Six Totally Bullsh*t Health Myths Exposed

Think you’re up-to-date with the basic rules of staying in shape? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you probably aren’t...  

From the chowing down of five portions of fruit-and-vegetables-a-day rule, to walking laps around your printer in order to meet your daily 10,000 steps target, there are certain health commandments that we’ve long taken as gospel. But what if we told you that most of the research behind these go-to fitness ‘facts’ is...how can we put this...flimsy? Because it is. So buckle up, we’re going on a fiction-debunking ride… 


1. The Myth

Aim to walk 10,000 steps a day 

Says who? The World Health Organization (WHO), for one, and almost all fitness apps and trackers, for another.

Past wisdom: Hitting 10,000 steps a day was seen as the way to help you lose weight while maintaining general fitness.

Actually… The whole idea was dreamed up by a Japanese marketing team in the ’60s in order to advertise a step counter. So, er, not exactly scientific. 

The update: Of course, nobody is denying that walking is a good way to get gentle exercise, but the British institution, National Health Service (NHS), is now encouraging the idea of ‘Active 10’, which involves walking briskly for 10 minutes daily to raise your heart rate, which has been shown to reduce the risk of early death by 15 percent.


2. The Myth

If Your Body Mass Index (BMI) Says you are Healthy, you are!

Says who? The NHS. 

Past wisdom: The BMI scale was devised in the 1800s (yes, during the same time period in which women were warned they’d be unable to fall pregnant if they were educated). It considers your weight in kilograms, divided by height in metres squared (between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered ‘healthy’). 

Actually… It’s estimated that half of all those diagnosed as ‘obese’ using this method are actually healthy. Oops. Calum Gore, Founder of GC BioSciences, a leading genetic and hormone-testing clinic in London, reckons the waist-to-hip ratio is a better measure of healthy weight. 

The update: To find this ratio, divide your waist circumference by your hips–0.80 or lower is considered healthy, but really, you know your own body best and what feels right for you.


3. The Myth

Aim to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day 

Says who? The WHO and the United Nations in a 2003 report. 

Past wisdom: Eating 400g of fruit and vegetables (roughly equal to five portions) daily prevents heart disease, strokes, cancer, and obesity. According to a 2016 publication by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, Indians, across age and income categories, only consumed about 3.5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Oh...

Actually… Just five? Try doubling that. A study by Imperial College London found that eating 800g a day has a far greater effect on reducing the risk of disease. Think 10 portions sounds too many? In Japan, they recommend 17. 

The update: As fruit is high in sugar, aim to veer more towards vegetables—and seasonal ones at that, which also boast more nutrients. They don’t have to travel long distances before landing on your plate, meaning they retain more of the goodness.


4. The Myth

Women should stick to 2,000 calories a day  

Says who? The Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA), the UK.

Past wisdom: This number was adopted by the UK government in 1998, after finally taking note of a report by COMA from 1991.

Actually… Public Health England announced in 2017 that women should now aim to consume 400 calories at breakfast, 600 at both lunch and dinner, and 200 calories for snacks, which equates to 1,800 a day. Confused? Same. They clarified by saying 2,000 is still the ‘real’ magic number, but as people often underestimate their consumption, this acts as a buffer (and means you don’t need to factor in calorific drinks such as milky coffees).

The update: This figure is still pretty vague, as it doesn’t account for height, weight, age or activity level—nor the effects that different food groups have on your body. Want a definitive number? You’ll need to do some serious maths, using the Schofield Equation, a method of estimating the basal metabolic rate (BMR) for adults. Firstly, work out your BMR—if you’re between 18 and 29 years old, multiply your weight in kilograms by 14.8, then add 487. If you are over 30, multiply your weight in kilograms by 8.3, and add 846— these numbers will be your BMR. Now look at your activity level—multiply your BMR by 1.4 if your activity level is minimal, 1.6 if moderate (20-45 minutes of working out, at least three times a week), and 1.9 for the super-active among us. For example, a 22-year-old woman weighing 63kg, who exercises three times a week and has a job where she’s on her feet, would have a daily calorie intake of 2,271.


5. The Myth

Consume 20g of saturated fat a day

Says who? The Department of Health, the UK. 

Past wisdom: Way back in the ’90s, saturated fat was seen as the devil, with fears that there was a strong link between too much of the stuff and heart disease. The Department of Health advised that it should make up no more than 11% of your daily diet.

Actually… That 11%? It’s equal to 20g—or eating a lunch that consists of a ham and cheese sandwich, bar of milk chocolate, and a packet of ready-salted chips. Which sounds a lot and not-so-healthy! To complicate things further, research from the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition has since found no link between saturated fat and increased risk of heart disease.

The update: What we know for sure is that trans fats are bad for you. They’re found in cakes, margarine (any vegetable-oil-based, butter-flavoured) spreads, and even frozen pizzas, and raise bad cholesterol, while lowering the fat-clearing good cholesterol. As for saturated fats, stick to getting your hit from seeds, avocado, and oily fish, as research suggests they’re protective against oxidative stress.


6. The Myth

2 Units of alcohol per day is fine

Says who? The Department of Health, the UK.

Past wisdom: In 1987, the UK government tasked Richard Smith, a then-member of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), London, with devising the alcohol limits. He suggested three units a day for men, and two for women. Richard has since said, however, that these are “not based on any firm evidence” and were an “intelligent guess”. Excellent.

Actually… These guidelines aren’t watertight, but they were created for a reason. After mounting evidence proved that long-term drinking could have detrimental effects on health, it was decided that the general population needed some guidelines. However, they have been interpreted by some as suggesting it’s alright to drink every day. The RCP now thinks it’s actually better to abstain for two or three days per week, and the Department of Health now says the limit should be 14 units a week for both sexes.

The update: A Harvard University study found that four 125ml glasses of wine a week increased the risk of breast cancer by 15 percent. If you really can’t say no, go for red wine from Sardinia or south-west France, as research says it has more heart-healthy procyanidins. Alla salute!