Fifteen Common Health Myths Debunked

Looking for medical advice? These days, there’s no shortage of it. Whether it’s friends and family members sharing health tips on Facebook and Twitter, or doing a Google search on a common health topic such as “flu vaccine” or “vitamin D” and coming up with  thousands of pages of information, we’re constantly being deluged with health information—much of it inaccurate. That’s why we asked Westchester physicians and other health professionals to weigh in on the myths and misconceptions they hear most often.

Myth: Women shouldn’t lift heavy weights because they’ll “bulk up.”
Fact: Put down those dinky weights, ladies, says Joelle Letta, fitness director at Club Fit in Jefferson Valley. “The truth is that women just don’t have the hormones or the muscle mass to get those really big muscles that you see on body builders,” says Letta. “As a trainer, I’m always telling women that they shouldn’t shy away from weights that challenge them. If you’re really looking to reshape your body, you need to be using weights that push it to the point of fatigue after eight to 15 reps.”

Myth: You can get the flu from the flu vaccine.
Fact: This myth endures partially because of the timing factor. It takes a week or two for the full effect of the vaccine to kick in, so if you were unlucky enough to be exposed to the flu right before or after you got the vaccine, you’re probably still going to get sick. But James J. Turro, MD, FACP, an internal medicine physician at the Mount Kisco Medical Group, says the other reason this myth perpetuates is that it’s normal to feel a little bit sick in the day or two after your shot. The vaccine “tricks” your body into making antibodies against the flu, and that response can make you feel achy and slightly feverish. “I’ve been getting the flu shot for 30 years now, and I always feel a bit off for a day or two afterwards,” he says. What’s more, for the last couple of years, doctors have been giving seniors an enhanced vaccine with a higher dose, which can sometimes cause high fevers for a couple of days. (The higher dose of antigens in the vaccine stimulates a stronger body response, which means a higher fever.) “I’ve had a few patients in their 70s and 80s who had temperatures of 104 the next day,” says Dr. Turro.

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Myth: Cutting out gluten is a good way to lose weight.
Fact: If you’ve got celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, then it makes sense to stay away from foods that contain this protein. But for the rest of us, there’s no reason to avoid gluten in an effort to shed pounds, says North Salem-based Katherine Brooking, MS, RD, co-founder of health and nutrition website Appetite for Health ( and co-author of the new book, The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health’s 101 Fat Habits and Slim Solutions. “People will tell me that they lost a lot of weight when they stopped eating gluten, but it’s mainly because they’ve cut out a lot of high-calorie processed foods and started eating more fruits and vegetables,” says Brooking. “Gluten itself is not inherently bad for most people,” she says. In fact, unless you have to, avoiding gluten, or all grains for that matter, isn’t generally a smart idea, because whole wheat, oats, barley, rye, and other grains are great sources of fiber, which can help you feel full on fewer calories. Also, the fact that a product is labeled “gluten-free” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. “A lot of gluten-free products are often high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat,” Brooking says.

Myth: You can’t get pregnant if you’re breastfeeding.
Fact: “Every week, we see a woman in the office who thought she couldn’t get pregnant because she was breastfeeding,” says Stephen Carolan, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN at WESTMED Medical Group in Rye. He says that while breastfeeding may reduce a woman’s fertility by preventing ovulation, it’s not a very reliable method of birth control.

Myth: Reading in dim light will damage your eyes.
Fact: While it’s true that reading in a room that’s too dark will make your eyes tired and strained, it’s not doing permanent damage, says Susan Kaminski, MD, an ophthalmologist in Yonkers. The older you get, the more strain you’ll experience, she adds. “We as parents are always warning our children not to read in a dark room, but they’re actually able to do it more easily than we are,” says Dr. Kaminski.

Myth: Health-food-store supplements are safer than prescription drugs.
Fact: Herbal and dietary supplements are largely unregulated by the Food & Drug Administration, and many are just as likely to cause side effects and other problems if they’re used incorrectly. There’s red yeast rice, for example, which many people take for high cholesterol. Dr. Turro says the supplement “probably causes as much, or more, liver damage than statin drugs. I’ve seen it in my practice multiple times.”

Myth: Starve a cold/feed a fever.
Fact: Whether you’re fighting a cold or a fever, your immune system needs adequate nutrition in order to work properly. “Not eating or drinking is absolutely the wrong thing to do, because it will just make you weaker,” says Dr. Turro. If you’re feeling nauseated, stick to bland foods like crackers, toast, and rice.

