Thursday, 20 November 2014

How you can help fight antibiotic resistance

The advent of antibiotics was a revolution in healthcare, and likewise, the gradual loss of their effectiveness is possibly the most frightening situation to find ourselves in. The conquest of bacterial infections is over, and the bacteria have turned the tide and come up victorious. Worst of all, we're all to blame because we've all unwittingly played a part in antibiotic resistance.

When antibiotics were first discovered and began to be hailed as a miracle, nobody thought that they would simply stop working one day. This is what is actually happening though, and it has dire consequences for the world.

Only a decade ago, superbugs like methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), were the kind of dangerous bacteria that was only found in hospitals, where infections and antibiotic use were more concentrated. This has changed, and now MRSA is found all over the world and there's a chance you could become infected with this highly resistant bacteria even from a simple prick to the finger.

Bacteria have even become resistant to most of the more powerful 'last resort' styled drugs like vancomycin, which are usually only used to treat infections that haven't responded to other antibiotics. Strains of tuberculosis called 'extremely resistant tuberculosis' are becoming almost impossible to treat, and new classes of antibiotics aren't being actively developed.

This is all real, and it's exactly as terrifying as it sounds. If antibiotics are lost, society itself will return to the dark days of medicine where nothing could be done to treat an infection. If your body can't fight it off, you, or someone you love very dearly, could lose their life. It's absolutely as serious as it sounds.

What causes antibiotic resistance?

Bacteria are extremely diverse, just like all other lifeforms. Unlike most life forms however, they multiply and reproduce at an unprecedented rate. Under the right conditions, a population of bacteria could quadruple within a few hours or less depending on the type of bacteria present. This allows genetic mutations to occur much more quickly in bacteria.

These mutations could be relatively benign, or they could even make a strain of bacteria more virulent. Another possibility is that a strain of bacteria can develop that isn't susceptible to a particular antibiotic. When that antibiotic is used, the bacteria that are susceptible are killed off, and the resistant strain goes on to multiply.

This is the ultimate cause of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics have been overused since they were introduced, and it's not uncommon for people to take them when they don't even need them. This has lead to a scenario where resistant strains of bacteria have become the most dominant kind because we've killed off the strains that were susceptible to our antibiotics and caused artificial selection to take over.

It's now more likely that when we contract an infection, the causative agent will be a resistant strain of bacteria, because there is simply more resistant bacteria around now. Our overuse of antibiotics has driven their evolution and could cause our own downfall.

Find out more about the cause of antibiotic resistance, and the methods scientists are using to stop it...

How can you fight antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance starts with you. When one person starts to take a stand, more are soon to follow. Before long, there is a revolution. We need an antibiotic revolution to sweep the globe to slow down the growth of resistance and give scientists the time they need to come up with ways to reverse resistance and develop new antibiotics.

To take a stand, all you need to do is try not to rely on antibiotics so much and only take them when they are really necessary. If you are one of the millions of people who ask the doctor for antibiotics when you have a cold or flu, you can make a difference just by stopping this and letting your body fight a cold. The common cold and flu are caused by viruses anyway, and antibiotics do absolutely nothing for a viral infection.

You can also speak to your doctor and ask them what they're doing to fight antibiotic resistance. Are they trying to limit how they prescribe antibiotics? Do they realise what is happening? Become a catalyst and start a conversation with your friends and family. Show them this article, or direct them to the CDC or other relevant health organisation. Share on social media and help spread the word.

We can't stop antibiotic resistance just by limiting how we use antibiotics, but we can definitely slow it down. If enough people jump on board and make the informed decision to really think about how they use antibiotics and whether they really need to take them for their condition, you'll help allow the much needed time for antibiotic resistance to be researched and conquered.

This can be done, but it needs to start right now, and it needs to start with you!

Easy ways to combat antibiotic resistance

  • Use safe food practices - avoiding bacterial food poisoning, avoids the need for antibiotics. Always store food properly and never eat anything that has expired or has not been preserved properly. If you don't know whether a food has been stored properly, you shouldn't eat it.

  • Practice good hygiene - good hygiene protects you from illnesses and helps avoid the need for antibiotics. Always wash your hands when handling animals, dirt, before eating, and before and after using the bathroom.

  • Don't ask for antibiotics when you have a cold or other virus - sure, your doctor may prescribe them to you, but they really shouldn't. Antibiotics have no effect on a viral infection. They only kill bacteria.

  • Always take the full course of antibiotics - often an infection will be cured before you finish a course of antibiotics, but if you stop taking them early, you increase the chance of resistant bacteria developing.

