People’s perennial concern with their health and physical appearance results in lots of dodgy diet advice and fad health treatments, which can spread like wildfire when endorsed by celebrity adherents. In some cases, a kernel of scientific truth does exist in the fad. In others, it’s bunk, or possibly even dangerous.
Here, five health trends that have been making the rounds, and the truth of the science behind them.
To be clear, this is bentonite clay — found in Greece, parts of Africa, and in the western United States — not that colorful stuff that comes in tubs. Celebrity adherents claim that ingesting bentonite clay removes toxins, particularly metals, from the body.
“That’s a fallacy,” said Kendra Kattelmann, a dietician and professor of health and nutrition sciences at South Dakota State University. “Your body already has biochemical pathways for eliminating toxins.”
And though the clay contains iron, there’s no evidence that it actually benefits its eater, Kattelmann said. “Food has iron that is readily absorbable because it’s packaged in a carrier protein. With clay, we don’t know whether the minerals are being absorbed.” So, skip the dirt: There are tastier ways to get minerals.
This prison-inspired workout is just one example of the “bodyweight training” craze. It features exercises that rely on lifting, pushing, and pulling one’s own body for strength and conditioning, instead of using weights or fitness machines. Bodyweight gurus push high-intensity workout with imagery from TV shows, action movie stars or, in this case, prison.
Hard-driving bursts of intense exercise can build muscle and burn fat, but there are drawbacks. “High-intensity exercise imposes a lot of stress on the body,” said Stasinos Stavrianeas, professor of exercise science at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. “People get strains and sprains and tears.” So, perhaps trade in the orange jumpsuit and do regular, moderate exercise that’s a little less punishing on your body.
This is one of the latest cleanse trends, each of which brings a new and yuckier way of scrubbing out one’s innards. Activated charcoal is widely used for overdoses and poisoning, but, increasingly, it’s showing up in store-bought lemonades and as an ingredient at juice bars.
It’s true that charcoal can prevent absorption of toxic substances while in your gut. But it can do the same with vitamins, minerals, medications, and other things you might actually need. And the potential side effects — vomiting, diarrhea, and intestinal blockage — aren’t much fun, either.
Grownups are drinking breast milk (or making it into cheese and ice cream), claiming benefits like the boosted immunity that breast-fed babies get. But the nutritional value of breast milk for adults is unproven. And drinking breast milk from an unknown source could expose consumers to HIV, hepatitis, and other viral diseases. For adults, human breast milk may be a good way to feed a fetish, not your body.
Chalk it up, perhaps, to our current cultural obsession with the occult: Adherents of the “werewolf diet” (which include, reportedly, Madonna and Demi Moore) swear that by scheduling fasting and meals by the phases of the moon, you lose weight. Generally, the rule is that you and the moon cannot be full at the same time.
It’s true that intermittent fasting can help with weight loss, and may improve health in other ways, according to a number of studies. But the how and when of fasting is best dictated by your own body, not a celestial one.