These health practices are not only misleading, but they can also harm your health. Find out why science is calling BS.
There's a health epidemic. And it has nothing to do with a virus. And you won't have to quarantine yourself at home either. The outbreak is misleading health hacks, and it's spreading fast.
News on wellness nowadays is less rigorously fact-checked, studies are no longer assessed according to subject size, duration and methods, and third-party scientists aren't often interviewed to substantiate or challenge claims and research. This is because of the rise of social media to share information, celebrity blogs and marketing claims, as well as the trimming of on-staff journalists and fact checkers, suggests Deborah Gordon-El-Bihbety, president and CEO of Research Canada, who advocates for advancing health research and innovation.
The biggest sign that health news might be fake is how it sits within the large body of evidence, says Timothy Caulfield, professor of Health Law & Science Policy at the University of Alberta, Lawyer Timothy Caulfield, author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? and host of the show A User's Guide to Cheating Death.
Gordon-El-Bihbety and Caulfield take us through five of the biggest false beliefs about health and wellness.
Belief 1: Natural remedies for colds and flu work better than medications.
We love home remedy health stories for a number of reasons—they're convenient, cost-effective and "natural." But is it likely the cure is in your cupboard?
"There are so many cold and flu home remedies that have to do with herbs," says Caulfield, "but there is just no evidence they work." What's more, the herbal remedies could be causing more harm than good. "If you're taking any therapeutics, they can be contraindicated with some home remedies," says Gordon-El-Bihbety.
Although the virus can't be cured by natural remedies and has to run its course, symptoms can be treated with home remedies that are science-proven—like chicken soup.
Belief 2: Wine and chocolate are good for you
If you've heard of the French paradox, you've likely heard about research that proves wine is good for you. It's because red wine contains resveratrol, which can assist with heart health. But, it turns out such studies may have had fake data.
"People love stories about how eating chocolate will make you thin and that wine is good for you," says Caulfield. But most recent research suggests that no amount of alcohol is safe. "I'm not suggesting we listen to those studies, but it's an example of how the evidence can go up and down."
Belief 3: Blueberries are the superfood you should eat every day.
Every month there's a new superfood, whether it's blueberries, broccoli, avocado, almonds, and even chocolate. "These studies are cohort studies," says Caulfield, "meaning they are just showing a correlation between eating a certain food and a certain health outcome. It doesn't show actual causation. They make great headlines, and it is almost always an exaggeration of what the science actually said."
Of course, you should eat a balanced healthy diet, but there's no "superfood" per se. "There's never going to be one simple answer to our wellness," says Caulfield. "It's about living a healthy lifestyle that is sustainable and that you enjoy."
Belief 4: Stem cells are the cure for everything
From an ingredient in your moisturizer to joint paint, stem cells are promising to be the answer for pretty much every beauty and health condition. But buyer beware, says Caulfield. "While I'm a big believer in stem cell research and it shows a lot of promise, there's no clinical evidence to support [product claims]." He faults celebrities for creating the buzz about stem cell treatments. "You throw the words stem cells on a product and it seems like the real deal."
So if the research is pointing in that direction, why are we hearing so much about stem cells? "It's about taking a small study and aggrandizing it and making it seem like you can apply it to many things," Gordon-El-Bihbety.
Belief 5: Take care of your microbiome and it will take care of you
Marketing can all too often be guilty of "scienceploitation," which involves taking research, creating products around it and selling those claims. "What you see happening is that there is genuine exciting research about the microbiome being associated with a bunch of conditions, from obesity to immune response," says Caulfield. "But the research is still ongoing. So they'll take that real science and they will twist it." He points to supplements, diet books, cleanses and more as falsely implying you can avoid disease. "The relationship with [the microbiome] to disease and wellbeing is complex. We're still trying to figure it out. And we're all exposed to this gut health noise, so it makes it seem so much more plausible now. It sounds believable." The truth? We just don't know enough yet.
The next time you hear about a new health tip or finding, ask yourself if it sounds too good to be true. Is it the complete opposite of everything you know? Has the theory been tested recently? These questions, and more, are what we should be asking when we read health news.