Q&A with key Scottish Parliament spokespeople on the challenges of staying healthy as an MSP

Written by Staff reporter on 25 April 2017 in Inside Politics

Holyrood asks representatives of each of the parties how being an MSP has affected their health

Colin Smyth, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Mark McDonald, Alison Johnstone abd Miles Briggs - Image credit: Holyrood

Holyrood asked Scottish Labour shadow public health minister Colin Smyth, Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton, Scottish Government minister for childcare and early years Mark McDonald, Scottish Greens health spokesperson Alison Johnstone and Scottish Conservative shadow public health minister Miles Briggs how they take care of their health.


How healthy were you before you became an MSP?

Colin Smyth: A lot healthier.

Alex Cole-Hamilton: I have been a vegetarian for the past 30 years and I am also the cook at home. My diet therefore has also included fresh fruit and veg – at least 5-a-day was the goal. I also tried to exercise regularly – be it at the swimming pool or pounding the streets of Edinburgh with other Liberal Democrats.

Mark McDonald: I was really healthy in my youth, but then it all went wrong in my late teens and twenties, so when I was first elected I would say I was not very healthy at all. I then lost three stone in a bet with the journalist Kenny Farquharson before the 2014 referendum, and subsequently put it back on after breaking my leg!

Alison Johnstone: Healthier than I am now!

Miles Briggs: Relatively healthy I would say. I, like many Scots, have been trying to lose those extra pounds for too long but have always tried to eat healthy and exercise.


Has being elected had an impact on your diet?

Colin Smyth: When I first became an MSP my gym membership turned into a very expensive way to have a once a fortnight swim with the kids! Fortunately, in the last couple of weeks as I’ve settled into more of a routine I’ve re-discovered the treadmill.

Alex Cole-Hamilton: Election period is probably the most unhealthy time for any activist, freely accessible chocolate and biscuits did not help. Since being elected I have tried to avoid the temptation of sweets and nibbles.

Mark McDonald: To an extent, I think it is easy to slip into bad habits just because of the nature of the political lifestyle and the often long days.  It certainly makes it more difficult to eat at appropriate times. I try to ensure that I sit down and have a healthy lunch but I am bad for skipping breakfast and eating dinner very late.   

Alison Johnstone: Yes.  I’m more likely to eat ‘on the run’ and later in the evening.  

Miles Briggs: Yes. I find life as an MSP is so busy that often you just have to grab what you can to eat in between meetings. If I work late in Parliament or attending meetings in Edinburgh that can often mean just grabbing a sandwich from a petrol station at 10pm. 

Do you think you do enough exercise?

Alex Cole-Hamilton: I try to find enough time to exercise each week but it can be a challenge.

Mark McDonald: For quite a while I didn’t, then I got back into running and playing football regularly. Then in 2015, as mentioned, I broke my leg while playing football and have only recently got back into being active again.

Alison Johnstone: No. Parliamentary days can be very sedentary. A morning in committee, an afternoon in the chamber, and a cross-party group at lunchtime or in the evening can add up to an unhealthy amount of sitting and physical inactivity. Evening meetings and weekend events make fitting in regular exercise more challenging, so there’s a need to build this in to the day.

Miles Briggs: No not all. I try to go to the gym when I can and at weekend get out walking, but I know I need to do more exercise.  


What is your guilty secret food-wise?

Colin Smyth: Definitely chocolate. But as convener of the Parliament’s cross-party group on fair trade maybe
because it’s fair trade chocolate I convince myself it’s less of a guilty secret!

Alex Cole-Hamilton: An Indian take-away on Friday.

Mark McDonald: What isn’t? I have a very sweet tooth and so abstaining from cakes and chocolate proves very difficult for me.

Alison Johnstone: It has to be cheesecake.

Miles Briggs: I’ve always had a sweet tooth – so chocolate. 

Do you monitor your sugar intake?

Colin Smyth: Only to the extent of avoiding adding sugar in coffee by using artificial sweeteners and I choose diet drinks.

Alex Cole-Hamilton: No, I don’t. I do not have much of a sweet tooth most of the time. 

Mark McDonald: I think my previous answer would give some indication on that, I probably should do. I think it might frighten me when I see the levels I consume.

Alison Johnstone: Yes. Pleased to take part in Cancer Research’s 'Sugar Free February'. Felt better for it too.

Miles Briggs: No.


What would you do to control Scotland’s problem with obesity?

Colin Smyth: Obesity is definitely Scotland’s biggest public health crisis. The Government’s current Obesity Framework hasn’t worked. If the Government propose a bold and radical replacement which includes tougher regulation on the current promotion of unhealthy food over the healthy option, they will get Labour’s backing.

Alex Cole-Hamilton: I have called on the Health and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, to come up with a bill to tackle obesity, which is becoming an increasing issue in Scotland.

Mark McDonald: I think one of the most positive things we can do is be more active. It’s why I am a big advocate of active play, get kids moving early, get grown-ups joining in, and hopefully they will maintain those activity levels throughout their lives.

Alison Johnstone: Place a levy on supermarkets and mass caterers who sell sugar and fat laden ‘treats’.  This has to be addressed at the population level.

Miles Briggs: I think we need to seriously think about the sedentary lives many of us work in. I have friends who work in call centres who have put on weight. I think we need to think about the work place and how we can provide people with time for exercise and think about employee wellbeing in general – it makes good sense for businesses too.

What’s the best thing you have ever deep fried?

Colin Smyth: Personally nothing. But I have a suspicion that fish supper I just had on the campaign trail wasn’t grilled.

Alex Cole-Hamilton: Tempura vegetables.

Mark McDonald: I’ve never deep fried anything, I think all those public service films about chip pan fires put me off ever trying. I did try a deep-fried Mars Bar once as a teenager. I think the phrase 'once tried, never forgotten' probably sums up the experience!

Alison Johnstone: Can you ever beat chips as an occasional treat? Though I see Bene’s on the Royal Mile is currently advertising a deep-fried Creme Egg!

Miles Briggs: I discovered deep-fried courgette recently, so that at least sounds relatively healthy!




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