The Truth About 7 Health Myths

When it comes to health guidance, you can’t always trust what ‘people say.’ So we asked local experts to weigh in on common beliefs.

Gluten is bad. Right? And detox diets are good. Or are they? We asked metro Detroit experts to set us straight on these common health myths and more. Continuing reading to see what they had to say. 

The Health Myths

Gluten is bad for you. // Blue light from screens damage our eyes. // Too much screen time for kids is bad. // Detox diets can boost your health. // Eating before bed makes you fat. // Intermittent fasting can be a healthy way to lose weight. // Nonstick pans are toxic.

Gluten is bad for you.

health myths gluten

FALSE. In recent years, many people have committed to avoiding gluten — the protein portion of certain grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye — believing it somehow hinders weight loss or is otherwise unhealthy. We’ve become accustomed to seeing “gluten-free” plastered across food packages as companies try to capitalize on the trend. But is gluten really the villain it’s made out to be?

Gluten-free options are indeed invaluable for people who suffer from a gluten sensitivity, says Julie Feldman, founder of Thrive Nutrition and Wellness in West Bloomfield Township. In fact, she points to a rising number of diagnoses as the reason for gluten’s tarnished reputation. And the numbers aren’t being inflated — research on the history of gluten and wheat production reveals changes in the protein’s makeup over time. “Gluten now has many more genetic components than it once did,” Feldman says. “Because of that, our bodies have become more sensitive to it.” 

Still, she notes, the vast majority of the population doesn’t suffer from gluten sensitivity, and therefore, won’t benefit from the gluten-free diets that have become so popular. “A gluten-free diet is not necessarily healthier,” she says. “Just eating gluten-free breads and cakes and cookies doesn’t mean you’re going to lose weight. In fact, many gluten-free foods have higher amounts of calories and fat to compensate, flavor- and texture-wise.”

While those experiencing symptoms resembling gluten sensitivity should speak with a health professional, Feldman says, those simply looking to clean up their diets should consider limiting refined and processed carbohydrates instead of avoiding gluten. “The typical American diet is full of processed and refined carbohydrates, like pretzels, baked goods, crackers, and chips. Stick with more whole grains and other foods that are high in fiber.”

How to tell the difference? Feldman says white flour or cane sugar on the ingredient list are a sign of processed or refined carbohydrates, while foods rich in complex, high-fiber carbohydrates often contain ingredients such as whole-grain flour, brown rice, and quinoa. —Ashley Winn

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Blue light from screens damages our eyes.

blue light

FALSE. This is a common misconception. There is actually no evidence that blue light — a type of high-energy visible light — from our computers and phones can damage our eyes, even with all the extra time we’ve spent staring at them over the past year.   

“We’re mostly talking about LED screens, phones, and computer screens when we’re talking about this extra exposure,” says Dr. Ryan Jaber, a staff cornea specialist for Henry Ford Health System. “There’s no real evidence that says that blue light is causing any of those issues like cancer, cataracts, or macular degeneration that some people are worried about.” Jaber also says the amount of blue light that comes from the screen is much lower than UV light from the sun, which can be more dangerous. (He recommends wearing UV-blocking sunglasses or a hat outdoors.) 

So what about blue light-blocking glasses? Jaber says they are harmless and theoretically should block blue light coming in, but there is also no evidence suggesting that they’ll reduce the risk of eyestrain, headaches, or eye diseases. In fact, he points to a controlled trial published by the American Journal of Ophthalmology in February that concluded there was no significant difference in eyestrain scores for participants wearing blue-blocking lenses while using a computer for two hours compared to participants wearing standard clear lenses. 

“People get eyestrain because they’re hyper-focused on the screen for too long. When we’re focused, our blink rate goes down and when that happens, sometimes our eyes can dry up,” Jaber says. “But that’s a common reason why people feel eyestrain. And then sometimes they’re just over focusing without taking a break.” If you do opt in for blue light-blocking glasses, Jaber says you still should take intermittent breaks from your screen, use artificial tears for dry eyes, and try the 20/20/20 rule — stare 20 feet across the room for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. 

While blue light won’t damage your eyes, it — like any light source — can interfere with your sleep-wake cycle, so maybe reading articles online, answering emails and texts, or scrolling through social media right before bedtime isn’t the best idea. Jaber recommends keeping your phone away from where you sleep and designating time long before bed to wrap up any device use. Also, take advantage of your phone or tablet’s night mode setting to reduce blue light exposure. —Rachael Thomas 

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Too much screen time is bad for kids. 

health myths screen time

TRUE. Concerns about kids’ screen time have been around nearly as long as screens themselves. Such concerns have prompted some parents to limit — or even eliminate — their children’s electronic media consumption. But we’re left to wonder how screen time actually affects them — and just how much is too much.

