How diversifying your networks equips you to tackle health & social issues

James Hamblin tackles health and social issues through journalism


Americans eat three times as much beef as the world average – roughly 322 quarter-pound burgers per person per year (or around 113 grams, to those of us more familiar with metric units). This is a bit gross to think about, but it gets even worse when you realise each burger uses more than 400 gallons of water during production (that’s over 1500 litres!).


It’s no secret that mass consumption of animal meat is pretty terrible for the environment. In The Future of Protein Will Not Be Animal Meat, James Hamblin (MD + senior editor at The Atlantic) looks into companies like Beyond Meat, who are investigating new protein sources – such as pea, soy and insects – that are a sustainable alternative to their traditional counterparts.



The video is part of the series If Our Bodies Could Talk, hosted by New York-based James, which explores a diverse range of health-related topics – Why is Google Making Human Skin, How to Defend Being Vegan, The Health Benefits of Going Outside and The Terrors of Skipping Breakfast.


“I end up writing a lot about the food system, nutrition and why people believe what they do about food,” says James.


“One of the topics I find the most fascinating is gluten. It seems that because some people have celiac disease, many others came to believe that gluten is unhealthy for everyone. Very few compounds in our diets fit into ‘good or bad,’ or black and white categories – but now gluten has a terrible reputation in many spheres. It’s on every menu everywhere you look. Yet it’s not clearly shown to harm anyone who doesn’t have celiac disease, which most experts say is about 1% of the population.


“Of course, a lot of people do limit gluten in their diets and feel healthier – but there’s a lot to be said for the placebo effect.”


Creating better health outcomes through journalism


James believes that journalism is a valuable tool for telling stories that entertain and educate. In his experience, interesting narratives are the key to getting people more invested in both their own health and health on a global scale.


“I had to become vegan after I started reporting on the food system,” he reveals. “I couldn’t keep eating animals. I think that’s the case for most people who learn about the food system – they either stop eating meat or significantly reduce their intake.”


The relationship between gender and health


Another issue James is passionate about is investigating the role gender plays health – and the way people view health.


“In the US, a classic example is heart disease,” he says. “While slightly fewer women than men are affected, the percentage of poor outcomes is higher among women. Traditionally, heart disease thought of as ‘something that men get’ – so doctors didn’t think to diagnose it. They didn’t identify the symptoms, which can be somewhat different in women, but still should have been obvious. It’s one of many harmful cultural stereotypes that have developed, and the Heart Association is now working hard to dispel myths and raise awareness among patients and doctors.”


“It’s also taken far too long to the at the different ways that drugs work in men and women’s bodies. Most drugs are tested in male rodents and then in male humans. Even this drug recently being marketed as the “female Viagra” – which tried to get FDA approval despite some concerning side effects, and many of the test subjects were men. The insomnia medication Ambien, too, was one of the first drugs for which it became standard practice to have different doses for men and and women – and this was only after women were essentially unintentionally overdosing and having accidents like car crashes. We shouldn’t wait until something like that happens to make sure every medication is safe and effective in men and women.”


“The balancing act is noting that there are some important fundamental differences in common male and female physiology – while at the same time, culturally, continuing to work towards equality.”


Making change happen in the global health space


Events like Global Ideas Forum are a great way of encouraging interdisciplinary conversations and getting people to look at health issues from new angles.


“Medicine has a long history of specialties and it’s very easy – especially in the current media landscape – to only hear from the people who agree with you. So if you want to bring about changes in health, it’s important to meet people who have a different set of experiences and backgrounds, and a different take on issues. As a journalist, I’m constantly trying to talk to more people and find stories that illustrate the world in ways I haven’t experienced.


“At Global Ideas Forum, I’ll be speaking about how information spreads in the media in ways that are good and bad, and how more experts can be involved in affecting that process.”
If you’ve got a ticket to #GIF16 this weekend, make sure you catch his talk at 5pm on Saturday. One day tickets are still available!



By lucy godwin, Communications Manager