Health Worries That Shouldn’t Worry You

african american man rubbing his headOne day you hear that coffee is horrible for you. The next day you hear that it’s great. One day you hear that vitamin D protects against cancer. The next, researchers say the supplement could increase the risk of death.

Every day we’re bombarded by often-conflicting information that makes healthy living sound harder than it needs to be. Just like TV news anchor and breast cancer survivor Robin Roberts says, “focus on the fight and not the fright” meaning, you can’t be afraid of everything. Worrying about it doesn’t help.

According to Alice Domar, MD, co-author of Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health, healthy habits should contribute to — not distract you from — your enjoyment of life.

Dr. Domar, as well as many other medical experts, feel that being “pretty healthy” instead of perfectly so, is the goal that most people should try to attain. In particular, there are several common health worries that doctors feel you really shouldn’t go crazy worrying about.

Germs, Germs, Germs!!!

Relax: You slather yourself in hand sanitizer and shoot dirty looks at anyone who sneezes in your direction. But all the hand washing in the world won’t keep you entirely germ-free. According to Philip Tierno, PhD, author of The Secret Life of Germs, microbes are everywhere — and they’re supposed to be. Although headlines may scream about dirty toilet seats or keyboards, Dr. Tierno says that only 1 to 2 percent of the microorganisms you encounter on a regular basis are potentially harmful. Many even help keep you healthy.

A health tip: According to Tierno, you don’t have to wash your hands every time you touch a doorknob. Clean them — ideally with soap and water, or an alcohol-based sanitizer if you can’t get to a sink — after using the bathroom, before eating, and before touching your face, he says.

I Have a Family History of Cancer (or Diabetes, Heart Disease, etc.)

Relax: With recent headlines linking faulty genes to diabetes and skin cancer — two diseases that we associate with bad health habits — it might feel like there’s nothing you can do to outsmart your DNA. But your genes play little or no role in 95 percent of all diseases, according to Muin Khoury, MD, PhD, director of the National Office of Public Health Genomics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And your lifestyle and environment play a major role in whether certain genes — like the genetic variant 9p21, a major marker for heart disease — get activated or remain dormant. In general, one immediate family member with heart disease, cancer, or type 2 diabetes doubles your own risk for that condition, but that’s not a guarantee you’ll get it yourself.

A health tip:
A 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that maintaining a healthy lifestyle can cut your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes by a whopping 80 percent. Not smoking, having a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and eating a diet rich in whole grains, fruits and veggies, and lean protein, and low in saturated fat, red meat, and refined grains and sugar can go a long way to keeping you healthy.

My Fat Doesn’t Want To Go Away

Relax: A little padding might actually be good for you, says Domar, who points to studies that suggest women who live the longest are those whose BMIs are in the “overweight” category. And all fat is not created equal. A review in the International Journal of Obesity found that extra weight in the rear or thighs might actually protect against heart disease and diabetes. Superficial fat that causes cellulite isn’t as dangerous as belly fat that accumulates around organs, which produces hormones that can boost blood pressure and bad cholesterol.

A health tip: There’s skinny and then there’s healthy. Researchers found that as long as your BMI is under 27.4, your weight isn’t likely to cause health problems that could steal years from your life. If you’re more apple-than pear-shaped, shed that extra layer by getting active. Vigorous exercise, like running 15 to 20 miles a week, is best for burning belly fat, according to researchers at Duke University Medical Center. As for the stubborn ripples on your thighs? “You will never love your cellulite,” says Domar. “Instead, remember that we all have flaws. Focus on the parts of your body you do like.”

I Don’t Have the Money To Buy Pricey Health Food

Relax: According to the American Dietetic Association, it’s more important to eat a super overall diet than any special health food. All the acai, goji berries, and pomegranates in the world won’t protect you from cancer and heart disease if your plate is also loaded with burgers, hot dogs, and pizza. “You can’t expect one particular nutrient to give maximum protection,” explains Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Eat to Live. “Foods work together to maximize immune function, improve health, and prevent chronic disease.”

A health tip: As long as you’re eating a diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, it doesn’t matter how many exotic antioxidant superstars are in your cupboard. Some of the healthiest foods around also happen to be some of the cheapest — think brown rice, black beans, garlic, oatmeal, and leafy greens.

My Produce Is Full of Pesticides

Relax: Don’t shun vegetables just because you can’t afford to buy organic — the health benefits of produce far outweigh risks of pesticide exposure. In fact, according to University of California, Berkeley biochemistry professor Bruce N. Ames, PhD., who developed a tool that detects carcinogens in chemicals, there are more natural carcinogens in a cup of coffee than there are in a year’s worth of pesticide-treated produce. That’s not to say that pesticides are good for you. But the amount of pesticides that you ingest from 5 to 10 servings of veggies a day are not likely to cause cancer. On the other hand, eating a diet completely devoid of produce could.

