to live well inside our short, breakable lives’: Sam Guglani, oncologist