  • If you have chronic tonsillitis, consider having your tonsils removed - it's not recommended to just go ahead and have your tonsils removed to curb antibiotic resistance, but if you're sick of dealing with the tonsillitis and want to help fight against resistance, getting your tonsils removed is a way to stop the infections and avoid the need for antibiotics in the future.

  • Treat acne with alternative methods - if you have acne and use an antibiotic cream or take an oral antibiotic, you can try an alternative treatment like benzoyl peroxide, laser therapy, light therapy, or retinoid creams. Isotretinoin is often the best treatment if your acne is serious. Not only are these treatments often more effective, but they help avoid antibiotic resistance.

  • Practice safe sex - gonorrhea is becoming highly resistant and difficult to treat. You can avoid sexually transmitted bacterial infections by practicing safe sex and avoiding contact with infected persons. Get yourself checked and encourage your partner to do so to.

  • Avoid exposing other people to illnesses - if you have a bacterial infection, you should try to avoid exposing other people to your illness whenever possible. Always wear dressings over skin infections like impetigo, and wash your hands before touching objects or other people. If possible, simply stay at home while you recover. The less people that get infected, the less antibiotics that will need to be taken.

  • Talk to your friends, family, doctor, and pharmacist and share your concerns about antibiotic resistance. Ask them what they are doing and how they intend to help slow it down.

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What our prescriptions say about society

Levothyroxine pills [1]
The most common prescription medications provide insight into society as a whole. Not only is the overall use of medication rising over time, but the specific classes of drugs and the large percentage of the population regularly taking many different prescriptions is also on the rise and could be cause for alarm.

Over 10 percent of adults state they have taken 5 or more prescription medications in the past month according to the CDC. This itself is shocking, but the most commonly prescribed drug classes are even more shocking because they are indicative of the condition of society as a whole.


Antidepressants are one of the most over-prescribed classes of medications in today's society. Statistics from the CDC have concluded that at least 10 percent of the population regularly take an antidepressant medication, and up to 15 percent of people in the US consider themselves depressed.

Depression figures are even more out of proportion for women between the age bracket of 40 - 50 years, of which 25 percent are taking an antidepressant drug. This is also well out of proportion with actual diagnoses of major depressive disorder as a whole, which has a lower incidence than commonly believed.

Part of the problem is that antidepressants aren't just prescribed by psychiatrists—after careful assessment and communication with a patient—they're prescribed by GPs; some of which haven't had the time to build up a long relationship with their patient.

Up to two thirds of people who take antidepressants have been shown to not actually have clinically diagnosed depression, and doctors may be handing out these drugs both too readily, and without just cause.

This overuse of antidepressant medications says one frightening thing about modern society. People seem to feel sad more often than they should, or worse, they simply can't deal with the problems they face on a daily basis.

Prozac - a common antidepressant [2]
We're losing the ability to work through trauma in a healthy manner without resorting to drugs, and it's only going to get worse as prescription rates increase. As a society, we are sad, moody, and we want a quick fix to all our problems.

Cholesterol lowering drugs

Cholesterol lowering drugs, the most common of which are the group of medications known as statins, are also a popular class of drugs. More and more young people seem to be taking a statin like atorvastatin (Lipitor).

Although statins are markedly safe, this shift towards prescribing to the younger generations is somewhat out of line with the traditional treatment for high cholesterol, where diet changes and exercise are considered the first line treatment for young people suffering from a high cholesterol level.

The question that needs to be asked here is not necessarily whether it is wise to offer cholesterol lowering drugs to younger people, but rather, are the cholesterol levels of the younger generation so out of control today that they require drugs just to prevent a heart attack?

Recent guidelines that outline new recommendations for the role of statin treatment in healthy or borderline unhealthy youth tend to skew any form of analysis because if you look at the amount of younger people taking a statin, you could draw a conclusion that they all have high cholesterol.

This isn't the case however, as there is an increased support for the prescribing of healthy people with statins as a preventative measure rather than as an actual treatment.

What needs to be addressed here is the role that pharmaceutical companies are playing in these guidelines. Are doctors really prescribing statins to the healthy young as a way to prevent heart disease later in life, or are pharmaceutical companies funding studies and aggressively marketing statins to young people and their doctors?

Pharmaceutical companies produce a lot of beneficial medicines that are vital to healthcare. They're definitely not evil, nor do they usually deserve the harsh hatred they receive from the public. They do have a bottom line however, as whilst they research and develop new drugs, they are also a glorified retail outfit in the end.

As a result, pharmaceutical companies may be one of the forces at work that are popularising the 'quick fix' ideal that runs rampant in today's society. Whether the young person taking a cholesterol lowering drug is healthy or does in fact have high cholesterol doesn't matter.

