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Myth Busting: 10 Bizarre Health Fads

Placenta Pills

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Once considered the domain of hippies and ancient civilizations, eating the placenta gained mainstream attention, if not acceptance, when Mad Men star January Jones revealed she swallowed pills made from her placenta, the organ that provides oxygen and nutrients to a baby in utero. Jones explained her decision, saying, "Your placenta gets dehydrated and made into vitamins. It’s something I was very hesitant about, but we’re the only mammals who don’t ingest our own placentas. It’s not witch-crafty or anything. I suggest it to all moms.”

Do they work?
Some makers of the pills like Fruit of the Womb assert that eating one’s own placenta helps speed recovery from pregnancy, prevents post-partum depression, and restores energy. But according to Mira Calton, a certified nutritionist and co-author of Rich Food Poor Food, there's no research to support these claims. "The placenta is made to prevent potentially dangerous toxins from reaching the baby in utero, not for eating," she says. "Popping placenta pills supplies only minimal iron while delivering these same toxins to the mother again."

Are they safe?
"Placenta pills are not FDA-approved and my experience is that post-partum depression can be a severe and dangerous condition for which psychiatric treatment is critical," says Pamela Brar, M.D., an internal medicine physician in La Jolla, Calif. Calton adds that many placental supplements contain fillers or herbs that can cause negative reactions.

Final verdict: Deny it. "Just because you can doesn't mean you should," Dr. Brar says.

Oxygen Shots

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Forget diamond-infused face creams and antioxidant-packed potions. The real secret to stop the aging process? Fresh air—in a fancy can, that is! That's what people were saying after Simon Cowell showed up on the red carpet with a few cans of inhalable oxygen. In addition to giving him a youthful glow, Cowell says the small bottles of gas help him manage stress, fatigue, and even the urge to smoke.

Do they work?
Quite the opposite. "This is a great way to accelerate aging!" says Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist and author of The Vigor Diet, The New Science of Feeling Your Best. Introducing concentrated oxygen is likely to increase free radical generation, he says. Why is that bad? "Too much free radical damage can lead to wrinkled skin, stiff joints, elevated fatigue, memory problems, and a host of other chronic conditions associated with aging."

Dr. Dan Giuglianotti, osteopathic physician and creator of The Lean You, adds that while oxygen shots are said to boost mental agility, help with fatigue, and reduce headaches, the research just isn't there to support these claims. "From a medical standpoint, at best any perceived benefits of oxygen shots would last for mere seconds," he says.

Are they safe?
"Our lungs get us as much oxygen as we need," Dr. Brar says. "Oxygen, while essential to life, can be toxic in excessive doses, where it can actually cause cell damage. More is not always better."

Final verdict: Deny it.

Caffeinated Lotions

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Salma Hayek is known for her radiant skin so it wasn't surprising when the Latin beauty introduced her own line of skincare products. The caffeine on the ingredients list, however, raised a few eyebrows.

Do they work?
"Caffeine dehydrates fat cells and therefore can make the skin feel smoother," explains Dr. Len Lopez, a nutrition and fitness expert and author of To Burn or Not to Burn: Fat is the Question. "[Caffeine] also claims to tighten skin while applied and reduces dark circles." Preliminary research also shows that caffeine may help protect against cellular damage caused by sun exposure. The only issue, Dr. Lopez says, is that we don't know how much caffeine can actually be absorbed through the skin. More research is necessary before coming to any hard conclusions.

Are they safe?
"It can't hurt," Dr Brar says, so she gives the okay to try it.

Final verdict: Try it.

Aerated Chocolate

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You've seen the commercials: Happy, slim women indulging in delicious chocolate without a shred of guilt. But does aerated chocolate (chocolate with more air mixed in) live up to the hype? And is it even worth it?

Does it work?
"While aerated chocolate has a lower overall calorie content in each bite due to the up to 50-percent reduction in actual chocolate content, it represents a more processed chocolate option that in the end nearly doubles the profit margin for manufactures," Calton says. Plus, all major brands still contain loads of added sugars.

Is it safe?
It's perfectly safe to try, but traditional dark chocolate can give you the same satisfying experience with more antioxidants and minerals. "One-hundred percent natural, organic chocolate doesn't contain any added sugars and can be combined with a little stevia and nuts for a delicious, antioxidant-rich bark," Calton suggests.

Final verdict: Deny it.

Hot Pants

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As evidenced by old-school "sauna suits," the idea of slimming down by increasing your core body temperature is not a new one. But the latest generation of hot pants, like Zaggora, aim to incorporate some serious style into getting your (extra) sweat on at the gym. Companies claim that the clothing, which now includes corsets, tops, shorts, pants, jackets, and even bras, torches fat and melts away inches through "thermogenesis."

Do they work?
"It’s not possible to spot reduce," Dr. Lopez says. "So from that point alone, it’s not a smart tool or investment to use." Dr. Talbott agrees. "All they make you do is sweat, so you lose water, not fat. The main problem with this approach is not that it's ineffective, but the dehydration they cause can lead to overeating later in the day and eventual weight gain."

Are they safe?
"Our bodies produce sweat to control our temperature, not to lose weight," Dr. Brar explains. "When we are hot, in order to regulate our temperatures, we produce sweat on our skin which evaporates and results in cooling. If the sweat cannot evaporate to cool you, you are prone to overheating, which can cause fainting or a form of heat stroke."

