Nine Overhyped and Misleading Health Headlines Debunked

Does red wine make you live longer? Do bras cause cancer? Is sugar as addictive as cocaine and heroin? We uncover what headline-grabbing scientific studies really mean for your health

Natural News January 14, 2009 The Studies a€œBreast Size, Handedness and Breast Cancer Risk,a€_ European Journal of Cancer,_ 1991
Dressed to Kill, Sydney Singer and Soma Grismaijer, 1995 The Hype The article rehashes a 20-year-old claim: that bras block lymphatic vessels, and the resulting toxic buildup induces breast cancer. The Subtler Truth The article cites an inconclusive 1991 study that linked cup size to cancer risk and then goes on to rely heavily on a 1995 book by a husband-and-wife a€œmedical anthropologya€ team that claims that three out of four women who wear bras 24 hours a day get cancer. A statement by the American Cancer Society, though, says the book does not meet scientific standards and that a lymph-cancer connection is rubbish: a€œThe alleged mechanism suggested in the book . . . is inconsistent with scientific concepts of breast physiology and pathology.a€ The Bottom Line Beware headlines about underweara€”this story continues to make the rounds, but no clinical study has shown bras to be any more cancer-causing than spandex, neckties or G-strings.

It takes researchers years, sometimes decades, to pin down subtle, important findings about your health, but it takes bumbling journalists (or their editors) just a few seconds to screw it all up. Here, a selection of the most misleading headlines, and a few tips to help you spot the hype early.

Click here for our list of the truths behind nine bogus health news headlines

U.K. Daily Telegram September 11, 2008 The Studies a€œGlycemic Instability and Spontaneous Energy Intake: Association with Knowledge-Based Work,a€Psychosomatic Medicine, 2008 The Hype According to this wire story, a study showed that mental work increased calorie intakea€”a purported connection between the demands of modern life and the obesity epidemic. The Subtler Truth Indeed, this study from the University of Laval in Quebec showed that after a session of a€œknowledge-based work,a€ such as reading or taking tests on a computer, subjects who were led to a buffet ate at least 200 calories more than a control group. But the story doesn’t mention the limited scope of the study: There were only 14 participants, all women and none over 30. The study doesn’t quantify how much energy they actually expended during knowledge-based work, and hey, guess what? It wasn’t truly a blind study. Participants were broadly aware that food perception was being measured, and may therefore have convinced themselves that all that mental exercise made them hungry. The Bottom Line The idea that knowledge work puts us in the mood for an Oreo binge would explain a lot about the obesity epidemic, but it’s going to take better experimentsa€”and journalists who don’t publish vague findings as facta€”before we can blame our waistlines on thoughtful days at work. Gary Wade/Getty Images
New York Daily News December 12, 2008 The Studies a€œEvidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake,a€ Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2008 The Hype This story introduces Princeton University psychology professor Bart Hoebel’s tests on rats by stating in the first paragraph that a€œsugara€”as anyone who mainlines sweets can attesta€”can be just as habit-forming as cocaine.a€ The Subtler Truth Hoebel’s study shows that rats fed a high-sugar diet go through neurochemical and behavioral changes, and even withdrawal symptoms, similar to those associated with nicotine and cocaine. But this newspaper article jumps the gun, suggesting that sugar addiction has been proven in humans and going so far as to have a doctor specializing in weight control give advice on how to kick the sugar habit (protein and veggies in the morning). Hoebel hasn’t proven this addiction in humans, however, and he is quick to point out that his work is more relevant to understanding eating disorders like bulimia than to curing a Dr. Pepper obsession. The Bottom Line Stay skeptical about sugar stories. Is there such a thing as sugar dependence? Possibly. Can we say a€œSugar on Par with Smack, Cracka€? That headline needs more research. iStock
httpswww.popsci.comsitespopsci.comfilesimport2013images200907martini.jpg March 19, 2009 The Studies a€œAlcohol Consumption, Social Support, and Risk of Stroke and Coronary Heart Disease among Japanese Men: The JPHC Study,a€ Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2009 The Hype The Reuters wire story clearly lays out the basics of a study by Professor Hiroyasu Iso of Osaka University, which found that moderate drinking and social support may improve cardiovascular health. Then MSNBC twists the headline. The Subtler Truth Of 19,000 Japanese men aged 40 to 69, those who drank a moderate amount of alcohol each week were at lower risk for heart attack and stroke, and those who had both a strong social network and a tipple or two were at even lower risk. Heavy drinkers, no matter their social support, were at increased risk. The study says nothing about drinking buddies. Instead it points out that a€œthose with low social support had more unhealthy lifestylesa€ and a€œhigh stress,a€ a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. The Bottom Line The headline should be a€œDrinking and Friends Good for You.a€ Bingeing with your buddies hurts everyone. Don Farrall/Getty Images
Pregnant woman holding donut
Australian Broadcasting Corporation August 17, 2007 The Studies a€œHead to Head: Is Depression Over-Diagnosed?a€ British Medical Journal, 2007 The Hype The report’s headline and first section seem to support Australian professor Gordon Parker’s conclusion that clinical depression is overdiagnosed. The Subtler Truth The story doesn’t prepare the reader to fairly assess what is, in fact, an important two-essay debate. Another Aussie doc, Ian Hickie, wrote in his counterpoint that depression is not overdiagnosed, and that increased treatment and awareness has been a a€œgodsend.a€ Says Hickie, a€œthe headline . . . reinforce[d] a popular media idea. Many articles did not cover the debate at all.a€ The Bottom Line Watch out for recurring memes in health stories. This rehashes one of the oldesta€”that depression is not a real disease. Christian Baitg/Getty Images