Every country has its own traditions, often steeped in historical or cultural relevance; whether it’s eating certain foods or certain days, hosting a sporting event or celebrating a national holiday. Etiquette, environment and even climate can often be factors in moulding a ‘national identity’ too; and sometimes this can have implications on several aspects of daily life, such as mental outlook, the amount of physical activity we do, and our diet. And in turn, this can impact our long-term health, and factor into life expectancy.
The typically ‘British way of life’ is undoubtedly more broad (and, in many respects, healthier) today than it has been historically, now that the UK is a much more multicultural and globalised nation. As of 2017, the CIA World Factbook listed the UK 35th for life expectancy in the world, at 80.8 for both sexes.
But we thought we’d take a look at some of the more traditional British institutions - fish and chips, roast dinners, Wimbledon, queuing - and consider the effect these might have on long term health - with comments from GP clinical lead at Treated.com Dr Daniel Atkinson.
Fish and Chips
Much like the roast dinner, fish and chips has historically been something of a staple of British cuisine. It would seem alien to some Brits, to travel coastward and not think of this dish. Its composition may vary from region to region, but its core two elements remain largely unchanged and consistent throughout the UK - battered fish and deep-fried chips.
Preferentially, the most common fish people opt for is either cod or haddock, though it can also be hake, pollock, plaice, and skate. The chips are usually fried, and sometimes can be purchased ‘triple-cooked.’ Additional extras or alternatives include battered sausage, mushy peas, gravy, baked beans, tar-tar sauce and scraps (comprising mainly of leftover batter).
A typical portion of fish and chips will comprise of around 700-1000 calories. This is enough to put a firm dent in your daily intake. According to the National Federation of Fish Friers, portion sizes have slowly risen. This may be an attempt to meet consumer expectations. Fish and chips is roughly comprised of a third fat, a third protein and a third carbohydrates.
Reference calorie intakes for women and men are 2,000 and 2,500 per day respectively. It depends on how big your portion is and what sides you have with it, but a helping of fish and chips would typically set you back about 900 calories; so exceeds the 400-600-600 recommendation from the NHS (for breakfast, lunch and dinner). It wouldn’t be detrimental to health if consumed in moderation and as part of a balanced diet.
However, if people consumed fish and chips excessively, then this could contribute to long-term health issues.
GP clinical lead Dr Atkinson says “if you consumed fish and chips several times a week or every day, the fat and grease would soon catch up with you. Over-eating fatty foods can raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.”
“However,” he continues, “if fish and chips is eaten occasionally as a part of a healthy and balanced diet, it actually has some nutritional value - particularly the fish which is rich in omega-3 and other nutrients. For a healthier version, ask for your fish without the batter.”
The Wimbledon tennis tournament is a highly celebrated sporting event; perhaps the biggest in the world. Legends of the sport such as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and, of course, Andy Murray have all graced its courts. While there is no question regarding tennis athletes and their physical wellbeing, the story may differ for the sports spectators.
Wimbledon takes place for two weeks in the middle of Summer. English weather is certainly unpredictable, but when temperatures rise and the sun beams down - this can prove troublesome for spectators and players alike. Tennis matches last for several hours - the longest recorded at Wimbledon lasted for 11 hours.
“If you’re planning on visiting Wimbledon,” says , “keep well hydrated and wear sunscreen. If you experience symptoms such as headaches of a throbbing nature, feel light-headed, are not sweating despite the heat, notice weakness in the muscles or cramping, notice irregularities with the heart or breathing - then you may be suffering from sunstroke. If this is the case, you should seek medical attention immediately and get yourself to a shady area.”
If you feel too hot at Wimbledon, a cool alcohol beverage like Pimms, champagne or a refreshing pint might seem like the perfect remedy. “However,” warns Dr Atkinson, “this will only serve to dehydrate you. There is nothing wrong with enjoying an alcoholic drink, as long as it is done in moderation.
The above said, overall, the presence of Wimbledon in the UK has to be a net benefit to our health and wellbeing due to the sociality and cultural relevance of the event.
“Wimbledon helps bring people together and unites them behind a common cause; so it’s a great social event and helps to forge bonds and relationships. Research has shown that people with more meaningful social lives tend to live longer, so for people who make an event of it and go often, it’s a good way to get out, catch up with friends and even meet new people.”
George Orwell once said that a foreigner would be struck by the English ‘willingness to form queues.’ This may be true, or it may just be an old-fashioned English stereotype that has withstood the test of time.