Jenny Radesky, a behavioral developmental pediatrician at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, says the amount of time kids spend in front of screens does matter. Studies show that kids whose daily entertainment technology consumption exceeds 4 to 6 hours tend to exhibit worse outcomes in other areas. These results suggest that more hours spent with screens often means fewer hours dedicated to sleeping, reading, or engaging in conversation with parents. While this metric can be helpful as a guideline, Radesky says, it’s important to remember that time is just one dimension of what has become a complicated equation, and what qualifies as “too much screen time” varies from child to child.

More consequential than the exact number of hours a child spends with screens is how those hours affect other aspects of their daily life. A child who is completing schoolwork, getting an adequate amount of sleep, interacting with parents and friends, and spending time outside likely maintains a balanced routine. But, “if screen media is displacing or interrupting these important daily experiences, then it’s time to talk about how to peel back,” Radesky says.

She also believes that how children use technology may be more important than how often they use it. For older kids especially, she says, the right kinds of content can actually help them become more media savvy: “Try to get them interested in media related to science, nature, storytelling, crafts, and other types of creative content.”

Children 3 and under, however, have less to gain from large amounts of media technology, which can displace other, development-imperative learning experiences, like talking and playing. Radesky says toddlers usually do best with consumption limited to a few hours per day, and the content they do consume should come from positive, educational sources. She suggests PBS Kids, Sprout, and Noggin.

One caveat that’s especially relevant during the pandemic: Parents who do choose to use time as a way to monitor kids’ screen usage shouldn’t count their video-chatting or online school activities against their limits, Radesky says. “This is social connection time, learning time. Video chat has become an important way for people of all ages to stay in touch with friends and distant loved ones.” —Ashley Winn

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Detox diets can boost your health.

health myths - detox diets

FALSE. They can’t. In fact, those popular liquid diets, pills, and supplements promising to cleanse your insides can not only be bad for relatively healthy individuals, but can also be dangerous for people with chronic health conditions and those who are pregnant or elderly. 

“Detox diets don’t do what they say they’re going to do, which is detox your system,” says Bethany Thayer, a registered dietician nutritionist and director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention for Henry Ford Health System. “That’s really what your liver and kidneys do and to some extent your lungs, colon, and skin. So, your body already has a method for getting rid of things that it doesn’t need. And then detox diets, depending on how they’re set up … could be dangerous depending on what your situation is.” 

Some forms of detox dieting can lead to dehydration, Thayer says. For women who are pregnant, the dieting can result in missed nutrients that a growing baby needs. And, Thayer says, those with chronic illnesses such as kidney disease should be working with their doctors to address those issues rather than enlisting the help of a detox diet. 

While this type of dieting may provide short-term weight loss — because they’re a simple plan for shedding some water weight — Thayer says it’s certainly not a recommended approach and doesn’t promote good health.  

Instead, Thayer recommends maintaining a healthy diet full of fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins to help your organs flush out all of the bad stuff as they are meant to do. Also, keep your alcohol consumption to a minimum and try eliminating refined sugars and processed foods. “Those are the ways that are going to help keep your organs and your body healthy and feeling good. And then, managing your calorie intake so that you’re not taking in more calories than you need.” 

Thayer does say doing a juice cleanse for a couple of days now and then won’t harm most healthy adults, but it will not work as a healthy, long-term weight loss plan. And again, for those who fall in the categories of folks for whom detox diets could be dangerous, it’s best to steer clear. —Rachael Thomas

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Eating before bed makes you fat.

eating before bed

MAYBE. We’ve all been warned about the dangers of nighttime eating. The later you snack, it’s said, the easier it is for calories to stick. But how much of that is based in fact?

It’s a question nutritionist and founder of West Bloomfield’s Thrive Nutrition and Wellness Julie Feldman gets asked often. And she says there is some truth behind it. Studies have found that a 10- to 12-hour break in eating overnight can promote healthy weight maintenance. Additionally, she says, it prevents the acid reflux that often follows late-night eating. 

“It’s best for our overall health to stop eating two hours before bedtime,” she says, especially because people typically don’t snack on raw carrots while watching the latest episode of The Bachelor. Ravenous and overtired by the end of a long workday, most of us gravitate toward potato chips, cookies, or whatever other high-carb, high-sugar pickings are at eye level in the pantry.

But how to curb those late-night cravings? Feldman suggests front-loading your day with nutrition. Consuming adequate amounts of protein and calories earlier on — something many people fail to do — will keep you from feeling famished by the time evening rolls around.

