I know that you want to get healthy this year, because it's the most popular New Year's resolution. Plenty of people want to help you, too, with everything from diet tips to exercise suggestions. They will tell you to make some lifestyle changes, to download a new app or even to buy a wearable fitness tracker (those probably don't work, by the way). But with lots of advice floating around, there are bound to be bad suggestions — those rooted in confirmation bias, trendiness and pretty much anything except scientific evidence.
Illustration: Sam Woolley/Gizmodo
If you actually want to get into shape, and not just blow some money on a new fad because your friend told you to, a US National Institutes of Health tip sheet recommends taking up a new fitness routine, doing a better job monitoring your food intake and talking to a trained medical professional about preexisting conditions that might be contributing to your poor health. But avoid the supposedly healthy treatments listed below. At best, most of them will have the added benefit of the placebo affect. At worst, some could cause harm.
First things first: In Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) oversees the regulation of medicines and supplements. However, as supplements are considered to contain comparatively low-risk ingredients, they do not undergo as rigorous testing as medicines. Supplement companies need only prove their product safe before it is marketed, according to a Lifehacker report. The TGA's focus is therefore not so much on whether the claims the supplement makes actually hold up. That means I can theoretically sell you goat semen pills to increase your body's goat semen numbers so long as they won't kill you, which, I don't know, goat semen pills are probably not poisonous. Many people still perceive supplements as safe and effective, according to the same report, since they're perceived as "natural". That's not necessarily true — vitamin pills frequently contain synthetic ingredients. (While synthetic vitamins are equally absorbable in the body as the vitamins in food, vitamin E's natural form is more easily digested than its synthetic form, according to a Scientific American report.)
When it comes to vitamin and probiotic supplements, you don't need to take them if you're eating a balanced diet. "I mean, certainly there can be associations between vitamin deficiency and illness," said Shira Doron, Associate Hospital Epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center. "But there's a big difference between someone being vitamin deficient, either because of an underlying medical condition or an abnormally poor diet, and the need for a multivitamin supplement for general health." In other words, if think you might have a vitamin deficiency (or if you're pregnant, which can cause vitamin deficiency), call your doctor, who might prescribe you a supplement. But if you're already generally healthy, you're not going to be extra healthy by chugging "wellness" pills.
And sure, some supplements might have benefits, but the evidence simply isn't there yet. "I think that the issue with supplements for general wellness is the difficulty in doing the appropriate studies," said Doron. "That's a really difficult concept to define, first of all — how does a well person look as opposed to an unwell person?" Until studies come out clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of vitamins or probiotics, the best thing you can do for general health is to simply eat a healthier diet. Don't know where to start? Try eating more plants and fewer lollies.
Detox Diets and Juice Cleanses
Tell me, do you know what a toxin is? When you move to some juice-only diet, are you actually flushing bad things from your body? "'Toxins' is not a scientific word when people talk about juice cleanses," said Doron. "Toxins, when we use them in medical terms, mean something very different and they are not something removed by either juice or 'flossing the intestines.'" Toxins, are, by definition, poisons made biologically. Like venom. Drinking lots of juice won't flush them from your body.
Those espousing the benefits of juicing might say the goal is to flush harmful stuff out of your digestive tract. Or, if you have symptoms caused by eating a specific food and don't know what that food is, moving to only one type of food might help you figure out what the problem foods are, Dr Woodson Merrell, author of The Detox Prescription, told the folks at Eat This Not That. But if you review the rest of the items on that "27 Things A Juice Cleanse Does To Your Body" report, you'll notice that most of them sound horrible. Like, feeling lightheaded, your skin ageing more quickly or "losing your spark".
If you want to boost your immune system or just "detox", you should eat healthy, sleep well and maintain a reduced stress level, said Doron. And if you want to avoid infection, wash your hands.
While not really a diet fad, you might also get sick soon, and when you do you'll probably turn to your trusty citrus-flavoured Vitamin C chews and eat them as if they were Smarties. That won't really do anything. Your body absorbs most of the vitamin C if you eat 30 to 180mg per day of the stuff, according to a US National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements fact sheet. However, at doses above 1000mg per day, your body absorbs less than half of it and pees the rest out. Consuming more than a 1250mg per day will only increase the level of vitamin C in your blood to a level twice as high as consuming 200mg per day. And the Mayo Clinic recommended a vitamin C intake of 65 to 90mg per day from fruits and vegetables like oranges and broccoli.
So more simply, for those in the back: You ? pee ? most ? of ? your ? vitamin ? C ? megadose ? out ?.