Either way, the natural formation of queues is interesting from a psychological standpoint. Richard C. Larson, Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that queuing occurs mainly because of ‘a short-term mismatch between service needed (or requested) and system capacity to provide service. No mismatch scarcity, no queueing!’ He goes on to say that ‘My conclusion is that the British are No.1 in the world at queueing politeness and etiquette.’
For the people who study queuing from a psychological perspective, they often cite the following true story. In the early 1950s in a city in New York, tenants began complaining about how long they had to wait to access the lift in their high-rise building. Queues were often particularly long and unbearable in the morning, lunch breaks and at the end of the day when people returned home from work.
From an engineerical and architectural perspective, there was nothing to be done. No additional lifts could be installed. So the building manager, desperate to keep his tenants, turned to his staff for ideas. When one employee noted boredom as a driving factor of people’s complaints, he suggested they install mirrors near the elevators.
Perhaps surprisingly, the number of complaints reduced to almost none. It’s often cited in organisational design theory and human behavioural studies also. When people were given something to do, even something so simple as looking at themselves in the mirror, it alleviated their boredom.
This is why retailers often fill the areas where people queue with items offered at discounted prices. This is because they know, psychologically, consumers are more likely to pay attention as a consequence of their boredom.
“From a health standpoint queues are a bit of a double-edged sword”, comments Dr Atkinson, “If we’re at the back of a queue that isn’t moving, the prospect of someone cutting in front of us or the people around us becoming restless and impatient can cause some anxiety”,
“But the alternative - no orderly process and everyone pushing to the front in a free-for-all - is probably worse for a lot of people and more anxiety-inducing. For example, the typical system at bars, where people collect in a horizontal line and expect to be served next, can create a more chaotic and less orderly huddle, and this can be stressful (especially for those who tend to be less assertive).”
“So queuing, despite its negative connotations, is probably better for our mental health in the long run.”
British humour is sometimes described as being of superior intellect or quality. Indeed, Britain has created some of the best television comedies in history and a number of celebrated comedians were born in the UK. One aspect of British humour often includes dry and witty sarcasm, perhaps associated with in real life with people native of Britain.
Whether a stereotype or not, sarcasm in itself still exhibits certain psychological characteristics, according to Dr Clifford N. Lazarus at Psychology Today: ‘Sarcasm is actually hostility disguised as humor. Despite smiling outwardly, it’s not surprising that the origin of the word sarcasm derives from the Greek word “sarkazein” which literally means “to tear or strip the flesh off.”
He concludes, ‘So, tone down the sarcasm and work on clever wit instead which is usually devoid of hostility and thus more appreciated by those you’re communicating with.’
Sarcasm can affect our capacity to build relationships, as Dr Atkinson explains:
“It can be a crutch for some people to rely on in an awkward, new or uncomfortable situation. It probably has more of a place between people who know each other very well and aren’t as likely to take offence. It’s probably best to try and keep it to a minimum when you’re around people you’re only just getting to know, even if it’s well-intentioned, as there’s a higher chance that people around you don’t recognise the joke and might misinterpret it (as straight-up hostility).”
The UK’s capital is a land of opportunity and great cultural richness, and particularly appealing to young people looking to develop a career, and make new friends. But while there are professional and social advantages to living in London, there are some drawbacks to living in one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
One is air quality. It was recently found that more than two million people in London were living in areas where air pollution was at illegal levels.
“This can affect people living with lung conditions or asthma,” comments Dr Atkinson, “you have to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of living in London. Air pollution is concentrated highest in central areas. Especially If you or a loved-one suffers with a lung or respiratory condition, it’s a good idea to think about the short and long term effects that living in a city like London may have.”
“From a mental wellbeing standpoint some people are generally more suited to bigger cities than others. For social butterflies or people who thrive on hustle and bustle, it’s great. But for people who aren’t as confident or outgoing, or suffer from anxiety, living in a large city can exacerbate feelings of isolation.”
The UK enjoys fairly long days during the summer, but much shorter days during the winter. The length of a day in these two seasonal extremes can vary significantly: sunrise to sunset lasting as long as 16 hours during the summer, but only eight or nine hours during the winter.
This isn’t as extreme as other countries, for example Greenland, where the longest day can be 22 hours of daylight, and the shortest just four hours.
But the seasonal difference in the length of days in the UK does have some implications on vitamin D levels.
