Published on 25th September 2015


 

A former banker, qualified doctor, experienced television producer and presenter, and rather brave self-experimenter, Michael Mosley can usually be seen on our televisions being tested, screened or scanned. Many of us would baulk at the idea of being infected with a disease or eating our own blood; but for Michael, it’s just another day in the office. Louise Wates writes. 

Doctor, television presenter and (I hope he will forgive the description) one-man lab rat, Michael Mosley is an interesting man. Affable and with a mischievous smile, he is an unassuming kind of chap who is possibly recognised more for what he has done, rather than his name. He has been on our television screens for a decade, so I hope he won’t be offended that when (after our interview) I asked friends and acquaintances if they had heard of him, many shook their heads. But when I said “he’s the TV presenter who infected himself with a tape worm and made a black pudding out of his own blood” their faces lit up with recognition.

It’s possibly because of this kind of recognition that The Guardian newspaper once referred to Michael as “Auntie’s stunt presenter”, an accolade which seems to amuse him, but with which he doesn’t quite agree. “I don’t really do stunts,” he says. “I mean on the whole I do these things because I think they’re tremendously interesting.”

Through the BBC’s Horizon documentaries, Michael’s body and brain have been put through diet, exercise, scans and infection. He has even had plasma from his own blood injected back into his face. But it’s not so unusual. Many scientists have experimented on themselves, or been experimented on. Michael’s own inspiration was Nobel laureate Barry Marshall, the Australian doctor who discovered that ulcers were caused by bacteria.

Michael explains, “Barry was convinced that stomach ulcers are caused by a previously-unknown organism called Helicobacter pylori — couldn’t convince anyone else, so he swallowed it himself and induced gastritis. He treated himself with antibiotics and showed that basically you could cure yourself of ulcers, which were regarded as an incurable disease.”

At the time, Michael was working behind the cameras — for 20 of his 30 years at the BBC he was a producer and executive producer. But the Barry Marshall programme was the catalyst for him stepping in front of the cameras. “That got me really, really interested in self-experimentation in the first place,” he says. “I pitched the idea of doing the history of medicine told through self-experimenters to the controller of every BBC channel for about 15 years. Eventually I got in front of the controller of BBC4 and she said ‘you seem enthusiastic why don’t you do it’.” The result was Medical Mavericks, which aired in 2009.

Michael laughs at being called a “stunt presenter”, but doesn’t entirely agree with it. “Generally there is a purpose,” he says. “The only reason I quibble with the word ‘stunt’ is because I only do these things for a reason, whatever the reason may be. So when I was doing the 5:2 diet [during which people follow a low-calorie diet for two days in the week ] I put myself on a kind of fasting, but there was a purpose to it — I was genuinely curious and I’d just discovered that I was a diabetic so I wanted to do something about it.” 

More recently, he even had plasma from his own blood injected back into his face

But what about making the black pudding from his own blood? Was there a reason for that?

“I concede that one,” he laughs. “The rationale for that was a bit thinner than most. We debated that one. In the end I think probably that one was down more to curiosity than anything else.” He pauses for thought. “Ah... yup... no, the producer was very keen on it.” The argument for doing it, he explains, was that it demonstrated the nutritional qualities of blood. “I went ‘hmmm... not sure’,” he says. “In the end it was kind of curiosity rather than any higher purpose, I must admit.”

When I confess that the black pudding story put me off watching the whole series about blood, he says he’ll tell his producer. “We had a lot of debate about it because I thought it was a bit gruesome and I thought it was a bit... er... it was a little... you know. It wasn’t my finest moment but it was certainly an experience.” He says he had felt “absolutely fine” about eating the black pudding.

“It was just like black pudding,” he says, “just a little less salty than your average black pudding. It was a curious thing to do — but not a terribly elevated thing to do.”
Perhaps, surprisingly, there is a limit to what Michael is prepared to do in the name of science — or in the name of curiosity.

“My wife is a GP and she debates these things with me, [whether] they have a sense of purpose, [or] are they likely to be dangerous. I said yes to tapeworm but only to beef tapeworm as they are harmless — the pork tapeworm is quite dangerous.” His own tapeworm infection was part of a wider study. “You go into a village in Africa you don’t know who’s got hookworm, tapeworm, whatever it may be, and so they wanted healthy volunteers. When I was infected I was also collecting stool samples and sending them off to Liverpool.

“I wouldn’t have done hookworm because there wasn’t a particular project it was allied to, and hookworm is fairly unpleasant.”
Michael also discusses his projects with his children. Undergoing genetic screening, for instance, could flag up conditions that might potentially affect them, and so he makes sure that his children would want to know. So far, they do.

In the long-term, self-experimentation has seen him make changes to his lifestyle. After trying the 5:2 diet he now advocates it as The Fast Diet through a website and book of the same name; although he says that it may not suit everybody.