What matters is that they have been made accustom to expecting a quick fix, and if they can get that quick fix from a prescription medication, they will. This improves the pharmaceutical company's bottom line, but it does nothing for a society that is becoming increasingly more impatient and would rather take a drug than exercise and eat properly.

Blood pressure medication

Blood pressure medications are an indication of a society that is less likely to exercise and eat properly. Use of these medications is on the rise, just as blood pressure is on the rise, and a reliance on fast food and processed meals certainly isn't helping.

According to the CDC, 25 percent of people in the age bracket of 35 - 44 have high blood pressure. This figure increases dramatically with age, reflecting the fact that your risk of high blood pressure increases with age.

What is more alarming than this, is the fact that 11 percent of people aged 24 - 34 have high blood pressure, and this figure could be higher as this only reflects those who have been diagnosed with the illness. The CDC estimates that 25 percent of people with high blood pressure don't even know they have it, and thus haven't been tested.

At such a young age, this incidence of high blood pressure should be much lower, but instead, what we are seeing is that the younger generation has a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes than they should.

This is another reflection into the key facets of today's society that drive these figures. People don't want to exercise, they don't want to eat right, and they just don't look after themselves. As a result, we're more at risk for fatal illnesses and have a reduced quality of life. What we don't do now will come back to haunt us in 10 - 20 years.

If this has you worried about your own health, that's a good sign that you care enough about your body to make a change for the better. Exercise and healthy eating aren't just for gym junkies; they're for anyone who wants to live longer and have a higher quality of life without being reliant on the pharmaceutical companies.

By making a positive change today and sticking to it, you can fight back at these statistics. Your body and your mind will thank you for it.

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

5 Tricks food product marketers use to sell junk food

Michael Verhoef
A tasty can of chemicals...err, potato chips
Food label marketers are brilliant at what they do. Through the magic of wordplay and creative misdirection, they are often able to spur even the most health conscious individuals into buying a product that is far from healthy, or not as healthy as you are lead to believe. Here is a look at 5 of the neat little tricks they use to convince you to buy junk food.

Low fat labels

Claiming that a product is low in fat is one of the most common tricks employed by marketers, and it works too. Consumers will often purchase a product that they believe is healthier because it states that it contains less fat. What they don't often notice, however, is that there are methods the marketers use to make it seem like a product is low fat when it really isn't.

The most obvious of these methods is when the product is marketed as a 'low fat food', but there is that suspicious little asterix hanging there at the end of the word, trying to remain inconspicuous. This asterix, if investigated, is a note that there is fine print to be read. The fine print is found on the back or side of the product where it is more difficult to notice.

When you read the fine print, you will notice one very interesting caveat. The food product is low fat, but it is low fat compared to one of the manufacturer's other products, or a competitor's product. Just because a product contains lower fat than another related product, or to a competitor's product, does not mean it actually is low fat.

The same method is used when the label states that it is '40 percent less fat' or makes a similar claim. This just means that it is 40 percent less fat than the previous product or a competing product, but the product could still be high in fat itself. Approach all claims of low fat products with careful scrutiny and look at the actual amount of fat per 100 grams. This will help you avoid falling into a marketing trap.

Angel dusting

Angel dusting refers to the marketing technique of using a beneficial ingredient in a lower than required amount to create the perception that a product is good for you. Whilst a product may claim it contains a certain vitamin or mineral, the amounts of the ingredient are often actually negligible and won't benefit your health.

This type of deception is easy to see when you look at certain health drinks and supplements. Ovaltine Gold Crunch, for example, claims that it contains 10 vitamins and minerals. If you look at the actual concentration of these ingredients on the nutrient breakdown however, you notice that there is practically no benefit to be gained.

Vitamin B12 has a recommended daily intake of around 2 - 7 µg, and analysis of the product allows you to easily see that a recommended serving of the Ovaltine product contains a mere 0.02 µg of B12. This is one percent of the lower recommended intake. Calcium, which is present in the product at a level of 11 mg per serving, pales in comparison to the 1000 mg of calcium that is recommended on a daily basis for adults. This hardly lives up to their claim that the product is a 'good source of calcium'. If that is good, what is bad?

What's worse though, is that the product lists the amounts of these nutrients without telling you what percentage of your recommended intake is comprised. The percentages provided are the percentages of these nutrients when a regular serving is added to milk. By comparing the amount of vitamins and minerals in the Ovaltine, and then in the 'milk serving', you can see that the milk is what contributes the absolute bulk of these nutrients and what you're really looking at is the benefits of milk. Shady tactics indeed, but these same tactics are rampant in many other products.

