More to life than maths

Ignore the recommended caffeine intake, calorie consumption and exercise time - common sense is better than a calculator.

Ray Crowley

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Topics Politics

Life these days is fast becoming a highly mathematical affair. Most of us have at some point been asked by a doctor or health professional how many units of alcohol we consume in a usual week. My usual answer is: ‘Er.…’ But how long will it be before we’re also asked for our weekly caffeine count?

The Daily Telegraph warns us to ‘Be careful with caffeine’, and quotes Dr Wendy Doyle of the British Diabetic Association: ‘For most people, up to 400 [milligrams] of caffeine – the equivalent of four or five cups of coffee – should not cause side effects.’ (1) Which sounds okay, until you realise that, in terms of milligrams (mg) of caffeine, there is no such thing as a simple cup of coffee.

Filter coffee contains 80 to 150 mg of caffeine, whereas instant has 40 to 108. To add to the confusion, ‘amount in drinks varies according to the strength and the size of the container’. I find it hard enough in Starbucks to work out what I’m ordering within the sea of frappuccino, cappuccino, macchiato, latte, malt, grande, tall, short, argh!…let alone to think anything about caffeine other than that I want it.

Gone are the days when scrupulously calculating what you put into your mouth was reserved for faddy celebrities. Nowadays, diets that advocate eating ratios of proteins to carbohydrates to fats make the everyday Joe’s health section of the newspaper. The Times (London) recently devoted an article to the workings of the famous ‘eat as much fat as you like’ Atkin’s diet (2).

It’s no longer good enough to count your daily calorie intake (which is around 2000 calories for women and 2500 for men, according to the packaging of a loaf of bread that I found in my kitchen that had gone mouldy – probably because I had spent too long working out how many slices I could have). Now, you are also supposed to monitor how many grams of carbohydrate you eat.

I wonder if these daily allowances of calories and carbohydrates only apply to those who do the recommended number of minutes’ exercise a week? How much would you have to subtract from the total if you do an extra half-hour? If you go to the gym every day, is it okay to eat at McDonald’s? And is that just the burger, or could you eat the bun too?

It isn’t just food and drink that now have numbers attached. At college, we were reminded to take a break from studying every 45 minutes, to aid concentration. It has been recommended that you twirl your feet around every hour on long-distance flights to avoid deep-vein thrombosis. The health warning on PlayStation games advises: ‘For your health, rest about 15 minutes for each hour of play.’

Are we all going to clip a gadget to our waistbands to calculate the number of steps we have taken in a day and the number of calories burnt; sit down after dinner to add up total calories eaten; and if the tallies don’t balance, have a quick run around the park? Could you get anything done if the beeper by your desk reminded you to have breaks to aid concentration, breaks to have a walk around to ease your back pain, and time out to do your anti-repetitive strain injury exercises?

I have no idea how long I have been looking at this monitor while typing this column. Perhaps I should have rested my eyes by now. I will, when my contact lenses get so dry they become glued to my eyelids. Any sooner, and I probably won’t finish it. ‘Moderation’ seems to be defined these days by numbers rather than old-fashioned common sense. Perhaps I am blessed in that I instinctively know if I have eaten too much or played on the computer for too long.

I have no idea how much is a unit of wine, beer or spirits, and nor do I want to. ‘Degree of hangover’ works better to encourage not overdoing it all the time than ‘uh oh, 6.74 units too many this week’.

In fact, my desire to master all of these life-governing equations is mathematically equivalent to my desire to write my autobiography in binary code. That is, zero.

(1) ‘Be careful with caffeine’, Christine Doyle, Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 27 August 2002

(2) ‘More fat please’, Gary Taubes, The Times, Monday 15 July 2002

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Topics Politics

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