An old wives’ tale, an urban legend — call it what you will, but you’ve all heard them. Be it from your mom when you were ill, from your friends while sitting around a campfire, or from a story you’ve been told about an unbelievable hangover cure, they usually are just that — unbelievable.
More often than not, these health myths are rooted in superstition, folklore or paranoia, and often fail to have even a wisp of truth to them. They continue to pervade through society even now, giving overactive imaginations something to worry about. Their effects are often far-reaching, particularly in terms of medicine and home remedies, but they can actually become quite dangerous. We’ll dispel some of the health myths and also see if the age-old adage is true: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
A word of advice, though: If you are concerned about your health in any way, don’t rely on what anyone tells you other than your doctor; even then, if you aren’t sure, get a second opinion.
1. Cold weather will give you a cold
You’ve been out and got caught in the rain. Shivering and soaked, you feel cold right down to your bones. You’ve plunged into a hot bath as soon as you got home and didn’t feel warm till the next day. Somehow you just feel like you’re actually getting ill while it’s happening — but you are wrong.
Both cold and flu are caused by infections, usually by people sneezing or touching their nose with their hands and transferring germs to an object that you then touch (a door handle, for example, or a newspaper). The most common way a cold is transferred is by a handshake. People would argue that when you’re cold, your immune system is less effective at fighting these germs and, thus, you are more likely to catch a cold. But again, this is false. Tests have shown that you are just as likely to pick up a cold in the balmy heat of the tropics as you are in Alaska.
2. Feed a cold, starve a fever
The earliest mention of this health myth was way back in 1574, when a dictionary writer named John Withals wrote “Fasting is a great remedie of feuer.” Modern doctors believe the theory was based around food, as fuel warms you up while liquid cools you down from the inside, bringing your temperature down. You’ll probably remember this one from when you were growing up, and it turns out, in this case, that your mom, grandma or aunt was right.
Scientists in Holland in 2002 set up small-scale tests that were based around dietary intake and discovered some interesting results: The different approaches (liquid-only diet, water-only diet and regular food) activated different types of immune cell. That said, doctors now recommend that if you are hungry, you should eat and not starve yourself — and do get yourself checked out by your doc.
3. The fatter you are, the unhealthier you are
If we think about the opposite of this statement (the thinner you are, the healthier you are), we’d be a nation of anorexics. It’s pretty obvious that people who are morbidly obese are unhealthy — but so are those at the other end of the scale, who suffer from malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, among a host of other health problems. It’s worth pointing out that if you are eating “low-fat” products regularly, you should be checking the nutrition labels. These are usually packed with sugar, often more than regular products. Sports fans will have known this from day on. Those linebackers are just as fit as the rest of the players on the field and yet they’re about three times their size. There are, however, a number of illnesses associated with being overweight, so if you are piling on the pounds, get yourself to the gym and dismiss this health myth.
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4. Radiation will give you cancer
You probably didn’t know this, but you’re actually exposed to a lot more radiation than you think (just from your daily life). The truth is that radiation has been linked to cancer, but — and it is a big “but” — this is hugely dependent on the amount of radiation you are exposed to. The low-level dosage that we experience on a daily basis is not enough to permanently damage cells, and your body can repair them. The higher the dosage, the more damage is caused up to a point where your body is incapable of the repair.
Many foods are naturally radioactive; bananas even contain enough radiation to set off the equipment used to detect nuclear material at shipping ports. But exposure to very high levels of radiation is fatal.
5. Eating low-fat foods will make you healthy
A low-fat diet and a healthy diet are not, surprisingly, one and the same. As mentioned above, low-fat foods are often deceptive, containing marginally reduced levels of fat in exchange for a high dose of sugar. You’ll often see it in the office environment: People concerned with their weight will stick with microwaved low-fat meals and never lose an ounce. If you are trying to become healthier through your diet, the rules are simple: Eat fresh, unprocessed foods. Get enough fruit and vegetables in your diet. Remember to balance. An all-protein diet might be the diet of choice for a weight lifter but not for your average Joe. You need to reduce your calorie intake (and sugars contain fats alongside calories). Eating simple, unprocessed food that you have prepared yourself is the best way to take control of your health.
6. You lose the most heat through your head
Whichever body part you have exposed will cause you the highest ratio of heat loss. This myth comes from the U.S. Army in the 1970s, who decided that 40 percent to 50 percent of body heat was lost through the head. It filtered down into common belief, and that was that. Your face and head are, however, more sensitive to fluctuations in temperature, which contributed to the belief that covering them up will keep you warmer. In short, a scarf might make you feel warm and cozy, and a wool hat might make you feel snugly, but this health myth is just that — a health myth.