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Want to really shift the pounds in January? Get drinking water

Too often, we mistake thirst for hunger (and vice-versa).

If you’ve been struggling to come up with a suitable New Year resolution, may I suggest a determined plan to drink more? That might sound superficially attractive (depending on what kind of New Year you had) but I should make clear from the outset that it’s water, not alcohol, that I have in mind.

Ensuring adequate hydration has certain benefits, medically speaking. A good fluid throughput reduces the chance of urinary tract infection, and helps prevent attacks of gout and kidney stone formation in people prone to these conditions. If we’re short of water, the bowel will reabsorb every last drop from what doctors euphemistically term the “stool”, which can lead to constipation. And our kidneys function best when there is plenty of water around – they respond to dehydration by concentrating urine to conserve body water, but in doing so they can sustain damage through metabolic stress.

Aside from these medical aspects, there may be softer benefits. As the body starts to dehydrate, water within cells is drawn out into the circulation. The resultant cellular water loss can affect function in a variety of tissues. Athletes’ fluid balance has been the subject of extensive research, and even mild levels of dehydration measurably reduce physical performance. Studies of brain function have shown conflicting results, but overall it appears that mild to moderate dehydration impairs concentration and the ability to think through complex tasks. Headache is a common symptom of water depletion and, although it’s not a miracle cure, studies show that the severity and duration of headaches can be reduced by optimising hydration. So frequent swigs from a bottle of water may help ensure we’re in top condition to tackle our day.

Beyond this, water is a critical ally in the fight against the modern plague of obesity. Quenching our thirst with pretty much any other drink freights in energy along with the H2O, adding to our overall calorie load. There is also some suggestion that we readily confuse thirst for hunger. This might sound daft, but both sensations are mediated by the same region of the brain, and our highly adaptable brains rapidly forge associations between behaviours and the biological drives that they satisfy. All foodstuffs contain water, so it has always been possible to ease thirst by eating; but many of the fluids we consume nowadays are highly calorific, so we often sate our hunger by drinking. As a consequence of these crossed wires, we may be taking substantial excess energy into our bodies when all we’re after is some H2O. Anyone wanting to tackle an expanding waistline should respond to apparent hunger pangs with a good drink of water. If twenty minutes later you no longer crave food, then what you were experiencing was thirst.

As we age, our sense of thirst diminishes, and many elderly people completely lose the cues that ordinarily prompt fluid intake. Of itself, this increases susceptibility to urinary tract infection, but dehydration is also a frequent and severe complication of otherwise minor illnesses such as flu or gastroenteritis in this age group. The rapid downward spiral of low blood pressure, kidney failure and mental confusion frequently leads to hospital admission, or even death. We assume that if someone isn’t thirsty then they’re not short of fluids, but the most important advice I give elderly patients is to ensure that they drink regularly, even if they don’t feel like it.

If you are interested in increasing your own daily water intake, get yourself a bottle to refill from the tap, rather than adding to the mountain of plastic waste we produce. How much to drink varies according to individual circumstances, but two litres over 24 hours should be fine – three at a push. The best gauge is your urine colour: pale straw is what you’re looking for. Darker suggests you should drink more, but if you’re constantly peeing stuff that’s as clear as Evian then you’re overdoing it. And with that, I wish you a happy, hydrated new year.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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