A health tip: Whether produce is organic or not, you should always clean it before eating. Not only will this remove a fair share of pesticide residue, it can also help reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses, like salmonella and E. coli. Wash produce under running water; soaking it could actually spread bacteria to other areas of the fruit or vegetable. Scrub firm produce like apples and cucumbers with a clean produce brush.

High Fructose Corn Syrup Is Everywhere!

Relax: The super-sweetener has been blamed for everything from obesity, heart disease, and diabetes to cancer and even autism. While it’s a good idea to limit your intake of added sugars like high-fructose corn syrup, well-respected hospitals and health experts at the Mayo Clinic and the American Heart Association and Marion Nestle, PhD, professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, say there is little evidence to suggest high-fructose corn syrup is worse for you than any other type of sweetener. In fact, it’s almost identical in chemical composition to table sugar, and many studies suggest that the body breaks them down in exactly the same way.

A health tip: Don’t be fooled into thinking organic cookies made with evaporated cane juice are any better for you than conventional ones made with high-fructose corn syrup. It’s best to cut back on all types of added sugar — high-fructose corn syrup included. AHA guidelines advise women to keep added sugar under 6 teaspoons (or 25 grams) daily. By comparison, one can of soda contains roughly 9 teaspoons. But it’s not just junk food you have to look out for. Sneaky sources of added sugar include pasta sauce, cereal, condiments like barbecue sauce and ketchup, even yogurt.

If I Wait To Have Children, I May Never Be Able To

Relax: Fretting over headlines like, “Women urged to freeze eggs before 30,” and “Blood type linked to earlier decline in fertility,” won’t do any good, says Domar, a pioneer in mind-body medicine for infertility. Although age is one of the biggest factors that affects infertility, especially in women, medical interventions have come a long way. According to Domar, the majority of couples with infertility will have a baby with professional treatment. A 2009 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women under 40 who were treated with up to six cycles of in vitro fertilization had a success rate between 65 percent and 86 percent. For those age 40 and older, the birth rate was 23 percent to 42 percent.

A health tip: “If you’re seeing a top-notch fertility specialist and your health habits are good, worrying about everything else won’t help,” says Domar. In fact, managing stress could improve your ability to get pregnant. According to a recent study Domar authored in the journal Fertility and Sterility, mind-body stress reduction programs more than doubled pregnancy rates in couples undergoing IVF. To boost your odds of conceiving, don’t smoke, limit your alcohol and caffeine intake, exercise regularly (which will also help with stress), and stay within a normal body weight (being overweight and underweight can make getting pregnant harder).

Wheat and Gluten Cause Obesity & Disease

Relax: Blamed for everything from bad skin to poor concentration, gluten — a protein found in wheat, barley and rye — is getting a bad rap these days. For the 2 million Americans with celiac disease, even a tiny amount of gluten can trigger an immune system attack on the intestines, which can result in malnutrition, osteoporosis, and other serious health problems. Certain other people have gluten sensitivity, which isn’t as serious, but can lead to uncomfortable symptoms like abdominal cramping, bloating, and headaches. But gluten is perfectly safe for everyone else, and gluten-free diets are not healthier. In fact, many gluten substitutes, like tapioca and starch, are virtually devoid of nutrients. Banishing wheat, rye, and barley from your diet deprives you of healthful whole grains.

A health tip: If you suspect that gluten is to blame for your intestinal woes, see your physician to rule out other conditions that may mimic celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. In order for your doctor to run tests for these conditions, you must have gluten in your system. If you stop eating gluten beforehand, the test could yield a false negative result.

Other People Seem To Be Working Out Harder Than Me

Relax: You love speed walking on the treadmill, but feel guilty because the runners around you are dripping sweat and torching a gazillion calories. No wonder you can’t lose weight! “This kind of thinking can make exercise feel like a chore,” says trainer Harley Pasternak, bestselling author of Five Factor Diet and host of The Revolution on ABC. What’s more important is finding a workout that you enjoy, so you’ll do it regularly, says Pasternak, who is not a fan of what he describes as “all-out yelling, screaming boot-camp cardio. You feel exhausted afterward, you burn yourself out, and it’s not something that can be part of your daily routine.”

A health tip:
Choose a recreational hobby, like tennis, biking, or walking. Pasternak’s mantra: Make it meditative or make it enjoyable. Grab a fitness partner, zone out to the TV, or walk on nature trails or in a cute shopping district. Remember, 30 minutes of daily walking will burn more calories overall than a class that you can handle only once a week.