“Our bodies convert sunlight into vitamin D, which helps to ensure good bone and tissue health.” explains Dr Atkinson “Some studies have also linked vitamin D to reduced susceptibility to inflammatory conditions, better mood, and better longevity.”
“In the summer, Brits will be able to get enough vitamin D from sunlight alone. But in colder, darker months, between October and March, Brits are advised to supplement their levels, because the weather doesn’t provide enough.”
“Some foods like salmon and eggs are a good source of vitamin D. Aside from diet, a good way to make sure you’re getting enough is to take a supplement during the winter months.”
The stereotype goes that British people enjoy a tipple a lot more than other nations.
But is there any truth in the assertion that British people drink more than most nations? According to data collected by the Global Information System on Alcohol and Heath, Britain doesn’t even make the top 10 (list of countries that drink most in litres per capita). In fact, British people consume relatively similar amounts of alcohol to the rest of Europe.
“We certainly shouldn’t be aiming to be in that top 10 list.” says Dr Atkinson, “We should all try our best to stick within the recommended guidelines regarding alcohol consumption. Drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week can be really risky for our health. Quite roughly, this might translate into 6 pints of beer, 6 glasses of wine or 14 shots of whiskey. It’s also not advisable to ‘save up’ your units for the weekend - spread them out evenly across the week.”
“In the long-term, consuming above the lower risk levels of alcohol can increase the risks of several serious health conditions, including cancer and heart disease. The British reputation for drinking among other countries I would speculate does have some roots in the ‘Brits abroad’ profile, where we drink more when we’re on holiday. If we binge-drank this much all the time, it would undoubtedly health repercussions very soon, causing liver and heart problems.”
National Parks and World Heritage Sites
There are 15 national parks in the UK - 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland. In North America, national parks can cover huge expanses of uninhabited land. In the UK, there simply isn’t as much space, so this differs somewhat. UK national parks are populated and often there is a broad agricultural presence.
There are several physical and psychological benefits to national parks. Any amount of physical movement can be of benefit. People often overlook walking. Walking or hiking in any of Britain’s national parks can then be of physical benefit. Hiking on hilly or mountainous terrains also counts toward the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise that people should aim for a week. It is likely of added motivational benefit to walk among picturesque scenery.
There are also several psychological and mental benefits associated with walking in national parks. Getting some ‘fresh air’ can easily seem like nothing more than a catchphrase. However, when people are away from rural, built up towns or cities (usually where there are higher concentrations of harmful pollutants) and travel to places like national parks, the oxygen content of the air is higher. This means more oxygen is absorbed into the lungs, bloodstream and brain.
This has been shown to increase creativity and boost overall mental health. A great number of famous British writers have been influenced by the countryside and outdoors. This includes Wordsworth, the Brontes and Beatrix Potter.
‘If you're struggling with stress, particularly if you live and work in a built up area, spending some time away from it all in green space can help to reset things in your head and give you some perspective.' says. 'It doesn't have to be an expensive affair or an entire weekend away in a cottage. In most places in the UK, vast expanses of greenery and walking trails are, at most, a half hour train ride away. Just a few hours walking around in nature will obviously be of physical benefit because it's a cardiovascular workout; but it will also be an effective stress-reducer too.'
West End and Literature
Britain has made a considerable contribution to the world in relation to the arts. London is home to the West End, which represents some of the best theatre in the world. The UK has been home to many exemplary writers, some of whose work is forever enshrined in classic literature. Britain has a strong cultural identity through artists, musicians, writers and performers. Some argue that “to be creative and our lives are affirmed and enhanced by the creation of beautiful things.”
Art therapy is founded on the idea that individualistic creative expression may be of therapeutic value. It may consist of painting, reading, writing, listening to or creating music. This is often done in conjunction with talk therapy.
It can be of benefit to anyone - but has been said to be of particular help to children, adolescents and the elderly. Art therapy can help people to “explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and cope with a physical illness or disability.”
“The UK has a great legacy in the arts”, Dr Atkinson explains, “and there’s plenty for people to do. Participating in the arts again contributes towards developing meaningful relationships, and helps to stimulate us mentally and creatively. This lends itself to better long-term mental wellbeing, and longevity.”
Britain may not have had the same culinary influence on the world as other countries, such as China or India - but of the full English breakfast, fish and chips and roast dinners, something of a holy trinity, we are immensely proud.
