Four Health Fads That Are Just Research Errors

These researchers might have imbibed way too much of that red wine they swear is the secret to living a long life
Four Health Fads That Are Just Research Errors

We’re probably about six months from the billionaires finding out about Elizabeth Bathory and bathing in the blood of slain maidens, but the rest of us have to rely on science for our health needs. Unfortunately, the science is not as, well, scientific as we’d like it to be. Researchers who fudge the data or just don’t look that deeply into it can change how entire societies take care of themselves. For instance…

The ‘French Paradox’ Is Mostly Explained by Death Certification and Time

If you’re thinking what we were thinking, we regret to inform you that the so-called “French paradox” is not a thought experiment involving an evil twin who wears a pencil mustache and striped shirt. It refers to the idea that French people are all walking around eating bread and cheese, smoking cigarettes and generally being French without the ill health effects that doing any of those things has in other Western countries. This has historically been attributed to their high consumption of red wine, which has been theorized to have mysterious cholesterol-removing properties, which should have been sus from the start because if wine was magical vitality juice, every fiftysomething mom would be Bruce Willis in Unbreakable.

It turns out, however, that there’s plenty of deaths from cardiac and other cheese-caused events in France — they’re just not reported. French doctors are sticklers for details, so even if they’re, like, 95 percent sure a patient had a heart attack, they won’t write it on their death certificate unless they’re certain. That means a lot of deaths that were later revealed to be heart-related were initially documented as unknown causes, accounting for as much as 20 percent of the effects of the “paradox.” France also adopted their saturated-fatty diet much later than many other Western countries, so they simply haven’t gotten old enough to start feeling it. 

Eat up, Frenchies; our strokes are coming for you.

The ‘Small Plates’ Guy Was Fired for Fraud

If you’ve ever furtively glanced at the weight-loss tips on the back of a container of low-fat ice cream as you slowly eat the whole thing, you’ve heard of the “smaller plates” theory. It comes from a study that claimed people eat more when using larger dishware, therefore using smaller plates will trick your brain into being satisfied with less food because we’re all apparently some kind of caveman baby person. Small food small on big plate, but small food big on small plate. Small plate! Big food! Vote DeSantis!

You’d think this study was handed down by God on high the way fitness influencers tout it, but it was very much not. It was handed down by Brian Wansink, famed food researcher and Ig Nobel Prize winner (again, should have been a red flag) until he fell from grace in 2018, when the university who employed him uncovered “academic misconduct in his research and scholarship, including misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results and inappropriate authorship.” 

That’s a lot of fancy words to say he fucked up scientifically. Eighteen of his papers were retracted, one of them twice, including the one that claimed people ate more pasta from larger bowls. Subsequent research has confirmed that our tummies can indeed tell the difference between 17 and 70 french fries, no matter how big the carton.

We Think Spinach Is a Good Source of Iron Due to a Scientific Misinterpretation

No, we’re not about to tell you that a misplaced decimal was responsible for the myth that spinach contains tons of iron. (Although we totally have in the past — sorry!) It turns out there was some confusion in the research of the 19th-century German chemist typically blamed, Erich von Wolff, but it had nothing to do with a decimal point. His data concerned dried spinach, but that wasn’t clear to future nutritionists. Since we haven’t yet discovered the kind of monster who eats dried spinach, they assumed he measured fresh spinach, whose iron content is pretty well diluted by all that water and flavor and stuff.

So where did the “decimal point” thing come from? It traces back to a 1977 article by British nutrition expert Arnold E. Bender, who concluded the story by joking that ​​“the fame of spinach appears to have been based on a misplaced decimal point.” Since there is no joking in science, people took his little jape at face value, so just in case the humorless of the future are in the crowd, allow us to clarify that we have never once said something true.

‘Blue Zones’ Are Probably Just Areas With Lots of Pension Fraud

For those who aren’t familiar, “blue zones” are both a great nickname for your testicles and pockets of communities around the world that boast an unusually high number of people who live to be 100 or even beyond 110. Proponents attribute the longer life expectancies found in so-called “blue zones” — which include Okinawa, Japan as well as small towns in Italy, Greece, Costa Rica and California — to their plant-based diets, active lifestyles, strong communities, and oh, yeah, that red wine thing. If you really want to live to be 100, though, the true secret is to be born somewhere that doesn’t keep good records of such things and/or study up on identity theft. Presto, you’re 100!

As more attention is drawn to these wonder towns, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’re little more than hotbeds of pension fraud. To be fair, sometimes it comes down to an impressively careless number of clerical errors at the local office of vital statistics, but it’s mostly people lying about their age or identity in places that were slow to adopt official birth and death records. Whenever officials start digging deeper into blue zones, a whopping percentage of its oldsters suddenly disappears. And we do mean whopping: Japan lost 82 percent of its centenarians overnight. Okinawa isn’t even the healthiest city in Japan. If you want to adopt some part of the Japanese lifestyle, try their beer. You won’t live longer, but you’ll die happier.

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