Saturday, May 04, 2013

Truths, Lies and Maybes

Call them old wives' tales, urban myths or stuff your mother told you and you didn't dare correct her. But the bottom line is that if you repeat something often enough, it becomes true. More correctly, it takes on the ring of truth. Where there's smoke, there's fire. Lighting won't hit you if you're under a tree. "I'm innocent," says Lindsay Lohan. Wrong, wrong and wrong again. In these and a thousand other instances, the accepted maxim has proven to be less than accurate. And in the case of the last, downright laughable.

Probably no area is more rife with these not-so-truism's than health related matters. Most have been handed done through the ages and are well accepted, if not as gospel, then at least as best practice. But here too the reality doesn't necessarily match up.  "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Can't hurt, but there's no one-for-one relationship; actually, research has shown that if you want a fruit that will make a difference, try blueberries.  "You shouldn't swim for an hour after eating." The reasoning had something to do with blood flow to your stomach as opposed to your muscles, and the likelihood of cramps. Not so: studies say that while you might have less energy after chowing down, you won't drown. "Warm milk will help you fall asleep." It's true that milk has small amounts of tryptophan, just like turkey. But to knock you out would take a few gallons. Stick to vodka.

Recently scientists in this area of comparing what we think is real to what is really real, a field know as biostatistics, took a look at some similar myths centered on weight gain. In an article published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham took on a number of "accepted" truths about weight and obesity, and compared them to what scientific studies say in the same area. The results debunk some popular ideas, so much so that you may want to rethink that broccoli diet you swear by. And at.

For instance, most people would say that school gym classes help kids stay slim. Not so, says the research; classes typically are not long, often or intense enough to make much difference. Another: regularly eating breakfast helps prevent obesity. The fact is that two different studies found that eating your first meal early in the day had no effect on weight, while another suggested that the effect depended on whether people were used to skipping breakfast or not. And my personal favorite to decertify in the "of course everybody knows THAT" listing: snacking leads to weight gain. Fact: No high quality studies support that, the authors say. Oh, I just have to say that again. Fact: snacking doesn't lead to weight gain. Why do I suddenly hear angels singing?

With that good news in mind, I wondered what other absolute truths weren't? I mean, we all live our lives based on a set of do and don't that define how we act. But what if they're, well, wrong? So I did a search for other "must be trues" that aren't. And I came across a bunch that may surprise you.

Turns out Napoleon wasn't so short, more like 5 feet 7 inches. Bulls can't really see the red in those red capes, but are attracted to the movement. Goldfish have memories that last more than 3 seconds, more like months. If you cut an earthworm in half, you don't get two earthworms; you get one shorter earthworm and one dead piece of earthworm. Poinsettias aren't highly poisonous, just mildly irritating. Waking sleepwalkers doesn't harm then, but they may be dizzy and fall down. You don't lose most of your body heat through your head. Shaving doesn't cause the hair to grow back thicker. And swallowed chewing gum does not take seven years to digest.

Feel better? Or worse? Just think: if even a fraction of what you take to be true isn't, your world can tilt. You can feel OK about things like cracking your knuckles or picking up a toad, neither of which will actually cause you any harm. Of course, some things on which you count are indeed true: men hate asking for directions, and Twinkies are good forever. Those you can take to the bank.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't know what to believe anymore. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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