As the often quoted mantra has been disproved, what other health advice isn’t as reliable as you might think?
If you’re over 60 and about to take your 6,001st step of the day then you might want to sit down. Your work is done. According to a new study walking just 6,000 steps a day could reduce the risk of early death in people over 60.
There is no benefit to striving for the more commonly lauded 8,000 steps, according to researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The team analysed data from 15 studies which looked at the effect of daily steps on the mortality rate, from all causes of death, for nearly 50,000 people from four continents.
Expert opinions differ on the optimum distance to aim for. Findings published in the journal Lancet Public Health show those under 60 should still aim for between 8,000 and 10,000 steps a day.
But the often quoted mantra of exactly 10,000 steps a day has no grounding in science and came from a 1964 Japanese marketing campaign to sell pedometers.
Here are the other common health myths that aren’t quite what they first seem.
1. You need five fruit and veg a day
The Ancient Greeks opted for eight, but since the World Health Organisation recommended five-a day in 1990 we’ve all been counting our greens, with varying success.
The number doesn’t really mean much, though, says Michael Sam-Yorke, a clinician and Independent prescriber.
“The WHO has recommended that we eat 400g of fruit and veg a day, but for marketing purposes, it is a lot easier to say 5 fruit and veg than to say eat 400g.”
You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that if you divide that figure into individual 80g servings, you end up with five a day.
2. You should remove sugar entirely from your diet
If you’ve ever found yourself virtuously opting to put the sugar-free yoghurt in your shopping basket out of the belief all sugar is evil then busting this myth might bring some joy back into your life.
“Not all sugar is bad sugar,” says Hussain Abdeh, Clinical Director and Superintendent Pharmacist at Medicine Direct. “Cutting down on added sugar is the key to health, which can reduce belly fat and the risk of certain serious conditions, such as heart disease.
“Sugar is naturally occurring in many healthy foods, including fruit, natural yoghurt, and milk. Natural sugar contains vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that can help to stave off the unhealthy effects of added sugar.”
Dr Vishal Shah, Medical Director at THRIVA , adds: “Sugar is a form of carbohydrate which is the main fuel source for the brain. However, it’s generally a good idea to avoid processed and refined sugars.”
3. Gluten is bad for you
Gluten-free options might be offered on every menu now, but is gluten actually an enemy for all?
It’s clear that many people with food intolerances, and especially those with coeliac disease, benefit from following a gluten-free diet. However non-coeliac-related intolerances have surged in recent years.
Sam-Yorke says the idea that gluten is inherently bad is a myth. “Unless you suffer from coeliac disease, or have been diagnosed as being sensitive to gluten by a doctor, then gluten is not bad for you. Gluten is a wheat-based protein, a key part of a healthy diet, and provides you with soluble fibre, protein and nutrients.”
Part of the perception around gluten is thought to be linked to industrially processed bread with additives.
Opting for better quality bread can make a big difference if you suffer from intolerances.
But by cutting gluten out completely you might be missing out on potential health benefits, adds Hussain Abdeh of Medicine Direct: “A. study has shown that eating gluten is linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Research has also found that people who eat gluten are at a lower risk of coronary heart disease, too”
4. Drink eight glasses of water a day
Many people believe that the source of this myth was a 1945 recommendation by the American Federation & Nutrition Board that said people need about 2.5 litres of water a day. But they ignored the sentence that followed closely behind. It read, “Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.”
Water is present in fruits and vegetables. It’s in juice, it’s in beer, it’s in tea and coffee.
A 2007 paper in the BMJ on medical myths authored by Rachel C Vreeman and Aaron E Carroll said there was a “complete lack of evidence supporting the recommendation to drink six to eight glasses of water a day”. It also highlighted that drinking excess amounts of water can be dangerous, resulting in water intoxication, hyponatraemia, and even death.
5. Cracking knuckles leads to arthritis
If you’re a regular knuckle-cracker, and often upbraided for the practice, here’s what you need to know. The cracking mechanism and the resulting sound is caused by carbon dioxide Cavitation bubbles suddenly partially collapsing inside the joints.
The common claim that cracking one’s knuckles causes ARTHRITIS is not supported by scientific evidence. A study published in 2011 examined the hand radiographs of 215 people (aged 50 to 89). It compared the joints of those who regularly cracked their knuckles to those who did not. The study concluded that knuckle-cracking did not cause hand osteoarthritis, no matter how many years or how often a person cracked their knuckles. “It should be painless though,” says Dr Sally Roxburgh from The Fleet Street Clinic. “So if it hurts, don’t do it, as this could point to an underlying joint problem.”
6. You shouldn’t eat too many eggs
If you rue having met your egg quota for the day by the end of breakfast, then start planning an omelette for dinner.
Although eggs contain some cholesterol, the amount of saturated fat we eat has more of an effect on the amount of cholesterol in our blood than the cholesterol we get from eating eggs.
The NHS says there is no recommended limit on how many eggs people should eat. However it does warn that it’s best to cook them without adding salt or fat. Frying eggs can increase their fat content by around 50 percent.
7. Muscle turns to fat if you don’t exercise
It certainly might look and feel that way, but one type of tissue can never turn into another type. Exercise requires more energy, which it mostly gets by burning fat. At the same time, exercise improves muscle tone. So instead of weak, flabby muscles covered by a thick layer of jiggly fat, you have strong muscles covered with a thin layer of fat. Dr Jeff Foster of www.H3health.co.uk says: “If you don’t exercise, you would simply lose the muscle you had, and it would just shrink down. However, if you keep eating the same amount as when you were exercising harder, then you would increase your fat levels as you are eating the same calorie amount but just not using it up.”
8. Eat more protein if you’re trying to increase muscle mass.
If you’re part of the tribe that loads up on protein shakes after exercise then you might want to rethink how much difference it’s making.
Dr Roxburgh of the Fleet Street Clinic says: “It’s more like, eat the right amount of protein because protein is an essential building block for many bodily processes, not just muscle. Building muscle mass takes physical effort.”
Even strenuous exercise won’t exhaust your supply of protein though. Many people eat too much protein, and excess protein can damage the kidneys and rob your body of calcium.
9. Eating before bed makes you overweight
Have you ever come back from holiday a few extra pounds heavier, and then blamed it on eating too late at night?
Conventional wisdom says that eating before bed could cause weight gain because your metabolism usually slows down when you fall asleep. This could increase the likelihood that the calories will be stored as fat.
However there is no scientific evidence that supports this. Research has found that those who experience stress tend to see a rise in ghrelin – the hunger hormone – in the evening. This makes it even more likely that a bedtime snack will end up pushing your calorie intake over your daily calorie needs.
Eating late at night is probably more of an indication of poor diet choices in general.
So maybe it wasn’t that late night meal at the Spanish wine bar, but the amount of extra baggage in cheese and wine you were allowing yourself.
10. Starve a fever, feed a cold
If you often struggle to remember which way around it is, then finally you can forget it. The saying has been traced to a 1574 dictionary by English leixcogrpaher John Withals, which noted that “fasting is a great remedy of fever.” The belief was that eating food may help the body generate warmth during a “cold” and that avoiding food may help it cool down when overheated.
Thankfully, our understanding of illness has come on since the Middle Ages, and medical science today says we should feed for both cold and fever.
Fever is part of the immune system’s attempt to beat the bugs. It raises body temperature, which increases metabolism and results in more calories burned; for each degree of temperature rise, the energy demand increases further. So taking in calories becomes important.
It’s not an excuse to overeat, however. “You should eat according to your appetite, or if your appetite is reduced, make sure you eat small and often, easily digested and healthy food like soup,” says Dr Roxburgh.
And what of that ‘Jewish penicillin’, chicken soup? While it doesn’t possess any magic ingredients, it has calories as well as all-important liquids.
11. You burn more calories if you exercise before eating
So the theory goes. However, according to researchers, there is no simple answer. A 1995 study found that a group of people did burn more calories from fat on days when they exercised on an empty stomach than on days when they had a small breakfast first. But the researchers found that the difference was negligible, and other studies have shown that fewer calories are burned in the long run because the workouts are shorter.
If you exercise on an empty stomach, your body might compensate by burning less fat after you finish exercising and eat a meal. This effectively balances out the overall levels of fat you use as fuel.
12. You’ll catch a cold if you go out with wet hair
There’s a persistent conception that if you leave the house with wet hair when it’s cold then you’re asking to come down with a fever like the delicate heroine of a Victorian novel. However, Hussain Abdeh of Medicine Direct , says: “A cold is a virus that is transmitted from person to person by coughing or sneezing. This can happen at any time of the year. Going out with wet hair might make you feel cold, but you are no more likely to catch a cold because of it, and wet hair is no more likely to breed germs.”
So, feel free to wash – and go!