As a television presenter and academic, Prof Alice Roberts says she feels conflicted between the charms and pitfalls of modern health pseudoscience. She talks to Mark Bailey about her own diet – and the danger of sugar in schools
As an expert in biology, anthropology and anatomy, Professor Alice Roberts has no time for trendy diets that allude to an idyllic golden age of human health. And Exhibit A is the ‘paleo diet’, which claims to mimic our ancestors’ pristine consumption of meat, fish, fruit and veg.
“The paleo diet is utter nonsense – it is such pseudoscience,” declares the flame-haired television presenter, 46, when we meet at the British Library in London. She softens her crisp scientific verdict with a smile. “We're not stuck in bodies from the Paleolithic. Today, most of us in Western Europe can drink fresh milk. That's something which has evolved since the Neolithic with the advent of farming. I'm not stuck in a body from the Stone Age. I'm stuck in a body from 1973!”
Roberts is concerned not just by the evolutionary differences in human digestion but by the diet’s potential to exacerbate our existing over-consumption of meat. “The environment would be better off and everyone would be healthier if we stopped eating meat,” she continues. “It’s tempting to look back into history with rose-tinted glasses. Most people in the Stone Age didn't live anywhere near as long as we're living now. Today we can enjoy a more wide-ranging diet and we have fruit and vegetables available all year round.” The paleo principal of eating more natural fruit, veg, nuts and seeds is, she says, “just standard dietary advice.”
Having presented shows such as Don’t Die Young, The Incredible Human Journey and her current Channel 4 series Britain’s Most Historic Towns, Roberts is accustomed to the delicate art of popularising but never distorting science and history for a wider audience. “I'm conflicted because I want to rail against this dreadful pseudoscience, which is just a way of selling diet books, but then I think, well, anything that motivates people doesn't matter so much. I just don't think we should be warping the science.
"The science of being healthy is well-known. It is not esoteric. There are no magic bullets. If you want to live a long life, we’ve known the answers for more than a hundred years. It’s a wide-ranging diet with as much fruit and veg as you can stuff into yourself, and plenty of exercise. It doesn't even matter what kind of exercise.”
Roberts, who lives in Bristol with her archaeologist husband David Stevens and their two children, doesn’t claim to be entirely virtuous herself. “I'm a guilty fish-eating vegetarian,” she says, pointing to the dangers of over-fishing. “I was completely vegetarian for 18 years but I started eating fish when I was pregnant with my daughter. I needed Omega 3 oils and I thought if I'm going to take cod liver oil capsules I might as well eat fish. And I discovered it was even more delicious than I remembered.” She is pondering a ‘flexitarian’ or ‘reducetarian’ approach. “You cut down but don’t beat yourself up if you have a bit of fish or meat. If everybody did that it would be good for our health and the environment.”
Few nutritionists would encourage her routine of having only a black coffee for breakfast but her rationale is logical enough: “This is probably some kind of weird physiological defect but I'm just not hungry in the morning. And I think it's a pretty good rule not to eat when you're not hungry.” She admits she is an “unadventurous cook” but does a good vegetable lasagne. “The kids kind of pick through it and take the courgette out,” she says. Her Jamie-Oliver inspired husband does most of the cooking. “My husband’s prawn pathia is amazing – it’s my desert island meal.”
Having previously worked as a junior doctor, Roberts remains deeply concerned about our societal and cultural relationship with sugar. “There is this weird thing about thinking kids have to snack to keep their blood sugar levels up but, well, your body does that anyway. You shouldn't need to be snacking. We have to be careful as parents to make sure they don't develop too much of a sweet tooth. My kids eat pretty healthily but I get frustrated that they are given sweets at school and I'm not asked. When kids have birthdays they bring in sweets to share with friends. Those kinds of things, we've just got to get rid of. We think it's lovely but it's not.
"And there is this endless rota of bake sales. I think: can’t we have a fruit stall instead?”
Her approach to her own personal health has evolved over time. “I'm a medical doctor originally so I have quite a negative definition of health as the absence of disease. But now personally it's much more than that. It encompasses a concept of wellbeing.” As part of this broader philosophy, she tries to add movement and pockets of peace into her daily routine. Today she cycled to Bristol Temple Meads station then hired a Boris bike to ride across London. “I have probably added an hour and a half of exercise just by biking.
"I am also a fan of walking meetings. I recently had a five-mile walk with a producer of Historic Towns; we chatted through ideas and it was so much nicer than sitting down.” As Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, she is proud that the university has created a 12-acre ‘Green Heart’ parkland for students and staff to enjoy. “Having meetings and tutorials outside is brilliant for quality of life.”
She admits it isn’t easy to stay active when she is busy with work. For her new TV series she spent long days filming in locations such as Dover, Cardiff and Oxford, and in September she will begin a nationwide speaking tour entitled ‘Digging Into Britain’s Past’.
“When I get this busy I think of my exercise on a weekly basis instead. There is a recommendation to do five lots of 30 minutes of fairly vigorous exercise a week so I try to do at least that.” She enjoys gym workouts, spinning classes and body combat classes. “I particularly like a class called Blaze. It’s a mixture of running, weights and boxing where you see your heart rate up on the screen and you try to get it above 90 per cent of its maximum. I find it massively motivating.”
However, her lifelong passion is for outdoor adventure. “I grew up cycling and even when I was revising for my A-levels my dad used to take me for ‘night rides’ to clear my mind before bed. It was lovely.” Today she enjoys climbing and mountain-biking with her kids. “You’re away from the kids at work so time away at the gym makes you feel guilty. It’s not selfish because you're looking after yourself. But it is lovely if you can do things with the kids. I want them to enjoy nature and keep active.”
This family approach to fitness led her to take up kayaking. “As a family we go kayaking along the coast or rivers. It is physical but very serene. I used to surf but when my kids came along it turned into quite a solitary exercise. That's why we made the transition to kayaking. At Easter we spent a week kayaking on the River Fowey in Cornwall. We stayed at Golant so we could paddle down to Fowey on the tide, have lunch, and then paddle back as the tide came back in. It was perfect.”
Although known for her upbeat personality, Roberts suffered from depression during her time as a junior doctor, which she now sees as “a perfectly normal reaction” to the stress. “It is strange that there's not counselling in place for doctors who are dealing with life and death situations every day,” she says. “We need to think about the mental health of our healthcare staff.” She has learned that exercise is essential for her mental wellbeing. “When you're managing any mental health issue, physical activity is a brilliant part of the solution. Doing exercise which raises your heart rate and gets adrenaline pumping around makes you feel better. This is proven. There are lots of studies showing that physical activity should be prescribed.”
Her knowledge of biology and anatomy means that Roberts is acutely aware of the effects of ageing but she insists that staying active is the best medicine for us all. “My expertise lies in looking at disease in ancient skeletons so I'm increasingly aware of the wear and tear on my own skeleton,” she admits. “I've seen X-rays of my spine and I have a lot of osteophyte – bony growth around the lower lumbar vertebrae – which I've seen on skeletons in my lab. But the solution is to keep fit. If I'm active, it doesn't bother me as much. But if I'm not doing enough, my body tells me pretty quickly. Even with my asthma, the fitter I am, the less it bothers me. It’s the same with my shoulder aches.
"It is harder to maintain muscle as you age so I'm very aware of keeping fit. If you stay active you are just holding all that degeneration at bay.”
Alice Roberts presents Britain’s Most Historic Towns on Channel 4 on Saturdays at 8pm and available on demand at All 4. For tickets to ‘An evening with Alice Roberts: Digging into Britain’s Past’ visit alice-roberts.co.uk