Few areas of life are as full of misinformation and fudged facts than personal health. It’s an area where the coldly scientific and deeply emotional overlap, so it’s perhaps not surprising that some things would get misstated or misrepresented. Add in the millions to be made with a headline-catching new diet fad, and it’s inevitable that we’d hear some questionable tips and alternative facts about diet and exercise.
To help you separate fact from fiction, we got the input of a number of health experts to offer their suggestions for some of the most common myths about health—and the facts behind them. And for some real, rock-solid, science-back health advice, don’t miss The 100 Ways to Live to 100.
The Best Indicator of Intensity Level is the Heartrate Monitor
Speaking of all the fun gadgets on the cardio machines, the heart-rate tracker is a favorite. While your heartrate is an important indicator of how intense your workout is, you might not want to put your faith in what the machine tells you.
“The finger pulse is not as accurate as an arterial pulse, so only use the machine heart rate reading as a guide,” says Meghan Kennihan, an NASM Certified personal trainer, RRCA Certified Distance Run Coach, USATF Run Coach, USA Cycling coach and a fitness instructor. “If you want a true indicator of your intensity, wear a heart rate monitor that straps around your chest.” For more on how knowing your heart rate can work wonders, be sure to read the 5 Tracker Success Stories.
Egg Yolks Are Bad for You
The delicious yellow center of eggs get a bad rap from health reports, says Mashfika Alam, a doctor with online health consultancy iCliniq, who urges that we reconsider the belief that egg yolk can cause heart disease or atherosclerosis due to its “bad cholesterol.”
“Maybe because people only got to know the health benefits of egg yolk only recently, but egg yolk is recommended for everyone unless allergic, even people with heart disease as it is loaded with HDL which is a good cholesterol and actually counteracts the effects of bad cholesterol,” says Alam. “Hence one egg a day for everyone, unless allergic, at least five days a week is a good thing.” Bonus: Eating eggs for breakfast is one of the 30 Best Ways to Get More Energy Before Noon.
Cholesterol is Bad
Cholesterol in general tends to get a bad rap.
“While cholesterol is an actual molecule, what it is bound to while it’s floating through your blood is what’s more important than just how much of it there is overall,” clarifies Lynne Wadsworth, a holistic health coach and founder of Holistic Health & Wellness, LLC. “The overall amount of cholesterol in your blood (AKA ‘total cholesterol’) isn’t nearly as important as how much of each kind you have in your blood. While way too much LDL cholesterol as compared with HDL may be associated with an increased risk of heart disease, it is absolutely not the only thing to consider for heart health.” And for more truth bombs, here are 20 Amazing Facts You Never Knew About Your Body.
“Starving Yourself” Can Be Effective for Weight Loss
The “starvation diet”—significantly cutting down the number of calories you consume in a day—may seem like an effective strategy for losing lots of pounds quickly. But in fact, a radical shift in your eating can lead to the opposite result.
“Eating too little or starving yourself is a very bad idea and it actually leads to rebound weight gain,” says Alam. “This has been a common notion among young teenage girls for a long time. Eat a balanced out low calorie diet, that will help you to lose weight.” For better ways to lose weight, check out the 20 Science-Backed Ways to Motivate Yourself to Lose Weight.
Coffee Can Stunt Childhood Development
“After numerous studies, no conclusive findings have been made to suggest a relationship between coffee consumption and impaired growth,” says Kristen Scheney, a nutrition expert with CCS Medical. “The basis of this myth stems from the idea that caffeine in coffee can be the cause of osteoporosis, a vitamin D deficiency that makes the bones fragile.”
She emphasizes that findings show that even in the event that caffeine does have some effect, it would be relatively insignificant and could be stymied by maintaining regular calcium consumption. That’s not to say kids should start downing the stuff (the caffeine would still have them bouncing off the walls). But it’s not going to stunt their growth.
Carrots Give You Night Vision
It would be awesome if this was true, but while carrots are good for your sight, they aren’t that good. Scheney believes that this myth may have grown from some WWII psy-ops: false information about how Ally pilots managed to shoot down enemies at night was distributed to prevent German forces from finding out that new radar technology had been adopted.
“The benefits of carrots come in the form of carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A,” she explains. “Vitamin A enables the eye to convert light into a signal that can be sent to the brain, allowing for overall improved vision in settings with reduced light. The only catch is that Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it needs to be consumed with fat to allow for absorption and for true health benefits to be felt. Most studies have found ingesting vitamin A supplements have proven to be more effective that just consuming large amounts of carrots.” And for more bogus health advice, here are the 30 Worst Men’s Health Myths That Just Won’t Die.
Cracking Knuckles Leads to Arthritis
Cracking your knuckles may be super annoying and may result in people not wanting to sit near you for a prolonged period. But it’s not going to give you early-onset arthritis, as some might have you believe.
“This old wives’ tale comes from early speculation used before there was a better understanding of what exactly happens when one cracks their knuckles,” says Scheney. “The ‘crack’ is simply the popping of bubbles in the fluid that lubricates the hands, known as synovial fluid. While this practice does not cause arthritis, it does have some negative consequences as it has been found that it can lead to reduced grip strength and swelling in the hands.”
Addiction is a Choice
There are no shortage of stories and TV movies out there about the addict hitting bottom, and turning his life around with sheer willpower or because he has the right motivation. But these narratives often simplify what is a very complicated process and see addiction as a choice—just as the person hooked on painkillers or alcohol was able to choose to start taking the substances in the first place, it follows that they can choose to quit. But this is based on faulty logic.
“Although it is true the majority of people choose to use a substance initially, no one would ever choose addiction for themselves. Addiction is an all-encompassing issue that eventually consumes the individual,” explains Sal Raichbach, a licensed psychologist at the Ambrosia Treatment Center. “Over time, continued substance use begins to change the way a person’s brain functions, making addiction inevitable and devastating. Once the brain is changed, the is compelled to get more and use more of the substance, no matter what or who stands in their way.”
Addiction Affects Everyone in the Same Way
While we often hear how certain substances are “more addictive” than others, it might actually be more useful to think of the user as “more addictable” than other users. Certain people can be more predisposed to addiction than others, according to Raichbach.
“Many people who use a drug will not become addicted along the way while others will,” he says. “The difference is a person’s predisposition to the condition; their family history, mental health issues, medical issues, and heredity, and other factors all pay a role in determining someone’s tendency towards addiction.”
Bottled Water is Better for You Than Tap
Bottled water companies may promote the health benefits of their product and conspiracy theorists will warn you of the flouride the government adds to tap water. But the fact is that (excluding the occasional disaster like that in Flint, Michigan) tap water in most municipalities is totally healthy.
“Most municipal water is quite safe, and if palatable, can be taken directly from the tap. It often contains the useful minerals, magnesium and calcium,” explains Morton Tavel, clinical professor emeritus of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and author of Health Tips, Myths and Tricks: A Physician’s Advice.
He adds that when you take a step back, bottled water is actually far less health for the world more generally than tap water.
“Plastic bottles are made from petroleum. Energy is required to manufacture the bottles and run the bottling and refrigeration machines,” says Tavel. “It also requires fuel, typically petro-diesel, to transport the bottles to the place where you buy them. These combined energy costs are the oil equivalent of about one quarter the volume of each bottle and 1000 times greater than the energy costs to pump, treat, and deliver tap water. This explains why bottled water is far more expensive and wasteful than tap water.” However, bottled water may not be a terrible choice in these 20 U.S. Cities with the Worst Drinking Water.
Energy Drinks Contain Special Alertness-Boosting Ingredients
“Despite containing a variety of vitamins and extraneous substances, these products actually exert their influence with that self-same ingredient, i.e., caffeine,” says Tavel. “My advice: Stick to coffee. Forget the ‘energy drinks.’ They are a waste of money.”
A “Detox” is the Best Way to Jumpstart a Change in Diet
We’ve all got that friend who talks up their week-long “detox” of drinking only lemon juice and cayenne pepper, or going on an all-liquid diet. But while the purging of toxins may seem like it would be a healthy thing, especially after a long weekend of drinking, it’s not likely to have many legitimate health benefits.
“Our kidneys and liver take care of removing the toxins that are in our bodies so unless you have problems with these organs, there is not going to be some type of big build up in our bodies,” explains Julie Lohre, a certified personal trainer and nutrition specialist. “Most regiments used for a typical detox dehydrate the body and can cause bowel issues like diarrhea so the weight loss you see within a few days is typically just from the loss of water… really the opposite of what you want to do for overall health.”
Instead, she suggests those looking to jumpstart their progress on a new diet should simply increase the amount of water they are drinking and vegetables they are eating.
Eating Before Bed Makes You Overweight
“There is no magic hour after which you should fast before bed,” explains Lohre. “What you want to avoid is over eating for the day and eating junk food, period—we just happen to eat more junk food in the evenings.”
She suggests that if you’re feeling hungry before bed, don’t starve yourself—have a small protein-packed snack (like a protein shake) in the evenings, which could potentially increase your metabolism overall.
“As long as you are on track for the day with your calories, eating something just before bed will not hamper any fat-loss goals,” she adds. And for more on dropping pounds, here are the 40 Weight Loss “Secrets” That Don’t Work.
Crunches Give You a Six Pack
If those hours of ab exercises haven’t resulted in a defined six pack, you might want to reconsider what you are doing.
“Building core strength with specific ab exercise is great, but if you maintain a layer of body fat over those abdominals, you will never see your six pack,” says Lohre. “If you really want a tight and defined core, combine strengthening exercises with a super clean nutrition plan that balances veggies, protein, complex carbs and healthy fats.” And also be sure to start doing The Single Greatest Flat-Abs Exercise You’re Not Doing.
Tryptophan in Turkey Makes You Sleepy
Sure, a Thanksgiving meal generally leads to a long nap. We usually blame the chemical tryptophan for this (which is a component of brain chemicals that help a person to relax), in fact there is no more of the chemical in turkey than there is in most other meats—not to mention soybeans, cheeses, and even sunflower seeds. If anything, that drowsiness you feel is likely caused by the high-carb stuffing and mashed potatoes accompanying the turkey. So please, cut turkey some slack.
Chocolate Causes Acne
Another unfairly maligned food, chocolate has often been blamed for many of the zits suffered by high school kids everywhere. Scientists put this to the test in a study, providing 65 subjects with candy bars—some containing 10 times the typical amount of chocolate, others containing no chocolate—over a period of one month. At the end of the study, they could find no discernable increase in the amount of acne in one group or another.
Chocolate is an Aphrodisiac
A box of chocolates is rarely a bad idea on Valentine’s Day, but any stimulating effects it may have does not relate to the chocolate itself. According to the Mayo Clinic, “research has shown them to be largely ineffective at producing a sexual response in men. Preliminary evidence is slightly more encouraging for improved libido in women, but more research is needed.”
The Flu Shot Gives You the Flu
Especially at this time of year, this myth usually surfaces in news coverage, stating that by getting a flu shot, you are actually being given the flu. In fact, flu vaccines are either made with inactive flu virus or no virus at all.
“This means you will not get the flu from getting a shot,” explains Chad Masters, regional medical director at MedExpress Urgent Care. “There may be some minor side effects, however: The most common are soreness, redness, swelling where the shot was given, low-grade fever, headache or muscle aches. It’s easy for some to confuse these symptoms with the flu, which is why this myth may persist, but they are side effects that go away rather quickly.” And for more bogus science, here are the 30 Worst Women’s Health Myths That Just Won’t Die.
Starve a Fever, Feed a Cold
Speaking of flu, Masters adds that the old aphorism “starve a fever, feed a cold” is nonsense.
“With rare exception, one of the best things to do when you have a fever is to maintain a regular diet as best as you can,” he says. “Even though you may not feel like eating, your body actually requires more calories when you’re sick so that it can heal properly and quickly.”
Cold, Wet Weather Can Cause a Cold
And, a classic health myth about catching a cold: Masters says he is still often asked whether or not a person can really catch a cold from venturing outside in the cold weather with wet hair.
“I tell my patients that the only way you can get sick is from infections caused by bacteria or viruses,” says Masters. “However, mom and dad weren’t completely wrong when they told you to put on a hat before venturing outside with wet hair. Water carries heat away from the body much faster than air does, so you lose heat more quickly when you or the clothing you’re wearing is wet. And when you lose heat quickly, you’re more at risk for hypothermia and frostbite.”
You Should Apply Deodorant in the Morning
While it seems logical to apply deodorant before you head out the door for an exertion-filled day, according to Joel Schlessinger, board certified dermatologist and contributor to RealSelf, you’d actually be better off rolling it on the night before.
“Because deodorant should always be applied to clean, dry skin, it’s best to shower in the evening, pat your skin dry with a towel and then apply deodorant,” he says. “If you miss the fresh scent of deodorant, it’s okay to apply again in the morning. However, this is more for your own comfort level than anything else.”
Our Fingernails Keep Growing After We Die
Neither hair nor fingernails grow after death, though the skin around both retracts as it becomes dehydrated, making them appear longer.
Sunblock is Only Needed When the Sun’s Out
“No matter what the weather is like, you should be diligent about applying sun protection all year round,” says Schlessinger. “Each morning, you should be applying a broad spectrum sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin, and reapplying your sun protection at least every two hours.”
Loofahs are Long-Lasting
That loofah you’ve been using since 2015 has got to go. Just as you replace the sponges you use to scrub your dishes on a regular basis, you need to be sure you are freshening up the things you use to scrub your body.
“Washcloths and loofahs can harbor bacteria, mold and yeast, among other harmful things,” says Schlessinger. “Make sure you allow your loofah to dry completely each time and replace it frequently. If you cleanse with a washcloth, grab a fresh one every day and don’t use it on your face. This is very irritating to the skin and ends up causing dry areas, breakouts and even sores.”
The Bigger You Are, the Less Healthy You Are
Angela Grace, a registered psychologist, emphasizes that we often connect weight with health, but that this misses the point by a long shot.
“In our society, we have developed a tremendous fear of fat, and have labeled weight as a measure of health to the point of being weight biased and discriminatory against people with larger bodies,” she says. “We need to stop focusing on weight, and instead focus on genetic predisposition combined with positive health behaviors, along with how we treat people with larger bodies. Feeling fat is worse than being fat.”
She adds that being on the receiving end of weight-related stigma causes more devastating mental health concerns than actually having more flesh on one’s body.
Sticking to Diet/Exercise Plans Requires Willpower
“I hear it from clients and friends all the time: ‘I just wish I had more willpower,’” says Karen Shopoff Rooff, a certified health coach and author of Top 7 Women’s Wellness Myths (And How to Break Through What’s Holding You Back).
She adds that it doesn’t matter whether people are referring to building a new healthy habit (like regular exercise or eating more fruits and veggies) or eliminating a not-so-healthy behavior (like smoking or eating sugar), but people assume that if they just tried harder, they could be successful.
“The problem with the willpower myth is that we are setting ourselves up for failure,” she says “If we believe that if we just try harder we’ll achieve what we want but then we fail, we’ve entered into a cycle of negative self-talk that is completely unproductive.”
10,000 is the Magic Number
Anyone who is using a FitBit or similar step-tracking device has likely gotten used to setting “10,000 steps” as their goal for a given day. In fact, that number is not the miracle solution it’s often presented to be. Janis Isaman, owner of Calgary-based My Body Couture, a private, one-on-one studio, points to research that classifies 10,000 steps per day as “somewhat active.”
“10,000 steps, like eight glasses of water, was an arbitrary guideline written by one person, who calculated Howe many calories walking 10,000 steps burned, and determined that was a good number,” she says. “Science has since studied postal workers in the UK and found that either ‘walking 15,000 steps’ or being ‘vertical’ for seven hours, means no signs of metabolic syndrome.”
Yogurt is a Health Food
Sure, some yogurt is packed with healthy bacteria that can create positive health benefits. But plenty others are packed with far more sugar and high-fructose corn syrup that counters any potential health benefits.
Vegetable Chips Are Basically Like Eating Vegetables
Sure, we know potato chips are no good for you, but what about those healthy looking “vegetable chips” made from beets, zucchini, and more? They are also often packed with salt and saturated fat, making them far worse for you than actual healthy snacks like (unsalted) nuts and seeds. As an alternative, consider making your own veggie chips by just drizzling some olive oil on vegetable slices and baking them—it will cut down on all the nasty extras and be more delicious.
Diet Fads are Healthy
Whether it’s paleo, keto, or some other restrictive or dramatic change in eating habits, while the latest diet fad might make headlines and gain an army of evangelizers, that doesn’t mean it’s actually healthy for you.
“If [diets] are used as a quick-fix for weight loss, they can become obsessive and lead people down the path of eating disorders,” warns Angela Grace. “Severely restricting food for weight loss, which is often touted by the diet and fitness industry, can be harmful and trigger disordered eating.”
She emphasizes that it is important to use food “for fuel and to nourish the body, not to restrict important nutrients” in order to attain a certain look. “We have to remember that new research is coming out that our bodies need high quality fat, which 20 years ago were touted as the ‘enemy’ and caused a host of health issues in otherwise healthy people,” Grace adds.
You Should Remove Sugar Entirely From Your Diet
Becky Kerkenbush, a clinical dietician at Wisconsin’s Watertown Regional Medical Center says she often has patients tell her that they avoid sugar because it is bad for them, but “They don’t realize that there are different types of sugar; that natural sugar can be found in fruit, vegetables, dairy products and grains.”
She advises them that it’s not the “use of sugar that is the problem, but the misuse” of it. Misuse examples: the stuff found in soda, sweets, sugary cereals, flavored yogurts, and sports drinks.
“I remind people that sugar is not addictive and does not cause hyperactivity in children,” says Kerkenbush. “A teaspoon of sugar is 4 grams of sugar. If a cereal has 12 grams of sugar, that is equal to 3 teaspoons. Now imagine a 10 ounce can of soda with 40 grams of sugar — that’s 10 teaspoons of sugar!”
Canned Food Have Little Nutritional Value
Kerkenbush also urges that we reassess the value of canned foods. While fresh vegetables and fruit are one of the best things you can eat, she says that overlooking the stuff that comes in a can is a mistake.
“Canned foods are actually an affordable, convenient way to include fruits, vegetables, and protein in your diet,” she says.
Specifically, she points out that canned tomatoes provide more lycopene compared to fresh or cooked tomatoes, commercial canning enhances the bioavailability of carotene in spinach and carrots and concentrates beta carotene in canned pumpkin, and that the absorption of the antioxidant lutein in corn is actually enhanced by the canning process. So pick up a can.
Gluten is Bad
With the gluten-free lifestyle becoming mainstream, you might get the impression that gluten is terrible for you, or at least a way to keep your weight down. Not true, it turns out.
“The gluten-free diet is only healthier for people with gluten-related disorders, such as celiac or gluten intolerance,” says Kimberly Hershenson, a New York City–based therapist who specializes in eating disorders. “Individuals who have celiac disease require a gluten-free diet because gluten causes an adverse reaction in the body which damages the intestines and can lead to serious health problems.”
She adds that gluten alone is not related to how healthy your diet is.
“The overall food choices one makes within the diet, whether it’s gluten-free or not, are what is important,” she says.
You Should be Working Out at Least an Hour a Day
“Regular exercise has great health benefits, but fitting in a workout every single day is not often feasible or even recommended,” says Hershenson. “Everyone needs a rest day to let the body recover. Additionally, any activity is good activity even if it’s a 15-minute walk. Don’t cheat your body out of moving a bit because you think you don’t have enough time for a full workout.”
Weight Training Makes You Bulky and Manly
This is a myth that often keeps women from pumping some iron, worried that it might make them bulk up and lose their ladylike figure. But they shouldn’t worry, says Kennihan (an NASM Certified personal trainer, RRCA Certified Distance Run Coach, USATF Run Coach, USA Cycling coach and a fitness instructor).
“Due to the fact that women do not, and cannot, naturally produce as much testosterone as males do, it is impossible for a woman to gain huge amounts of muscle mass by merely touching some weights,” she explains.
She says the image of a “female weightlifter” usually leads to images of heavily muscular female professional bodybuilders. The reality is that those women got that way with a little help from anabolic steroids and lengthy and intense workout program.
“Believe me when I say that they do not look like that by accident,” says Kennihan. “Women who conduct weight training without the use of steroids get the firm and fit cellulite-free looking body that you see in most fitness/figure shows these days.” If you are looking to bulk up, however, be sure to learn The 10 Best Methods for Building Muscle Fast.
If You Stop Weight Training, Muscles Turn to Fat
“Muscle and fat are two totally different types of tissue,” says Kennihan. “What happens many times is that when people decide to go off their weight-training programs, they start losing muscle due to inactivity (use it or lose it) and they also usually stop their healthy diet as well.”
So the bad eating habits combined with their lower metabolism (due to inactivity) and lower levels of muscle mass, give the impression that a person’s muscle is being turned into fat while in reality “what is happening is that muscle is being lost and fat is being accumulated.”
If You Exercise, You Can Eat What You Want
When you hear stories of the 10,000-calorie diet that some professional athletes consume, it can seem like an active, calorie-burning lifestyle can remove any need for us to monitor what we eat.
“This could not be further from the truth,” says Kennihan. “Our individual metabolism determines how many calories we burn at rest and while we exercise: If we eat more calories than we burn on a consistent basis, our bodies will accumulate these extra calories as fat regardless of the amount of exercise that we do.” For more ways to maintain a healthy diet, try eating more of the 10 Best Carbs That Won’t Derail Your Six-Pack.
If You Want to Get Lean, Select the “Fat Burning” Program
When working out on an elliptical or treadmill, the “fat burning” option can be a tempting selection, especially if we’re trying to lose weight. But you might want to rethink this choice.
“In order to lose weight you need to burn as many calories as you can,” explains Kennihan. “The best way to zap calories is to increase the intensity of your workout; a hill climb, random, or speed setting is just as effective if not more that the fat burn program.” And for great ways to get lean, learn the 20 Weight-Loss Techniques Successful Dieters Share.
On the Right Machine, You Can Burn 500 Calories in Half an Hour
In general, you may not want to trust the calorie-burning counters on those cardio machines at your gym. While an intense hour can see you killing almost 1,000 calories, the actual science behind this calls such rapid results into question.
“Most machines are calibrated for someone who weighs more than the average person, so the calorie readout is often way too high,” explains Kennihan. “In 30 minutes a 145-pound woman can burn approximately 130 calories walking at 3.5mph or 345 running at 6mph. The other factor is the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn. If you are a lean 145 pounds, you may be burning even more.”
Sitting is the New Smoking
We are cautioned against living a sedentary life, and for energy level and general well-being, an active, non-sitting lifestyle has benefits. But the negative effects of sitting might be a bit overblown, according to Isaman.
“’Sitting is the new smoking’ is a catchy phrase, and it was based on a 2010 study that showed that people who sat more than six hours a day died earlier than people who sat less than three hours a day,” she says. “But follow-up studies have noted differences between what you are doing while you are sitting: Working at a desk does not have the same health outcomes as watching TV, and is less studied than watching TV. Additional data from a 2015 study showed ‘No associations were observed between any of the five sitting indicators and mortality risk.’” That said, you shouldn’t count out the standing just just yet; switching to one is, after all, one of The Best Ways to Conquer Lower Back Pain Once and For All.
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