“I’ve always said I don’t recommend it to children, to pregnant mothers, to people who want to get pregnant or to people who have a history of food issues. Beyond that I’m sure it’s not going to suit everyone. Some people try it and it doesn’t suit them at all.

I think that’s true for any form of diet.”

If you can stick to any diet, he says, you will probably lose weight. “But I think there are additional benefits which come from intermittent fasting which go beyond simply weight loss — but I think there are some people who just find it psychologically difficult.” He adds that trials are ongoing, studying who will stick to the diet and who won’t.

Recently, a three-part Horizon special What’s the right diet for you? looked at whether overweight people fell into one of three groups: feasters, constant cravers or emotional eaters. After taking the online quiz, Michael found that he was a constant craver. But he doesn’t seem surprised. “I have a tendency to go around and munch things if I see them,” he says. “So in my house we tend to ban them all because if there’s chocolate lying out on the surface I will eat it. If there’s cake lying out on the surface I will eat it.”

It’s surprising, considering his knowledge and borderline risk of diabetes. “That’s why these things are almost never about knowledge,” he says. “I’m constantly tempted — particularly by sugary things, despite everything I know. 

“My daughter has now forgiven me for eating her Easter egg once when I came across it. She was eight or something like that — she’s 15 now but she still remembers it and reminds me of it.”

Creating circumstances in which you are less likely to be tempted will help, he says. “There’s quite a lot of evidence that the stuff you see is the stuff you will eat.” But willpower “is grossly overrated” he adds. “I have a range of strategies of which one is simply to not have it in the house. I adore chocolate — I have a very sweet tooth.”

The Fast Diet, however, does mean eating less food for two days of the week. If Michael is a constant craver who will munch his way through whatever treats fall in his path (regardless of ownership!) how does he manage? Here, a certain amount of will power does come into play, although he believes it is made easier when you know you are not actually depriving yourself.

“You can exert the willpower to go, ‘Not today. Today I’m not eating any of these things, I don’t care. I won’t have the pizza, I won’t have the chocolate, but I’ll have it tomorrow.’ And then tomorrow comes and maybe you do but maybe you don’t. If you say ‘I’m never going to eat chocolate again’, then you kind of give up and scoff the chocolate bar in front of you. If you think ‘I can have it tomorrow’ generally speaking I can exert enough willpower.”

An advantage to the 5:2 diet, he says, is that by becoming truly hungry and then eating vegetables, we can educate our taste buds to enjoy healthier food. “There are physiological advantages, psychological advantages,” he says, “but also the fact that if you eat healthier foods when you get hungry I think it retrains your palate.” In the past he would advise others to eat more vegetables even though he didn’t do so himself. “But these days I do ‘cause when I get hungry I eat vegetables, and I find I actually enjoy them.”

Yet despite his knowledge and his more educated palate, Michael says he would still give in to unhealthy foods. Even bacon, which has been said to knock minutes off one’s life, is something in which he will still indulge, although these days not very often.

“How long does it take off your life?” I ask.

“About half an hour, I think,” he laughs. “But alternatively if you go for a run that’s going to add about half an hour to your life, so you can kind of compensate to some extent.” On the occasions he does eat bacon, he appreciates it. “I’m conscious that if I’m going to eat it I may as well enjoy it.” His children love bacon too, he says, but aren’t worried about long-term implications. “They’re not persuaded by the knocking half an hour off your life — they don’t care at this age.” But they have adapted to a household ban on fizzy drinks and most fruit juices.

Because science is increasingly able to probe more intricately into human biology, diet isn’t as straightforward as it was once thought to be, and because of this Michael believes people shouldn’t be afraid to experiment. “Our problem is that as we get a better understanding we realise the world is much, much more complicated; so it’s no longer simply saturated fats — it’s also down to the type of fats. You can also throw in the fact that genetics makes it much more complicated.” Because of this, he is “a great fan” of self-experimentation. “I think people should experiment with themselves,” he says. “There is an advantage to being a bit mindful, to trying different foods, seeing what effect they have on you, but also whether you enjoy them.”

Ultimately, though, he believes that getting away from processed foods is important. “I’m a great believer on the whole that at its core, there is a simple message that processed foods are generally bad. The more processed they are, the worse they are for you, and the closer you can get to the real food the better. But it’s also difficult because processed foods tend to be, by their very nature, tasty.

“We have this idea it’s fat, it’s sugar, but the reality is most of us don’t fill our faces with a bowl of sugar, we don’t drink a pint of cream — but if you put them in the freezer and mix them up we have ice cream and, blimey, we love ice cream!”

Image credit BBC/Ed Miller. Copyright BBC

Michael’s new series ‘The Extraordinary Making Of You’, produced in partnership with the Open University aired on BBC2 in September. Check the BBC iPlayer for availability.

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