Health Facts and Fiction
An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Why it gets repeated: Because fruit is good for you. But a lone apple isn't enough to keep you out of the doctor's office. Shoot for five to nine daily servings of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in a selection of colors so you take in different antioxidants. You won't be bored, and you will get the nutrients you need.
Bottom line: Toss a Granny Smith into your purse, but don't stop there. Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables daily.
Sitting Too Close to the TV Will Damage Your Eyesight
Why it gets repeated: Parents who say this may be reacting to their own weakening eyesight―and guessing it might have been caused by their years spent huddled up next to the TV. Not so. The culprit is simply the passage of time. After age 40, the lenses of the eyes become less flexible and less able to bring things into focus at close range, hence the nearly universal need for reading glasses in middle age. And don't worry about reading in the dark. It won't endanger your eyesight, though hours of squinting might give you a headache.
Bottom line: There's no optimal distance for watching TV, so sit where you like.
Feed a Cold; Starve a Fever
How true is the claim? Maybe a bit. A 2002 Dutch study involving just six subjects found that overnight fasting did increase the number of cells that help fight off fever-related bacterial infections, such as the flu. And people who had a meal showed an increase in the cell types that attack cold-related viruses. While the results are intriguing, the experience of only six people in an uncontrolled study doesn't make for sound medical advice.
Why it gets repeated: It's not clear why this tale persists, although you might not feel like eating when you're racked with a fever.
Bottom line: Don't change what you eat on the basis of this adage. Eat sensibly to keep up your strength, and drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and to thin congestion-causing mucus.
Pluck One Gray Hair and Two Will Grow Back in Its Place
How true is it? Not a hair. The pigment formation in one follicle has no influence over the pigment formation in another. As you age, the pigment cells in your hair follicles either die off or lose the ability to make and transfer color to the hair shafts. The timing of this process, which results in gray or white hairs, is believed to be genetic.
Why it gets repeated: Because over time, people inevitably get more grays, and they may blame the spreading of the silver on their plucking habit.
Bottom line: Yanking out gray hairs will not cause more of them to grow. And an easier way to get rid of them is to head to a salon or the hair-coloring aisle of the drugstore.
Go Out With Wet Hair in the Winter and You'll Catch a Cold
Why it gets repeated: Probably because colds, which are caused by viruses, circulate more in the winter, when people are cooped up and in closer contact, and wet hair seems to be a likely cause.
Bottom line: It's OK to wash and go. Just wash your hands frequently and get vaccinated before the flu season.
Fish Is Brain Food
Why it gets repeated: No one is quite sure how Grandma knew to push the cod-liver oil, but she seems to have been right.
Bottom line: Add low-mercury fish and seafood, such as shrimp, canned light tuna (not albacore, or white, tuna), wild salmon, and catfish, to your diet. Or talk to your doctor about taking supplements.
For Strong Muscles, Eat Spinach: It's Full of Iron
Why it gets repeated: Hey, it worked for Popeye. But the sailor should have traded his can of spinach for one of Wimpy's protein-packed hamburgers. Not only does protein help repair and rebuild muscle but meat is also a better source of iron than spinach. Only 2 to 20 percent of nonheme iron (the kind found in plants) is absorbed by the body, compared with 15 to 35 percent of the heme iron found in animal products, such as beef, chicken, and turkey.
Bottom line: You need both protein and iron to build strong muscles. There are lots of other compelling reasons to eat spinach; it's a great source of antioxidants, including vitamin C.
Knuckle Cracking Will Give You Arthritis
Why it gets repeated: The cracking sound makes some people shudder, and it makes sense to think that popping joints would lead to joint problems. In fact, while cracking won't lead to arthritis, it isn't smart. By pulling on your fingers, you create tiny nitrogen bubbles in the joints. The bubbles then burst, making the popping sound. People who push down on their knuckles are snapping their tendons over bony spots. Both of these, done repetitively, can irritate the tendons.
Bottom line: You won't bring on arthritis with knuckle cracking, but kicking the habit may still help you avoid achy hands.
Eating Spicy Foods Will Give You an Ulcer
Why it gets repeated: Dishes with a kick can irritate an already existing ulcer, so people made that mistaken leap of logic. In truth, ulcers are usually caused by one of two culprits. The most common offender is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, which sparks an infection that leaves the stomach more susceptible to damage from its own acids. The habitual use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, can also trigger ulcers.
Bottom line: Enjoy that fiery curry or spicy chili. If the food causes discomfort, visit a doctor to see if it has exacerbated an ulcer you didn't know you had.
Fried Foods and Chocolate Cause Acne
Why it gets repeated: It's a case of guilt by association. You tend to indulge in these sorts of treats when you're under stress or during the hormonal surges before your period. Both situations increase the production of sebum, an oily substance that contributes to the overgrowth of bacteria that can lead to pimples. Also, people tend to neglect their usual skin-care regimens during difficult times, which can compound the problem.
Bottom line: You don't have to banish these guilty pleasures, but stick to a well-balanced diet, get enough exercise to reduce stress, and wash twice daily with a mild cleanser to remove bacteria.
Sex in the Ninth Month of Pregnancy Can Induce Labor
Why it gets repeated: It makes sense. In a small study last year, Malaysian researchers found that women more than 36 weeks pregnant who had sex at least once a week cut their gestation by about four days and were less likely to deliver past 41 weeks or require induction. Experts say that this study needs to be followed up by more rigorous, less anecdotal research before they advise women to use intercourse as a method of bringing on labor.
Bottom line: If you have an uncomplicated pregnancy, go for it. It may take your mind off counting down the days.
Bed Rest Will Heal a Back Injury
How true is the claim? It's true, but only for severe pain. For all but the worst cases, staying in bed is bad for muscular fitness and bone density, not to mention mood.
Why it gets repeated: Because it used to be standard medical advice. Newer research shows that getting up and about helps speed healing, and aerobic exercise produces endorphins, which can ease pain. Low-impact aerobics, walking, swimming, and pedaling a stationary bike are good options. Yoga may also help. A recent study found that back-pain patients who did yoga were less likely to require a doctor's care or medication to manage pain than were people who didn't do downward dog.
Bottom line: Taking it easy for a few days (and not necessarily in bed) will help relieve your immediate pain. But when you're ready, low-impact exercise will help get you back on your feet.