Sugar makes you hyper and MSG gives you cancer. Are these myths true? Experts break down 12 of the most common health myths.
Myth 1: Alkaline foods improve your health by reducing your body’s acidity
The truth: While the ‘alkaline diet’ is generally quite healthy – encouraging a high consumption of fruits, vegetables and plant foods while restricting processed foods – the thinking that it can help to neutralise your body’s acidity is a myth.
Here are the facts. Your blood is slightly alkaline, while your stomach is acidic in order to break down food. The food you eat does not affect the way your body alkalises itself or balances its acidity. Your kidneys and lungs do it – they control your system’s acid-alkali balance and keep your blood pH constant. If they didn’t, you would be seriously ill by now.
Myth 2: MSG can cause cancer
The truth: The popular flavour enhancer has earned a bad rep with supposed links to a variety of health issues, from migraine to cancer. However, researchers have not found any definitive evidence of monosodium glutamate (MSG) being bad for health. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US has also classified MSG as a food ingredient that is ‘generally recognised as safe’.
While a small proportion of people may have adverse reactions to MSG such as headaches or nausea, these symptoms are generally mild and do not require treatment. Instead of focusing on whether something contains MSG, it is probably more helpful to look at the general nutritional value of what you’re eating – for example, processed foods like instant noodles are bottom-line unhealthy, with or without MSG.
Myth 3: Eating too much sugar causes diabetes
The truth: Contrary to popular belief, sugar does not cause diabetes. Eating too much sugar, however, can make you put on more weight, and being overweight increases your risk for type 2 diabetes. The best way to reduce your risk of diabetes is to watch your weight. That means not only moderating the amount of sugary food you take in, but watching your intake of fatty food as well.
As for type 1 diabetes, there is no way that sugar, or anything in your diet can be a cause, because this type of diabetes only happens when insulin-producing cells in your pancreas are destroyed by your immune system.
Myth 4: It’s good to go on a detox to cleanse your body of toxins
The truth: Detox diets, juices and treatments are hugely popular, but the very idea that we can take steps to detox our own bodies is a myth. From a medical point of view, there is no need for anyone to detox their systems, as our bodies are built to get rid of toxins way better than any diet or treatment can. (If it were true that toxins could build up in our systems without our bodies being capable of excreting it, we would either be dead or in need of serious medical intervention by now.)
As such, there is no need to take diets, drinks or treatments to ‘cleanse’ or ‘detox’ your body. Probably the best way to protect your body’s detoxification process would be to take care of the liver and the kidney, which are the body’s main organs in detoxification. To do so, avoid processed and packaged foods like fries, limit your intake of sugary foods, fatty foods and alcohol (these foods will cause fatty liver), and drink plenty of water.
Myth 5: Brown sugar, honey, maple syrup or agave nectar are healthier substitutes for sugar
The truth: These sugars are no better for you than refined sugar – all offer empty calories and barely any nutrients. While unrefined sugar may retain some minerals such as calcium, iron and potassium, it contains them only in trace and insignificant amounts. These ‘healthier’ sugars don’t provide any significant nutrition over refined white sugar, and all sugars are almost identical in terms of calories. You should watch your sugar intake regardless of what type it is.
Myth 6: Eggs contribute to high cholesterol
The truth: Eggs have gotten an undeserved bad rap. There is insufficient data to show that consumption of dietary cholesterol (such as that in eggs) affects our blood cholesterol levels. Our harmful cholesterol levels are more influenced by the consumption of saturated and trans fat. It is more important to keep your cholesterol in check by monitoring these fats in your diet.
On the other hand, eggs are an inexpensive source of many nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, iron, antioxidants and vitamin D. Nevertheless, eggs contain saturated fat and should be eaten in moderation – a healthy person can eat up to 6 eggs each week, as a guide.
Myth 7: Make sure you stay warm so you won’t catch a cold
The truth: Stay out of the rain, or risk getting a cold – perhaps one of the most prevalent beliefs around the world, yet it’s a bit of a misconception. Getting cold or wet does not give you the cold. To fall sick, you need to get infected by a virus or bacteria.