As for colds, the evidence that increasing your vitamin C dose can prevent the common cold is inconsistent, said Doron. "Overall, there seems to be little to no benefit. Large doses taken regularly may shorten the duration of symptoms if a cold develops, and may be helpful in patients who engage in very high intensity exercise in cold climates." But experimenting with giant doses of the stuff is a gamble, too. "In particular, the risk of kidney stones increases with the use of vitamin C supplements," said Doron.
The one area in which taking excessive doses out vitamin C may help is in reducing your risk of urinary track infections. "Large amounts of vitamin C limit the growth of some bacteria by acidifying the urine," a Johns Hopkins Medicine fact sheet on UTIs reads. "Vitamin C supplements have the same effect." But in practice, the link between Vitamin C and a reduced risk of UTIs is not well established. "Strong clinical evidence to support this claim in healthy adult women is lacking," according to a review article published in Reviews of Urology.
Gluten is set of proteins in wheat that blesses bread with its spongy breadiness. Humans have been eating gluten for literally thousands of years. But today, one in ten Australians avoid gluten for various reasons. Several thousand Australians suffer from coeliac disease, which messes with the small intestine's physical ability to absorb nutrients. Several thousand more suffer from from non-coeliac wheat sensitivity (wheat, not gluten), facing some of the same symptoms as coeliac disease sufferers — though scientists aren't sure if gluten is the specific cause. But this only makes up one to two per cent of the Australian population, which means that odds are gluten is not causing your dietary troubles.
Basically, you're probably avoiding a personal health issue that you should see a professional about if certain foods give you gastrointestinal distress. And if bread doesn't give you coeliac symptoms like diarrhoea, vomiting, fatigue and weight loss, then you're likely wasting your time and resources by giving it up.
But yes, more folks seem to be suffering from wheat-related disorders these days, according to a report from TIME, which explains how this trend might be related to an increased intake of processed foods. So, again, if you have diarrhoea every time you slam a scone, call your doctor.
CoolSculpting is the process by which you go into a clinic, someone attaches a freezer pad to your body, your fat freezes off and you poop or pee it out. The US FDA-approved procedure seems to work, but it's not for obese people. Instead, the procedure serves as a way for already-skinny (and wealthy) people to freeze off a tiny bit of fat around their bellies and love handles for a $550 to $2500 price tag. Tiny, as we've reported, meaning around 40 cubic centimetres, compared to 450 cubic centimetres in 500g of fat.
More people are happy with the procedure according to feedback on the cosmetic surgery community site RealSelf than when we first reported this story. But if you live a sedentary lifestyle and don't eat a healthy diet, the fat will come right back. Maybe make diet and exercise your New Year's resolution and get yourself a painful, expensive fat-freeze as a gift at the end.
Waist trainers are corsets for the gym, and the Kim Kardashian-branded model can be yours for 60 bucks ($81). They're also doing basically the same thing that putting a tight sock around your leg does when you go for a run, said Jo Zimmerman, Physical Activity Program Coordinator at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. "When you take the socks off, the indentation goes away."
Even those more cautious about completely writing off other workout fads like cupping and toning shoes couldn't support waist trainers. "I'm very much a proponent of creating internal core strength and core stability," said Dixie Stanforth, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin, "but an external passive restraint is not where I would want to head with my client." Basically, by using the waist trainer, you're holding yourself up using the corset, rather than with your own strength. Instead, Stanforth simply recommended better vertical core training while at the gym.
Again, waist trainers are corsets. "We've been through this. It was the 1800s," said Zimmerman. "When people wear them for a long period of time, it might remodel the bones a little bit which may or may not be very hazardous." Not only can corsets cause breathing troubles, but they can break ribs or crush organs, Christopher Ochner, PhD, weight loss and nutrition expert at Mount Sinai Hospital, told Marie Claire last year.
People are trying all sorts of superfoods for supposed health benefits, like kale, watercress and quinoa. But what about placenta? Some folks eat their own placentas after giving birth to offset the effects of postpartum depression.
"Since any of the proposed benefits from consuming placenta would be lost in the cooking process (e.g., hormones like estrogen and progesterone would be denatured by the heat), the only positive I can see would relate to the placebo effect," said Bill Schutt, biologist at Long Island University whose book, Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, comes out in February. "Since part of the organ's role is to filter out [harmful chemicals], and since theoretically the placenta can harbour blood-born pathogens, the real concern might not be what consuming it can do for you but what it can do to you."
He wouldn't completely write off the practice, though. "I do believe that the risk is small and there are plenty of people who swear by the therapeutic effects of placenta consumption. Personally, I tried it once, and that was quite enough for me." Our sister site Lifehacker Australia tried it as well.
Do whatever you want, just know that you probably won't achieve some nirvana-like state of "wellness" by following unscientific health "tips".