“You shouldn’t need additional nutrition that close to bedtime,” she says. “If you’re eating most of your calories after getting home from work, that’s a sign you’re not adequately fueling your body throughout
the day.”

Even still, we shouldn’t consider it a hard-and-fast rule. Feldman says the best diets are the ones people can stick to. “In my experience, the more restricted somebody feels, the less likely they are to be successful long term.” Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all, and cutting out all post-dinner munching may not be practical for everyone.

While Feldman doesn’t recommend eating handfuls of chocolate chips before bed, indulging in a healthier option may help some to stay on track. One common snack food that receives Feldman’s stamp of approval is popcorn, which is low in calories and high in fiber. “Allowing yourself something you enjoy, in moderation, can make healthy eating feel less restrictive.” —Ashley Winn

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Intermittent fasting can be a healthy way to lose weight.

PROBABLY. Our bodies can sustain various methods of intermittent fasting, as long as it’s done correctly. This practice, however, is not new; various religious and cultural groups have done it for centuries. But registered dietician nutritionist Bethany Thayer says people have started trying intermittent fasting as a way to lose weight because it’s a plan that they can stay focused on. 

“It’s probably safe for most people,” she says. “The science is still not set in terms of if this is really an effective way for people in general to lose weight. There are certainly stories of people who have found that this has been an effective way for them to lose weight. … [and] if they’re finding that that’s helpful and they’re losing weight, it’s not going to hurt them.” 

One common plan is the 16/8 method, which is when you fast every day for 16 hours and eat during an eight-hour window. Another one is the 5:2 diet, which involves eating as you normally would for five days a week, and restricting your calorie intake to 500 to 600 calories for the other two days (you should spread these two days out). The Eat Stop Eat method requires a 24-hour fast twice a week, and then you can eat normally for the other five days. 

When trying any of these intermittent fasts, Thayer says, it’s important to make sure you’re consuming healthy foods during the times when you are eating — not scarfing down fast food, alcohol, or sweets. Also, do not go more than 24 hours without food. And as with detox diets, Thayer says intermittent fasting can be dangerous for people with chronic conditions and those who are pregnant or elderly. 

If you find you aren’t feeling well while trying one of the methods, stop immediately. Also, if fasting prevents you from exercising — which Thayer stresses is important not only for weight management but for staying healthy in general — then that method is not good for you. In general, any time you want to make changes to your diet, she strongly recommends consulting a registered dietician nutritionist first to find a plan that will work best for you. 

“Working with a registered dietician nutritionist can help you meet your goals and do so in a safe way,” she says. “You may find [intermittent fasting] is not the best way for you to lose weight. You have to think about the long-term and what’s going to be sustainable for you.” —Rachael Thomas

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Nonstick pans are toxic.

health myths - nonstick pans

FALSE. There have been a lot of misconceptions about the potential health risks of using Teflon- and other nonstick-coated cookware over the years. Teflon first emerged on the market in 1946, giving rise to a huge family of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that are used in lots of different products and applications across many industries. One of the most infamous of these “forever chemicals” — so called because they don’t break down over time and therefore pollute the environment — is perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a chemical once commonly used in the cookware production process. It has been linked to cancer and other illnesses, and U.S. manufacturers stopped using it years ago. 

Still, contrary to what you might expect, even your older nonstick cookware likely doesn’t pose a hazard. “The conventional wisdom in my field is nonstick pans are not an exposure issue for consumers once they’ve been used a few times,” says Courtney Carignan, an environmental health scientist and assistant professor at Michigan State University who studies exposure to contaminants found in food, water, and consumer products. 

Studies have shown that potential residual PFAS leftover from a pan’s production can be released early on, when the pan is new. As long as your nonstick pans are in good condition, there’s no need to toss them out. “We don’t think that exposure for consumers is really a problem,” Carignan says. 

But if your cookware coating is flaking off or scratched, it’s time to replace it. And it might be worth considering more sustainable, PFAS-free cookware — think cast iron, ceramic, or stainless steel — instead. Be wary of labeling, as phrases like “PFOA-free” doesn’t mean it’s free of PFAS. “That’s really misleading,” she says. “They could be using something that’s very similar and that could be just as harmful — or worse. Look for labels that say PFAS-free.” 

Ultimately, it’s down to your comfort level. “By all means, if you are someone who is stressed out about exposure, donate your pan and get a new one,” Carignan says. “It just seems wasteful, costly, and unnecessary for everyone to dispose of cookware that’s in good condition.” —Morgan Voigt 

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