However, there may be some truth to this saying – being out in the cold may indirectly cause a cold due to the following reasons.
Cold weather allows viruses to stay longer in the air, says Dr Leong Hoe Nam, infectious disease specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital. For example, at a cold temperature of 4 degrees celcius, the influenza virus would linger in the atmosphere for 24 hours, whereas on an average day in a warm country, the virus would just linger for 30 – 60 minutes. Furthermore, in the cold, people stay indoors and are often in close proximity with others, allowing the infection to spread easily.
As for a bacterial infection, it can be spread via inhaling droplets that contain the bacteria. This can happen when an infected person around you coughs or sneezes. In cold and dry weather, there may be irritation to the lining of throat. If bacteria is already present, it may cause infection to the throat.
While cold weather doesn’t directly cause colds, these are reasons why it may increase your likelihood of catching an infection and falling sick.
Myth 8: Don’t shower or wash your hair during confinement
The truth: New mums are often told not to wash their hair or even shower during confinement, because of the belief that doing so will allow ‘wind’ to enter the body and cause joint or bone pain. If you’re a soon-to-be mum, you will be glad to hear that this is indeed an old wives’ tale without scientific basis.
Bathing ensures proper hygiene, which reduces the risk of skin and wound infections, and will not result in joint pain of any kind. If you are still wary, just ensure that you do not bathe with water that is too cold, instead of avoiding baths or showers altogether.
Myth 9: Drinking soya sauce makes wounds darker
The truth: If you’ve ever suffered from a case of chicken pox or had a nasty scar from a bad wound, you might have heard the warning to avoid taking soya sauce. The belief is that the dark pigment in soya sauce will result in scabs turning dark and leaving lasting scars. However, scarring only results from scratching that interferes with the healing process – not by what we ingest. Even TCM experts have confirmed that this is a myth. If you want to avoid scarring from a wound, it is best to just keep the wound clean and avoid scratching it.
Myth 10: Don’t give your kids too much sugar, they’ll become hyperactive
The truth: While regulating your children’s sugar intake is the correct thing to do, the reasoning behind why parents do this isn’t always right. Many believe that too much sugar can lead a child to become hyperactive – however, there is no scientific evidence for sugar causing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or worsening ADHD symptoms.
Increased sugar intake can cause a quick increase in blood sugar and thus an adrenaline-like rush that looks like hyperactivity, but studies have found no relation between sugar and a child’s behaviour or cognition. Nevertheless, it is good practice to provide healthier, low-sugar options for your kids, such as fruit-infused water over a canned drink.
Myth 11: Eating spicy food can give you stomach ulcers
The truth: It is no secret that many like their food spicy, so this is probably good news for many – contrary to popular belief, spicy food is not one of the causes of stomach ulcers. Stomach ulcers are usually the result of infections due to the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) bacteria, not spicy food. Other factors like family history, smoking and excessive alcohol also influence your risk of developing ulcers. It is important to note though, that if you already have an ulcer, it is still best to avoid spicy food.
Myth 12: Drink 8 glasses of water a day
The truth: Despite it being a belief widely held onto for its supposed multiple health benefits (including better skin and the prevention of gallstones), the age-old mantra of drinking 8 glasses of water a day is medically unfounded. While water is essential to keep you hydrated, there is no need to drink minimally 8 glasses a day. This is because water is not the only source of hydration – our body gets its hydration from the water found in fruits, vegetables, and even in juice and coffee.
Furthermore, there is also no scientific evidence that drinking more water has health benefits for otherwise healthy people. That being said, water is still the healthiest drink to consume – you just do not have to drink 8 glasses of it a day. The best gauge of how much water to drink is simply to drink as and when you feel thirsty.
Article reviewed by
Wong Hui Xin, dietitian at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, infectious disease specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital
Dr Kelly Loi, obstetrician and gynaecologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital