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How thick do you spread your butter?

Fergus Walsh | 18:06 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Do you remember exactly what you ate yesterday? How thick do you spread your butter? I ask because 500,000 adults in Britain are being surveyed on their eating habits. All are participants in UK Biobank, a huge medical research programme funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Medical Research Council and the government.

You won't easily forget if are one of the 500,000. On enrolment all of us underwent a battery of medical checks. We also donated genetic material which will be stored for several decades. Scientists hope the project will lead to improved diagnosis and treatment for a host of conditions, from dementia to heart disease and cancer.

Which brings me to the food survey. Like other participants I was sent a comprehensive online questionnaire designed to detail every morsel I consumed yesterday. There was a long list of vegetables, from carrots to aubergines, next to which I had to tick the box marked "none". Other items included alcohol - one medium glass, and butter on bread - spread not thinly nor thickly, but just right to my taste. I imagine a researcher raising an eyebrow after seeing that I had at least three portions of "hard cheese". But then again one portion is listed as being "the size of a small matchbox" - hardly a mouthful!

There were also a couple of questions on physical activity. Sadly, it was not a day that I cycled 50 miles, but I did do some light exercise, thank goodness - namely running for a train and lugging heavy camera equipment around a hospital.

So what is the point of it all? The researchers at UK Biobank already know about my weight, eyesight, lung function, hearing, grip strength, bone density, not to mention sexual history and lifestyle. Then there are the samples of blood, urine and saliva in storage in a massive freezer near Stockport.

"Asking additional questions about diet and physical activity over the internet is a very simple way to add considerable detail to the resource," said Dr Tim Sprosen, UK Biobank Chief Scientist.

"This makes it more valuable to scientists when finding out how lifestyles influence our chances of developing a wide range of ailments, or working on better prevention."

So over the next 30 years as the 500,000 participants age, the researchers will have a huge amount of data to sift through and find out many more genetic and lifestyle factors which influence health.

What about how thick I spread my butter - is that really useful, or prying on a man's breakfast habits just a bit too much? Dr Sprosen said: "The type and thickness of a spread on bread can be important in determining fat consumption, especially if the individual eats lots of sandwiches. What we put on our bread, or jacket potato, can be as important as the meal itself in terms of nutrition, and often this is overlooked." Oh, ok then.

Don't worry if you are a UK Biobank volunteer and have not received your food survey yet - they are being sent out over the next couple of months. Later this year the team plan to ask participants if they will wear a watch-sized accelerometer or motion sensor for a week. As a gadget lover, I can't wait. And that surely will be the week that I exercise a lot and spread my butter more thinly.


  • Comment number 1.

    How thick do you spread your butter? or should should it read - change 'do' for 'are' and delete from spre... to ...tter!!!

    But seriously: hard cheese" --- "the size of a small matchbox" the small one we have is for lighting bonfires and is 10 x 4 x7 cm and I couldn't eat that much cheese. What would have been wrong with asking for the approximate dimension of the lump of cheese?

    Who writes these surveys? They clearly haven't any significant arithmetic ability or much understanding of number. If the rest of the survey is a vague and open to interpretation and misinterpretation then the survey will be of little use, but I guess that was the interpretation your intended your readers to comprehend!

    Who is the Welcome Trust etc. paying to collect these data? Did some numerically challenged civil servant design the questionnaire?

  • Comment number 2.

    How thick do I spread my butter?
    If the Government is going to so a study, which will cost taxpayers' money, I can see a small revelency in this type of study, but I think the money would be better spent on
    - examining contamination level re radiation that may have reached UK;
    - examining the biological consequences/changes that may have been caused by inadvertantly (or purposely) eating bio-engeneered foodstuffs (E.G. Mansanto Products) and
    - examining the health degeneration (or improvement) of those workers forced by austerity to work more than one job or more than one shift because otherwise his (and his family's) existence might be at stake.
    Oh well, I suppose there us some small probabbility that the results on "something" will be processed and we will by glad that we took the time to do this exercise (the only excercise moast of us have time for.).

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    It is very easy to mock this aspect of the Biobank research. Dietary research is extremely difficult to do well, because human beings have free will. We lie to researchers, and lie to ourselves. How many people answer questions about their alcohol consumption truthfully? We are very bad experimental subjects.

    Our bodies have evolved to be well suited to be hunter gatherers - physically active and with limited food supply, not to sit in front of computer screens and have as much food as we want. Biobank researchers do this research, not because it is easy, but because it is important if we are to live healthy fulfilled lives despite our nature. I know that sounds preachy, but those who do the things that are difficult deserve our respect.

  • Comment number 5.

    only use real butter cant be doing with the much thats man made it kills you faster than a knob of butter ever will. Wont make you fat either as your body struggles to deal and prossess unnatural fats...

  • Comment number 6.

    Oh Fergus, for goodness sake. A few slices of brown bread with some British butter ham or cheese and a glass of British milk. Cheese or egg on toast perhaps? Shocking!

    No, I'm not farmer or a shop owner. Not an old fart either. Just keep it simple. Too many programs on television promoting aspirational meals and foods that wind us all up to believe we are somehow 'missing out' if we don't cook and eat what's promoted on TV?

    Cookery programs have become the 'X' factor of food. Just stop it - information and inspiration is one thing - but promotion of anally-retentive chefs is unhealthy - don't you think?


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