11 May Health Hero interview: Dr John Briffa
A prize-winning graduate of University College London School of Medicine, Dr John Briffa has dedicated his career to empowering people to take control of their own health.
Through his private clinical practice in London, his international talks and his books (including Escape the Diet Trap and A Great Day at the Office), he provides individuals with information and advice to enable them to optimise their vitality.
I was delighted to speak to him for this month’s ‘Health Heroes’ feature! This series showcases the people who are working to make the world a healthier, happier place. Their approach to health is realistic, joyful and rooted in science. What’s more, their advice is immediately actionable.
In this interview, Dr Briffa discusses the biggest misperceptions about health, and why he doesn’t believe in perfection…
How would you describe your job?
‘Hugely enjoyable’ (for the most part!). My week is usually made up of a mix of clinical work in practice, speaking and delivery of training into organisations. There’ll be some meetings and calls in the middle of all this too, and perhaps some travel. Oh, and some reading. It seems like a lot of different things, but it’s one thing really: the idea is to help people take control of their wellbeing and achieve their aims.
What inspired you to work in this arena?
Even as a youngster I had an interest in things that were possibly regarded as ‘fringe’. That curiosity disappeared when I was at medical school, but then re-emerged when I was a junior doctor. An elderly patient got me thinking about the idea that wellbeing is generally very much in our own hands. I started by reading about nutrition, changed my diet and saw a dramatic improvement in my health (much more energy and my life-long eczema disappeared). That was a bit of light bulb moment for me, I suppose. And it dawned on me there perhaps there is a lot of power in these approaches and maybe more people should know about it.
What does your typical day look like?
I tend to get up early—well before my partner and 3-year-old daughter. I am a morning person naturally, but also it means that I can get some things done before the day gets ahead of me. If I am out for the day, then it will generally be for the things I described above. Once I get home though, that’s generally it, because I will be on ‘Dad duty’.
What does health mean to you?
For me, it’s when someone has all the energy they need and is fundamentally happy and devoid of health issues that they would otherwise struggle. Personally, I don’t strive for perfection, as I’m not sure it’s realistic. But, anyway, what I think doesn’t count for much: my job is really to help people achieve whatever wellbeing objectives they have.
What do you think are the biggest misperceptions about health today?
I think we have and continue to put too much store in pharmaceuticals. These most certainly have a role, but for most long-term issues they are pretty limited in their effectiveness and rarely (if ever) get to the underlying cause of someone’s issues. And they can be pretty toxic, too.
What’s your favourite thing to eat?
I’m a meat fan. Some roast lamb, for instance, with some veggies will do me nicely.
If you could give just one piece of advice concerning food, what would it be and why?
Keep the diet based on relatively natural, unprocessed foods such as meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and vegetables. This is a nutrient-dense diet that will also help keep blood sugar and insulin levels relatively under control and generally contribute to the health of the gut. I’ve tried lots of different approaches with lots of people over the years, but this way of eating rarely fails to improve someone’s wellbeing, both physically and mentally.
Who do you look up to, and why?
The person I’ve taken most inspiration from is my maternal grandfather. He had great values and was a most wonderful teacher. We spent a lot of time together when I was very young and I think he quietly influenced my desire ‘teach’. He passed away 20 years ago, but I still think about him and feel his influence in my life on a daily basis.
Tell us something about you that people wouldn’t expect.
I’ve got three nipples.
Aside from good health, what do you cherish in your life?
I love my work, but I love my partner and daughter more. Not every moment of every day is a joy (my life is no different to anyone else’s), but my immediate family is a source of love and gives me a sense of connectedness that is like nothing else I know.
To find out more about Dr Briffa, head to his website.