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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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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear