Personal Health

8 'Facts' About Your Health That Turn Out Not to Be True

If you are feeling confused, you're not the only one.

Photo Credit: Daxiao Productions / Shutterstock

In the August issue of Elle, longtime New York Times health and fitness columnist Gretchen Reynolds wrote a kind of confessional about all the misinformation she has inadvertently spread. As it turns out, even someone like Reynolds, who covers health for a living, sometimes gets the “contradictory health advice we constantly receive” wrong.

In light of this, we looked at some health advice in recent years which actually turns out to do more harm than good. Here are eight myths about your health that simply aren’t true.

1. Sugar is just empty calories.

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Recently, the New York Times published an incredible article detailing how in 1967, the Sugar Research Foundation—a precursor to today’s Sugar Association—paid three Harvard researchers to release reports minimizing the impact of sugar consumption on heart health and instead lay the blame on saturated fats.

That study, and others like it, informed over 50 years of nutritional guidelines, which recommended limiting our daily fat intake and replacing those calories with calories from carbohydrates, including refined sugars. But recent evidence suggests carbs—especially refined sugars—are the leading culprit in our nation’s biggest health ailments.

According to Business Insider, the average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day—more than twice the FDA’s recommended daily intake of sugar and four times what WHO recommends. Excess sugar causes weight gain, tooth decay and diabetes. Studies show the overconsumption of sugar negatively impacts memory and blood pressure, and contributes to a variety of diseases including pancreatic cancer, obesity and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.

2. Eating fat will make you fat.

The sugar industry’s manipulation of the scientific process drove the “fat is bad” narrative that people still believe today. In 1977, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggested consumers follow a “heart-healthy” low-fat diet, leading food manufacturers to remove fat from their products and replace it with—drum roll please—sugar. Those dietary recommendations, unsurprisingly, correlate with an increase in obesity among Americans.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans caught up with the times a bit, recommending people “consume less than 10 percent of calories from added sugars.” But it also suggests consuming “less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fat.”

A 2014 meta analysis in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded there was little evidence to support a low-fat diet.

"There were definitely unintended, harmful consequences of the low-fat craze," Harvard School of Public Health researcher Dariush Mozaffarian told NPR. Mozaffarian added the best diet includes minimally processed foods, including vegetables, meats and small quantities of whole-fat animal products like yogurt and cheese (skim milk products contain about twice the amount of sugar as their full fat counterparts).

3. Intense exercise can mitigate a poor diet.

You know the drill: diet and exercise are the keys to staying fit. But while exercise has an incredible array of health benefits, from stress reduction to boosting immune function, hitting the gym won’t really help you lose weight. In fact, a recent study found exercise only accounts for 10 to 30 percent of energy expenditure. For comparison, the process of digesting food accounts for about 10 percent.

There are also some unintended consequences of exercise when it comes to weight loss. A 2009 study found that people eat more after exercise, party due to a overestimation of how many calories they burned.

Still, that doesn’t mean you should forego the gym in favor of bingeing on your favorite Netflix show. Exercise significantly reduces a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease and the visceral fat—the bad fat that accumulates around a person’s organs and is linked to a host of issues including coronary heart disease, depression and sexual dysfunction. For women, exercise also reduces the chances of breast cancer.

4. You can target specific areas to lose weight.

Want to spot-target your belly? Just do 100 sit-ups, right? Wrong.

While doing 100 crunches a day will strengthen your ab muscles, it won’t do anything for the layer of fat that rests above them. 

A 2013 study looked at what happens when participants trained just one leg over a 12-week period. While the study participants saw an overall reduction of body fat, there was no significant difference between the trained and untrained legs.

“Muscle building is site-specific,“ Mind Over Head Chatter: The Psychology of Athletic Success author Greg Justice told Buzzfeed. “That means if I want big strong triceps, I can work my triceps and make them bigger and stronger. But fat loss is not fat-specific. So you can do a thousand sit-ups, but it doesn’t lead to losing fat in your abdominals.” 

Still, it’s important to note you can target specific areas to strengthen and tone muscles, which can lead to a thinner appearance of certain areas.

5. Taking vitamins makes you healthier.

The $19 billion-a-year dietary supplement industry constantly peddles the “solution” to the recommended daily value of vitamins in the form of a pill. But while taking 1,000 percent of your RDV of vitamin C may sound good, the general consensus among nutrition experts is that large doses may even be harmful to your health—and supplements can never substitute for a poor diet.

"There are literally thousands of these compounds, and we're just scratching the surface on knowing what their role is," David Grotto, spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, told WebMD. ”We’re sending the wrong message if people believe they've got everything under control and if they're taking vitamins while eating a horrible diet.”

Still, certain age groups can benefit from supplements. For example, it’s important for people over the age of 50 to bolster their calcium intake to ward off osteoporosis; experts suggest they should get 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. A glass of milk only contains about 300 milligrams.

6. Cleanses and detoxes are good for you.

It seems like juice cleanses are all the rage these days: replace one or all of your meals with this expensive cold-pressed juice and flush all the toxins from your body! Watch your waist shrink, your skin glow and your energy levels skyrocket.

The problem? It’s a load of BS.

The nearly $6 billion juice industry markets itself as a “healthy lifestyle trend” complete with celebrity endorsements and a guarantee of eternal life. But according to Elizabeth Applegate, a professor at UC Davis, a juice cleanse diet really only sheds water weight.

“The whole cleansing concept is silly,” Applegate told Slate. “The body doesn’t need any help getting rid of compounds it doesn’t want. That’s what your liver and kidneys are for.”

But the problem isn’t just marketing. Drinking excessive juice throughout the day is bad for you; according to the Daily Beast, juicing fruits or high-sugar vegetables can raise your blood sugar as much as a can of Coca-Cola. And while eating fruits and vegetables is a necessary component of a healthy diet, pulverizing and drinking them retains the calories, but not the nutrients.

So instead of spending $9 on that local cold-pressed organic superfood juice, just eat some blueberries. Your waistline—and wallet—will thank you.

7. Drink eight glasses of water per day. 

This one may seem a little counterintuitive, considering water is easily one of the most important things to consume. But as it turns out, there’s no science behind the myth that we need to drink eight glass a day.

Although most experts recommend water as the best beverage to consume, it’s also present in coffee, tea, juice, fruits, vegetables and pretty much every other thing on the planet. Instead of stressing over those 64 ounces, experts say just listen to your body and drink when you’re thirsty. The crazy machine you’re living in knows exactly what it's doing.

8. Bathing daily promotes good hygiene.

This one’s a bonus for those who don’t feel like spending 20 minutes every day standing beneath a steady stream of water. Turns out, we don’t have to.

According to Joshua Zeichner, a dermatology professor at NYU, bathing is really more of a cultural thing. “We overbathe in this country and that’s really important to realize,” Zeichner told Buzzfeed. “A lot of the reason we do it is because of societal norms.”

In fact, showering too often can have a negative effect on your skin, shedding the useful bacteria that keeps your skin healthy and acts as a shield against bad bacteria. Washing too frequently also dries out your hair, leading to split ends and other signs of damage.

So save water and shower less often. It’s science!

Elizabeth Preza is the Managing Editor of AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @lizacisms.