Image: Yuankuei
McDonald's - The king of fast food marketing


Food marketers have a habit of taking the benefit of another product and trying to mislead you into believing that their product has the same benefit. In the case of Australian A2 Milk, which has been marketed in Australia and the UK for a while now, and is soon to be introduced to the US, their milk product is beneficial to those with digestive problems.

This company has a legitimate claim that their milk is better, because it is produced from cows that only produce the A2 milk protein. A1 milk protein has been implicated in digestive discomfort in people that experience problems when they consume milk. Because the A2 Milk doesn't contain any A1 protein, and only contains A2 protein, it is beneficial to those who have problems like this.

Dairy Farmers piggybacked on this with an attempt to make it seem like their milk is just as good for people with digestive complaints by stating in advertisements and on the label that their milk 'contains A2 protein'. They can make this claim because it's true, but what they don't tell is that just about all milk naturally contains both types of protein. The fact that the A1 protein is also present in their milk, means that it is not beneficial to digestive complaints. Only milk that contains the A2 protein alone will provide the benefits.

Dairy Farmers doesn't explicitly state that their milk is beneficial for anyone with digestive issues or allergies, but it does want you to draw that association yourself. They are hoping that by seeing A2 Milk advertisements and hearing about the benefits of that milk, that by claiming their milk 'contains A2 protein', they can fool you into thinking it is also beneficial in the same way. They piggyback on the advertising of another product, then use underhanded tactics to get you to draw the conclusions they want you to derive from their own advertising without saying it themselves.


Food marketers also like to use a form of misdirection, where they claim their product is free of something that is detrimental to health or simply undesirable in some form, but the product itself is naturally free of the ingredient anyway, so it's a moot point.

A big example of this is the marketing of marshmallows and other lollies. Manufacturers make the claim in big bold letters that their confectionery is 99 percent fat free, but this is the case for all products like this and isn't inherent to their own product or manufacturing technique.

Just because the product contains almost no fat, doesn't make it healthy either. Candy like this is mostly sugar, contains practically no vitamins and minerals, no fiber, and is worthless as a source of nutrition. The marketing attempts to have you perceive a benefit over a product like yogurt, which can contain fat. The difference is, the bag of lollies is a bag of sugar, water, and gelatin. The tub of yogurt contains a small amount of fat, but it also contains protein, calcium, low GI energy, other vitamins and minerals, and doesn't contain the bucket-load of sugar present in the latter.

A similar technique is used when marketers say a product has 'no added salt', or 'no added sugar'. The product could already be very high in those ingredients already, as is the case with fruit juices. Although a bottle of orange juice may state it contains no added sugar, it can still have the same, or close to the same, amount of sugar as any other orange juice.

Some product marketers even like to claim the product is MSG free in big bold font on the front of the product. This claim is formed around the idea that monosodium glutamate is harmful to health. Marketers use this belief to 'enhance' their product by stating that it is MSG free even though related products don't use it either.

This is a form of misdirection because they convince you that their product is healthy by claiming it is free of something that is considered to be 'unhealthy', rather than making any claim of benefits in their own product. Sure it could be free of monosodium glutamate, but is the product itself healthy or beneficial in any way?

Serving size shaping

It's no secret that certain foods are nutritionally dense. Chocolate, for example, contains over 2000 kilojoules (480 calories), per 100 grams. This is close to a quarter of the daily energy requirement of most adult people. Food product marketers attempt to get around this problem by shaping the recommended serving size to something ridiculously small.

Continuing to use chocolate as an example, it is common for the serving size to specify a certain amount of squares out of a block of chocolate. This might be three squares and equate to around 25 grams of chocolate.

On paper, this looks good to consumers because they see that the product contains 500 kj instead of a comparatively massive amount, but how many people really stop at three small squares of chocolate?

This kind of serving size shaping is used for most junk food products including lollies, ice cream, and party food. Nutritionally dense foods are made to seem much lighter than they really are by showing data to the consumer that is taken from a smaller serving than what they would really consume.

Ice cream often even uses a related technique where the serving size is measured by weight, but the amount of ice cream you eat is related to volume. The air whipped into the ice cream means that it is less dense and 100 grams of ice cream is often closer to 200 ml of ice cream in terms of volume. This makes it harder to measure out an actual serving or equate your serving with the nutrient breakdown on the label.

Sebastian Mary

Food product marketers will use any trick they can to convince you to buy their product over a competitor's product. That's not soon to change. What can change however, is the public's mindset. By taking a stand and carefully scrutinising the claims made by these marketers, you can choose better food options for yourself and send the message that their lies won't work anymore.

If they want to sell their product, they better make sure it's actually good instead of bashing the competition and manipulating words.

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