Writing about health is a great way to make people on the internet mad at you. Every time I put out an article I’m either accused of being a shill for Big Pharma — or, more hilariously, Big Milk — or I’m “ruining things for everybody” by telling people that actually bathing in chocolate is unlikely to be that great for your health.
Most of these health myths are pretty common, and get repeated at least once every six months. Some of them are almost a weekly fad.
After more than 100 blogs, I’ve racked up a few favourites. Here are my top ten health myths that just won’t go away:
10. Abortion Is Bad For Your Health
Let’s kick it off with something depressing, because depressing is actually fun, right?
This is a simple health myth that is promulgated by people who don’t like it when women get abortions. There’s no good evidence that abortion is any more dangerous than common activities like running a marathon or yelling at a Nazi online. The myth started when we noticed that women who’ve had abortions get more breast cancer than women who’ve carried a baby to term, but it turns out that this is actually because carrying a baby to term is protective against breast cancer, not that abortion causes it.
There are certainly people who suffer regret from having abortions, and as a man I obviously can’t speak to the experience itself, but there’s no evidence that this results in a greater risk of mental illness when you compare people who have abortions with those who don’t.
9. Bras Are Boob-Poison
This is probably one of my favourite myths, because the story behind it is actually really funny. A French researcher has been saying for years that bras cause reduced breast “perkiness” — not a scientific term — based on unpublished research that appears to be filled with issues
So if you wear a bra, you can rest easy. Boob perkiness is pretty much a function of age, and there’s no good reason to believe that the bra is doing anything bad for your health (unless it’s poorly-fitted, but that’s another question entirely).
8. Intermittent Fasting Will Save Us All
Intermittent fasting is a dieting method whereby you eat normally most times, starve yourself one or two days a week, and tell everyone around you that you are doing intermittent fasting and that it’s really amazing they should try it too.
The last part is, of course, essential.
The evidence behind intermittent fasting is basically that it’s a great diet if you can sustain it, but most people can’t. There’s also no reason to believe it works any better than, say, the Mediterranean Diet, or really any other fad diet.
7. Yoga Is A Mystical Cure
Yoga is a perennial favourite of the poorly-informed, because it combines Eastern mysticism with really attractive people wearing not many clothes. The basic idea is that it is a great way to exercise, but there’s no evidence that it differs from other forms of exercise like aquarobics or walking.
That doesn’t stop people claiming about once a month that yoga can cure everything from mental health to cancer, which is ridiculous. Yoga is a great way to get some light exercise. It is not a cancer, or anything else, cure.
6. Coffee Is Literally A Life-Saver
This one is hard, because I love coffee. Also, there are situations where I can see how it could save your life. For example, if you were a co-worker and I’d forgotten to get my morning cup, putting coffee in front of me at an 8am meeting might very well save everyone in the room.
But the idea that coffee is a lifesaving medical intervention is both largely wrong and a bit silly. Basically, people who drink a lot of coffee are rich and well-off, which means that they live longer and are healthier. When you compare them to people who drink not much coffee, it looks like coffee is saving their lives when actually it’s just being able to afford things like medical care and shoes.
5. Moderate Drinking Is Good For You
We love this myth. It ties so well into the stories that we tell ourselves each day. If drinking is good for us, our lives suddenly become that tiny amount better, because we don’t have to worry about the guilt of hurting our livers.
It turns out that, again, rich people ruin everything. People who drink a moderate amount tend to be the healthiest, but they also tend to be the richest, smoke the least, have the highest levels of education etc. Coupled with the fact that even small amounts of booze are harmful to your health, it means that the myth that moderate drinking is good for you is just that: a myth.
4. ‘Raw’ Things Are Good For You
This one is hilarious, because it basically ignores the last century of scientific discovery in favour of drinking from a stream. Raw milk and now — hilariously — raw water are both examples of total ignorance trumping basic science.
We invented pasteurization for a reason. It is a simple reason. ‘Raw’ things tend to have lots of nasty things in them that make you sick. If you heat them up for a bit, you kill the nasty things without causing any damage to the product.
Don’t drink raw milk, and for god’s sake don’t drink raw water. You could literally die.
3. Artificial Sweeteners Are Killing Us All
This myth is based on the idea that artificial sweeteners are chemicals, and that chemicals are nasty bad things that will cause problems for your health. To that, I have one answer.
Are you ready?
Everything is chemicals.
Every. Single. Thing.
Being a chemical doesn’t make something dangerous. We test substances to see if they are a problem, rather than just relying on whether it is found in nature.
Cyanide is a deadly chemical that is found in the lovely natural almond. Eating too many bitter almonds can actually kill you. On the other hand, aspartame is a commonly-used artificial sweetener that is extremely safe to eat. Drink as much Diet Coke as you want, it’s not going to kill you*.
2. Turmeric Is A Miracle Cure
Turmeric is a spice that is a) great in curries and b) in the news every other weekend as either a cancer cure or a cure-all for chronic disease. This one is fairly boring, because as a spice it works really well but all of the stories on how turmeric might save your life are based off very simple misunderstandings.
There is a chemical in turmeric called curcumin. Curcumin might have some health benefits — probably not, but might — but to get an active dose of curcumin you have to eat truly absurd amounts of turmeric.
Basically, there’s no reason to think that turmeric itself is any good for health at all.
1. Vaccines Cause Autism
Last but not least, my favourite myth. Not because it’s funny, but because it really isn’t. It’s the one that just keeps coming back, no matter how many times it’s demonstrated to be untrue.
More than a decade ago, a former doctor published a now-retracted study in the Lancet. The lies contained in that paper have gone on to literally kill children around the world.
In the decades since, we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars doing studies on literally millions of children. We have demonstrated time and again that there is no link whatsoever between vaccines — in particular, the MMR vaccination — and autism. It is a health myth that just will not die.
Vaccines are safe, effective, and far better for you than measles. Go get vaccinated.
That’s it! The top 10 myths that I’ve seen over the last 2 years of blogging.
*For the pedants out there, yes, drinking too much Diet Coke can kill you. How much is too much? By my rough calculation, it’s about 1,000 cans to get aspartame poisoning. On the other hand, you’d probably die after chugging 20–30 cans because drinking lots of liquid fast is actually not that great for you either.