In the old daysjust a few years ago, in facthealth misinformation would spread slowly. Not today. “The Internet has given people the ability to send everyone on their e-mail lists wild stories that end up mushrooming around the world in a matter of hours,” says Rich Buhler, creator of Truthorfiction.com, a Web site devoted to debunking false e-mail rumors. But relax: Most of those health scares hitting your in-box are a misreading of facts or a deliberate twisting of the truth.
Drink eight glasses of water a day
In 1945, the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board told people to consume eight glasses of fluid daily. Before long, most of us believed we needed eight glasses of water, in addition to what we eat and drink, every day.
The Truth: Waters great, but you also whet your whistle with juice, tea, milk, fruits, and vegetablesquite enough to keep you hydrated. Even coffee quenches thirst, despite its reputation as a diuretic; the caffeine makes you lose some liquid, but youre still getting plenty.
Contrary to common belief, urine color is not a great sign of dehydration, says Rachel Vreeman, MD, a fellow in Childrens Health Services Research at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis: “If youre thirsty, you should drink.” But dont overdo it. Drinking too much can lead to hyponatremia, in which sodium levels fall, causing an electrolyte imbalance that can make you very sick.
Stress will turn your hair gray
The carpool, the spilled milk, the deadlines. Who doesnt believe that hair products make covering them a cinch.
Reading in poor light ruins your eyes
Its the common-sense refrain of mothers everywherereading under the covers or by moonlight will ruin your eyesight.
The Truth: “Reading in dim light can strain your eyes,” Snyderman explains. “You tend to squint, and that can give you a headache. But you wont do any permanent damage, except maybe cause crows-feet.”
Your overtired eyes can get dry and achy, and may even make your vision seem less clear, but a good nights rest will help your peepers recover just fine. (Read about vision-friendly foods here.)
Coffees really bad for you
Surely something 108 million Americans crave so much each morning couldnt possibly be good for you? Wrong.
The Truth: Too much may give you the jitters, but your daily habit has a lot of positives. “Coffee comes from plants, which have helpful phytochemicals that act as antioxidants,” says Stacy Beeson, RD, a wellness dietitian at St. Lukes Boise Medical Center in Boise, Idaho. One set of antioxidants appears to increase insulin sensitivity, which might explain a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes in people who sip java. A Harvard study of more than 125,000 coffee drinkers found that women cut their risk of type 2 diabetes by 30 percent. Other studies suggest that coffee cuts the risks of Parkinsons disease, colon cancer, cirrhosis, and gallstonesand it might even increase your lifespan. Drinking joe gives your brain a boost, too. And, despite the jolt of energy it provides, coffee has no effect on heart disease.
Two to three cups a day is fine for most people, Beeson says. But if you take your coffee with a racing heart, anxiety, or wide-eyed nights, cut back or switch to decaf. If youre pregnant or low on calcium, talk to your doc about the best brew for you.
Feed a cold, starve a fever
The old wives tale has been a staple since the 1500s when a dictionary master wrote, “Fasting is a great remedie of feuer.”
The Truth: “Colds and fevers are generally caused by viruses that tend to last 7 to 10 days, no matter what you do,” Vreeman says. “And there is no good evidence that diet has any effect on a cold or fever. Even if you dont feel like eating, you still need fluids, so put a priority on those.” If youre congested, the fluids will keep mucus thinner and help loosen chest and nasal congestion. A little chicken soup spoons in some nutrients, as well.
Fresh is always better than frozen
Ever since scientists honed in on the benefits of antioxidants, the mantra has been “eat more fresh fruits and veggies”implying that frozen is second-rate.
The Truth: “Frozen can be just as good as fresh because the fruits and vegetables are harvested at the peak of their nutritional content, taken to a plant, and frozen on the spot, locking in nutrients,” Beeson says. “They arent trucked far distances to sit on grocery shelves.” And, unless its picked and sold the same day, produce at farmers marketsthough still nutritiousmay lose nutrients because of heat, air, and water.
The Truth: Newer studies have found that saturated and trans fats in a persons diet, not dietary cholesterol, are more likely to raise heart disease risk. (An egg has only 1.6 grams of saturated fat, compared with about 3 grams in a cup of 2 percent milk.) And, at 213 milligrams of cholesterol, one egg slips under the American Heart Associations recommendation of no more than 300 milligrams a day. “Eggs offer lean protein and vitamins A and D, and theyre inexpensive and convenient,” Beeson says. “If you do have an egg for breakfast, just keep an eye out for the amount of cholesterol in the other foods you eat that day.”
Get cold, and youll catch a cold
It must be true because your mother always said so. Right?
The Truth: Mom was wrong. “Chilling doesnt hurt your immunity, unless youre so cold that your body defenses are destroyedand that only occurs during hypothermia,” Vreeman says. “And you cant get a cold unless youre exposed to a virus that causes a cold.” The reason people get more colds in the winter isnt because of the temperature, but it may be a result of being cooped up in closed spaces and exposed to the spray of cold viruses. Staying warm may not prevent a cold, but staying cheerful might. A study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh says positive people exposed to cold viruses have a 13 percent lower risk of getting a cold than gloomier souls.
Your lipstick could make you sick
In 2007, an environmentalist group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, had 33 lipsticks tested for lead. Although theres no lead limit for lipstick, one third of the tubes had more than the limit allowed for candy. That started a scare that spread like wildfire.
The Truth: “The reality is that lead is in almost everything,” says Michael Thun, MD, head of epidemiological research for the American Cancer Society. “Its all around us. But the risk from lead in lipstick is extremely small.” In fact, lead poisoning is most commonly caused by other environmental factorspipes and paint in older homes, for instance. The bottom line, Thun says: The risk from lipstick is nothing to worry about.