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

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.

Thinking Can Make You Fat

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

Sugar as Addictive as Cocaine, Heroin

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

Junk Food in Pregnancy Leaves Children Fat for Life

U.K. Daily Mirror July 1, 2008 The Studies a€œOffspring from Mothers Fed a a€˜Junk Food' Diet in Pregnancy and Lactation Exhibit Exacerbated Adiposity That Is More Pronounced in Females,a€ The Journal of Physiology, 2008 The Hype Doughnuts during pregnancy doom kids to lifelong obesity and diabetes. The Subtler Truth The media made a correlation that this study, conducted on rats at the Royal Veterinary College in London, did not prove. a€œWe cannot be certain that what happens in the rat will apply 100 percent to humans,a€ says lead author Stephanie Bayol. The basic takeways: Good neonatal nutrition is important, but it alone won't determine a child's waistline. Bayol objects to a€œthe message that someone is doomed to a lifetime of obesity because of their mothers' bad diet and that nothing can be done. This was not supported by our findings.a€ The Bottom Line Maternal nutrition has been linked to several maladies, but the link to obesity needs to be taken with a grain of salt (and a carrot stick).Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Bacon Gives Kids Cancer

U.K. Daily Mirror January 31, 2009 The Studies a€œCured Meat, Vegetables, and Bean-Curd Foods in Relation to Childhood Acute Leukemia Risk: A Population Based Case-Control Study,a€ BMC Cancer, 2009 The Hype In this action-packed 85-word story, we find out that children who eat bacon more than once a week increase their leukemia risk by 75 percent, probably because the preservatives in the meat promote the development of cancer. The Subtler Truth This study used a questionnaire to suss out the eating habits of 145 Han Chinese leukemia patients aged 2 through 20 in southern Taiwan. The researchers suspected a possible link between leukemia and smoked meats, but there is no direct causation borne out by the study; the scientists couldn't rule out environment, genetics or other causes. The 75 percent risk number misinterprets results, and the study considered all smoked meats, including Chinese favorites like salted fish. It certainly didn't compare Taiwanese bacon to the Western variety. As for the quote a€œGives Kids Cancer,a€ an overeager editor seems to have just plain made that up. The Bottom Line Be very suspicious of big headlines above brief articles, especially those published in the U.K.; British tabloids have a long track record of misleading headlines.Nicholas Eveleigh/Getty Images

Is Feeling Blue the New Black?

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

Maggots Prove Effective Treatment for Leg Ulcers March 19, 2009 The Studies a€œLarval Therapy for Leg Ulcers (VenUS II): Randomised Controlled Trial,a€ British Medical Journal, 2009 The Hype The wire story claims that maggots heal leg ulcers as fast as an absorbent hydrogel, the standard treatment. The Subtler Truth It's been known for centuries that maggots can help clean out leg ulcers. The study instead asks whether they do a better job than the usual hydrogel procedure, and the answer is no. This headline suggests that maggots are a viable new therapy instead of presenting the real conclusion: that maggot therapy heals no better than the current treatment, causes more pain, and is no cheapera€”facts that led the Canadian Press to the opposite headline: a€œMaggots Disappoint in Healing Leg Ulcers.a€ The Bottom Line Watch out for items about cartoonish medicine. Stories of ulcer-healing maggots and cancer-sniffing dogs tend to draw readers a€” and obscure facts.iStock