Here’s good health news (phew): some lifestyle choices just aren’t worth stressing over. Please, chill out about the following.
Doing the “right” thing isn’t always easy—and nowhere is this more apparent than in the wellness world. Every day, we’re bombarded by headlines warning us about the latest thing that’s slowly killing us. We’re grateful, of course, for new science. But the mixed messages can be overwhelming. The best advice? Put energy toward big-picture goals, like following a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and taking care of your mental well-being. When it comes to the following seven habits, drop the guilt and focus on what matters.
Juices, sodas, and teas made with zero-calorie sweeteners were once touted as healthy, magically calorie-free alternatives to sugary beverages. Then came the backlash: Scary studies linked artificial sweeteners to cancer, heart disease, and unhealthy gut bacteria. Some studies suggested they also contribute to weight gain, even without adding calories to a drink.
But findings have been inconsistent, and the truth is likely somewhere in the middle, says Adrienne Youdim, MD, associate professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Don’t have more than one of these drinks a day, she says; recent studies have linked two or more diet sodas a day with a higher risk for stroke and heart disease among postmenopausal women, and four or more a day with a higher risk for death among women of all ages. But there’s no research showing that a few diet sodas a week will harm you, especially if they help you kick the much worse habit of drinking sugary drinks.
“Carbohydrates” has become a dirty word, with trendy diets cutting out carbs almost completely. The problem is, that’s extremely impractical. Carbs are the body’s top source of fuel, and the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45 to 65 percent of daily calories come from carbohydrates. “Without carbs, we’d have no energy, and we’d miss out on nutrients,” says Liz Weinandy, RD, a staff dietitian at the Ohio State University Medical Center.
A smarter strategy: Focus on reducing refined carbs and simple sugars (like white bread, pasta, and sweets) rather than cutting out all carbs—a group that, by the way, includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. “These are healthy foods that Americans need more of, not less,” says Weinandy. They contain vitamins and minerals vital to heart and brain health, and they’re high in fiber, which helps gut health and fights weight gain. And yes, there’s room in a healthy diet for the occasional muffin—as long as you’re active and eating plenty of nourishing stuff too.
Your Afternoon Nap
There are few pleasures greater than the midafternoon snooze—which may be why, according to the National Sleep Foundation, more than half of Americans have taken a nap in the last seven days. Yet society frowns upon napping: It would be taboo at most workplaces, and at home we often see it as lazy and unproductive. Certainly, needing a nap could signal that you’re sleep-deprived, and unexplained sleepiness (if you’re getting plenty of rest at night) might be a warning of an underlying health problem.
But for most people, says Youdim, naps are a helpful way to catch up on lost hours of shut-eye. “Sleep is like a nutrient, and getting enough of it is important. It’s better to get it while you can than not at all,” she says.
Short snoozes can have immediate benefits too. Research suggests that 30-minute power naps can improve concentration and energy. Just be careful about napping for too long or too close to bedtime, which might make it hard to fall asleep at night. And if your tiredness or sleep needs seem unusual, talk to your doctor.
Skipping Your Breast Self-Exam
For years, health organizations urged women to perform a monthly breast self-exam to feel for changes in breast tissue. But in 2015, the American Cancer Society updated its guidelines to state that breast self-exams are no longer recommended. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American College of Physicians have also stopped recommending them for average-risk women. It can be difficult for women to know what they’re feeling during a self-exam, says Ana María López, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist at Jefferson University Hospitals and past president of the American College of Physicians. “In the research, we just don’t see a clear benefit—we don’t find the disease earlier or diagnose cancers in a better way,” says López. In fact, two studies found that women who did self-exams had more false positives, which led to more biopsies, than women who didn’t.
A better way to screen for breast cancer: In addition to getting regular mammograms, become familiar with what’s normal for your breasts and talk with a physician if you notice something different, says López. If you still perform a self-exam every month and don’t feel comfortable ditching it, ask your doctor to help you weigh risks and benefits.
Mindless Screen Time
Sitting has been dubbed the new smoking, with links to obesity and other health problems—especially when TV is involved. And spending lots of time on social media has been associated with mental health and sleep problems.
However, we all need ways to escape from the pressures of daily life, says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinic director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. Checking Facebook or watching The Bachelor can fit the bill, as long as it’s done in moderation and not causing harm to your personal or professional life. These habits may even provide emotional outlets, whether it’s laughing at a video or crying out of empathy for a TV character. Sometimes they just allow us to zone out for a minute, which can be important too.
It’s all about how you feel afterward. “Some people find that TV or social media helps them unwind and recharge, which is a good thing,” says Gallagher. If you don’t feel that way, you may want to try something else, like exercising or spending time with friends.
Your Morning Coffee
Coffee has gotten a bad rap: Caffeine can disrupt sleep, make you feel jittery, and cause digestion problems for some. It’s also been linked, in older studies, to cardiovascular issues. But newer studies have debunked those heart worries, at least when caffeine is kept to reasonable amounts, and in a 2017 scientific review of more than 400 studies, scientists determined that drinking up to 400 milligrams of caffeine (about four eight-ounce cups of coffee) a day is safe for most people. Even pregnant people can have up to 300 milligrams daily, the researchers concluded, without putting themselves or their pregnancies at risk.
In fact, most health experts now give coffee a thumbs-up. It’s the average American’s top source of antioxidants, which help fight aging and inflammation, says Weinandy. Studies have shown that people who drink coffee have a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and early death than those who abstain. It may even be good for your skin: Coffee drinkers have a lower risk for rosacea.
There are caveats. Avoid highly sugary coffee drinks, since excess sugar is a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. And if you have trouble sleeping, cut yourself off a few hours before bed. If coffee brings on reflux, you may want to avoid it altogether.
Wellness influencers often warn against the use of conventional products harboring potentially dangerous chemicals, from cleaning supplies to cosmetics. One item that’s gotten its fair share of criticism is antiperspirant deodorant that contains aluminum salts to block sweat glands and reduce underarm odor.
Fears about aluminum salts and potential health issues are exaggerated and unproven, says Gerald O’Malley, DO, director of toxicology at Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “The worry is that aluminum can be absorbed by tiny cuts in the skin, and because breast cancers often arise in the underarm area, deodorant became a suspect,” he explains. “But very smart scientists have looked at this carefully, including those at the National Cancer Institute, and they’ve found no evidence that these products are linked to cancer.” The American Cancer Society has also publicly debunked this myth, and the FDA has stated that the products are safe.
The most recent scientific review, published in 2017 by German researchers, noted that the penetration rate of aluminum into the skin after applying antiperspirant is “extremely low” and that there is “no consistent data” to link aluminum to breast cancer. “At this time, there just doesn’t seem to be any scientific reason for this concern,” says O’Malley.