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Myth: Only people with fair skin need to use sunscreen.
Fact: Just because you tan easily and hardly ever burn doesn’t mean it’s okay to bask in the sun without sunscreen, says David Bank, MD, a dermatologist at The Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic & Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco. “While it’s certainly true that people with lighter complexions will get more sun damage with less exposure, that doesn’t mean that slightly darker-skinned people aren’t doing harm to their skin,” says Dr. Bank. A tan is your skin’s defense mechanism in response to the sun’s damaging rays, so if you tan often and live long enough, you’re still increasing your risk of skin cancer.

Myth: Sweating helps detoxify your body.
Fact: Sweating isn’t a sign that your body is detoxing; it’s just a sign that you’re regulating your body temperature. “Anything you sweat is just water weight that’s going to come right back on as soon as you drink a glass of water,” says Letta. “As far as detoxing, that’s what your liver and kidneys are for.”

Myth: A heart attack feels like an elephant sitting on your chest.
Fact: While it’s true that the classic heart attack symptom is intense pressure on your chest, it’s not the only symptom, especially for women. “Women may feel like they have an upset stomach, or they may have pain in their abdomen, shoulder, neck, or jaw,” says Dr. Turro. These atypical symptoms can often occur in men, too. “One of our retired physicians, who’s a very smart guy, was having a lot of abdominal symptoms and he thought it was just an upset stomach, but it was really a heart attack.”

Myth: You need to drink eight glasses of water a day.
Fact: Water is one of your body’s essential nutrients, but the “eight glasses a day” guideline is general and a bit outmoded. Brooking says new research suggests that the average woman needs about 91 ounces of water a day, and the average man, 125 ounces, to prevent dehydration, regulate body temperature, lubricate joints, and take care of all the other things water does to keep your body running smoothly. However, beverages like tea and coffee (once thought to cause dehydration), as well as fruits and veggies with a high water content, such as oranges, watermelon, and lettuce, can count toward those goals.

Myth: Eggs are unhealthy.
Fact: New research reveals that eggs aren’t as high in dietary cholesterol as we’d previously thought. Plus, researchers now believe that a diet high in saturated fat is much more likely to raise your cholesterol levels than eating eggs and other foods that contain cholesterol. “The American Heart Association guidelines call for limiting dietary cholesterol to about 300 mg per day, or under 200 mg if you are at high risk for heart disease, and since one egg contains about 185 mg, for most people, it’s okay to eat one a day,” says Brooking.

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Myth: Only young people need to worry about STDs.
Fact: In his practice, the two groups with the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases are teenagers and newly divorced women in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, according to Dr. Carolan. “Oftentimes, a woman who’s divorced and back on the dating scene isn’t thinking that she needs to practice safe sex,” he says. “The man she is dating will say, ‘Oh, you don’t need to use condoms with me,’ and she’ll believe him. I hear that all the time from my patients.” STDs are also on the rise in older men, especially if they take drugs for erectile dysfunction (ED). According to a 2010 study published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases in older men taking ED drugs such as Viagra is twice as high as in men not taking these drugs. “There has been a dramatic uptick in STDs as men have used ED medications with increasing frequency,” says Dr. Carolan. “Even in our nursing-home population, this has become quite a problem, as people there often have multiple partners and rarely practice safe sex.”

Myth: No pain, no gain.
Fact: Letta of Club Fit says she constantly sees men at the gym who are lifting weights that are too heavy, or pushing their bodies to the point of pain. “A nice little soreness a couple days after is okay, but you shouldn’t be feeling pain while you’re doing the exercise,” she says. “If you are, then you’re doing something wrong.”

Myth: The best way to get vitamin D is from sun exposure.
Fact: Now that low levels of vitamin D have been linked to everything from high blood pressure to cancer, many people are hearing that the best way to increase your levels of this vitamin is to spend time in the sun without wearing sunscreen. Wrong, says Dr. Bank. “Eating foods high in vitamin D or taking supplements are far smarter ways to make sure you’re getting enough,” he says. (Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel, are among the best naturally occurring sources of vitamin D, and other foods, such as milk and orange juice, are fortified with the nutrient.) What’s more, in Westchester and other northern latitudes, the sun’s rays aren’t strong enough for most of the year to increase vitamin D levels, even if you’re out in the sun for several hours. “I ask patients, ‘Why would you knowingly expose yourself to cancer-causing rays when there are much safer ways to get your vitamin D?’” Dr. Bank says.

Madonna Behen is a freelance writer who grew up in Peekskill and now lives near Saratoga Springs. 

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