There is some debate surrounding the nutritional value of a roast dinner. As a guide - roughly 35% of our daily dietary intake should comprise of fruits and vegetables, a subsequent 35% should consist of bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy carbohydrates. It is of added nutritional benefit if people aim for these types of foods with higher wholegrain or fibre properties.
Lastly, a remaining 15% should account for protein foods, such as beans, nuts, eggs, fish and meat. It is better to reduce the quantity of red meat consumed. Another rough 10% should consist of dairy foods - lower fat options or alternatives are highly recommended. The last 5% should be dedicated to oils and spreads, in small, unsaturated amounts.
Foods high in sugar such as ice cream, chocolate, biscuits, crisps and cakes should be consumed as little as possible.
A typical roast dinner in Britain can differ depending on personal preferences and sometimes because of region. However, there are usually some common core elements. This includes some sort of roast meat (usually lamb, beef or chicken), a variety of vegetables (common additions include peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, parsnips and, of course, roast potatoes). Other accompaniments include yorkshire puddings, gravy, stuffing and and a sauce like mint or horseradish.
Whether a roast dinner is healthy or not depends really on who’s table you’re sitting at. But it is a dish that can be easily tailored to be completely balanced and of nutritional benefit. It could easily comprise of more vegetables, less meat and with the avoidance of red meat and more starchy ingredients like potatoes and yorkshire puddings.
The way food is prepared can also be altered. It is advisable not to use as much oil or salt in the cooking process. This British meal-time favourite can quite easily be turned also into a meal of superior nutritional value.
Safety in the wild
When people think of Britain, several things probably come to mind before British wildlife. As with any country, there are great numbers of interesting and eye-catching examples of wildlife in Britain - native species include the red squirrel, common shrew, little owl and the Scottish wildcat.
When people think of dangerous, or even life threatening, wild animals they may think of lions, crocodiles, venomous snakes and wild dogs and cats. Regardless of just how dangerous they may or may not be, none exist in the wild in the UK.
There may be several reasons as to why this is, including that much of the UK is now built up and hunting laws over several centuries have allowed for the protection of livestock and have decreased the presence of predatory species. However, the main argument surrounds our climate and environment. Some of the animals people consider ‘dangerous’ could not survive in the UK for very long.
Fortunately, the vast majority of people in the UK need not worry about encountering a vicious animal when in a natural setting. Among the most ‘dangerous’ animals in the UK are the European adder snakes, bees, wasps, hornets, Scottish wildcats, foxes, badgers and cows. These animals have the potential to ruin your week, but because we are fortunate enough to live in a first world country with developed healthcare - we needn’t worry. The fact that cows are the biggest ‘killer animal’ in the UK speaks volumes about our general safety compared with other nations.
The same is true of mosquitoes. Mosquitoes are probably the most deadly animal in existence, and are responsible for over a million deaths a year. This is because female mosquitoes feed on the blood of animals, humans included, for protein as part of their reproductive process. In doing so, they can spread infection, disease and parasites that live in blood.
In the UK, because we are a developed country and because several of the native mosquito population in the UK are not known to spread deadly diseases, they are usually nothing more than a nuisance. However, as the planet undergoes climate change, the UK could become a more attractive destination for non-native mosquitoes - which could increase the risk of mosquito-borne diseases.
Probably the most troublesome insect in nature in the UK is the tick, which can transmit lyme disease. As Dr. Aktinson explains:
“Lyme disease isn’t always noticeable at first, but has been linked to symptoms of chronic fatigue. It can be treated, but this doesn’t always get rid of the infection; so it’s better to be vigilant when walking in forested areas or long grass. Use a mild insect repellent, and wear long sleeves and trousers to cover your arms and legs.”
The National Health Service
In 1948, the then Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Secretary of State for Health Nye Bevan founded the National Health Service. They did so by bringing hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists under one UK-wide organisation, which had previously been under the control of local authorities and charities. Of the 3000 hospitals in Britain, 2751 were nationalised. It’s inception was inaugurated at Trafford General Hospital in Manchester, sometimes nicknamed the birthplace of the NHS.
The UK was the first country to develop a system of nationalised healthcare. In the next few decades, several others followed in its steps. Today, it is a system of healthcare that the vast majority of nations have gone on to develop.
In 2018, a consumer survey found that the NHS was what British people were most proud of.
“It goes without saying that the NHS has played a significant role in improving our health as a nation”, comments Dr Atkinson, “and increasing life expectancy over the past few decades; by providing access to care to people who wouldn’t otherwise get the help they need, but also by educating the general public on healthy living.”