Dr. Lopez adds that "hot pants" could interfere with your body's natural process for eliminating toxins through your pores. "It’s probably not too much to worry about if you are only wearing 'hot shorts,' but the more of your body that you cover up or keep from breathing, you could be creating problems," he says.

Final verdict: Deny it.

The Purple Diet

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Mariah Carey recently announced that she's embarking on "the purple diet" where she only eats purple-hued foods such as cabbage, plums, and grapes. Is this one celebrity diet you should try?

Does it work?
It's not a totally bad idea, Dr. Talbott says. "Purple foods are generally very healthy for us; berries, grapes, and fruits are high in potent antioxidants called flavonoids that are good for the heart, brain, and entire body." The real problem is that focusing too much on any one food means you're missing out on other beneficial nutrients such as the carotenoids in yellow/orange vegetables, lignans in brown whole grains, or the iron in red meat. "I often encourage people to 'eat a rainbow' every day so they are actively trying to consume the widest range of colors for the most comprehensive antioxidant protection," Dr. Talbott says. "For example, red (tomato), orange (carrot), yellow (bell pepper), green (Romaine lettuce), blue (blueberries), indigo (acai berry), and violet (black berry)."

Is it safe?
"Anything done in extremes is not well-balanced and will find you deficient in other areas over time," Dr. Brar says. "Plus, you don't want to end up looking like Barney the dinosaur!"

Final verdict: Deny it.

Colonics

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From Gwyneth Paltrow to Sylvester Stalone, celebs have long touted the effects of colon hydrotherapy or so-called colonics. Proponents say it's a great way to flatten your tummy before a big event, reduce bloat, and help eliminate toxins from your body.

Does it work?
"As a medical doctor, I can tell you definitively that colonics do not produce any real or lasting weight loss," Dr. Guigliotti says. "Yes, they get rid of the feces in your colon—which you normally do on your own anyway—but that's about it. As soon as you eat anything, you gain the weight back." He adds that there's no scientific evidence that colonics can cure any disease or regulate how your bowels function.

Dr. Lopez represents another perspective. "I've used [colonics] and think they can be helpful, especially if someone is fighting a tough medial condition," he says. But lots of water, fiber, various herbs, and probiotics will usually do the trick, no hose up your nethers necessary.

Is it safe?
Not exactly. If the water pressure is too high, colonics can cause perforated bowels that can lead to dangerous infections, Calton cautions. "Additionally, by removing micronutrients from the large intestine, you are stealing the vital micronutrients that are there to keep you healthy and boost your immune system. These quick fixes also strip your gut of the healthy bacteria inside." Another potential problem? "Some people get addicted to that empty feeling and they end up doing it far too often for health," she says.

Final verdict: Deny it.

Segmented Sleep

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Experts have been recommending seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night since the beginning of time (at least, your lifetime), but a new theory suggests this may not be the way we were designed to sleep. Proponents of "segmented sleep" say that our earliest ancestors snoozed whenever they felt like it—which usually meant several two-hour naps throughout the day.

Does it work?
"Having three little kids, twins included, I’m familiar with sleeping in chunks, and it is better than nothing," Dr. Lopez says. "But it's better to sleep seven to eight hours at one time so you can go through the various sleep cycles because each has a specific purpose. During each phase, your body releases lots of hormones, natural killer cells, etc. to help repair and restore the body."

Is it safe?
It's not exactly dangerous, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. "Studies have shown over and over again that any type of disrupted or 'short' sleep (anything less than seven hours per night) increases levels of cortisol (your stress hormone), leading to insulin interference, blood sugar instability, and then food cravings (especially for high-sugar comfort foods)," Dr. Talbott says. All of this can lead to weight gain—predominantly belly fat. "Getting adequate sleep is every bit as important as proper diet and regular exercise for maintaining a healthy weight," he says.

Final verdict: Deny it, unless this is how you naturally sleep already.

Stevia

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Advertised as all natural, calorie-free, and safe for people with diabetes, the sweetener stevia seems like a win-win-win! But can you really believe all the hype?

Does it work?
Calton is very enthusiastic about stevia. She explains the science: "The stevia leaf contains compounds called steviol glycosides, which make it about 30 to 45 times as sweet as sugar, but two of the glycosides—stevioside and rebaudioside—are approximately 300 times as sweet as sugar... Stevia is fine for diabetics or even very low-carb dieters. In fact, some studies suggest that stevia can help reverse diabetes and metabolic syndrome and reduce hypertension."

Dr. Talbott agrees. "Stevia is a much better alternative for people looking for a lower-calorie option that avoids the use of synthetic artificial sweeteners." This is not necessarily because artificial sweeteners are dangerous, but rather because many of them, especially aspartame, can set off sweet cravings in many people, he says. "The brain perceives the sweetness from the artificial sweetener but then cannot account for those calories later so our brain tells us to consume more calories to make up for the missing energy." Thankfully stevia does not seem to set off the reaction, he says.

Is it safe?
"After initial concerns in the early 90s by the FDA, [stevia] was ultimately approved as safe in 2009," Dr. Brar explains. "Review studies in 2010 have corroborated some of the claims that stevia has benefits of lowering blood pressure and blood sugar." But don’t be fooled by "stevia products" in the grocery store, Calton warns. They often include stevia mixed with some kind of sugar base such as dextrose, maltodextrin, xylitol, or erythritol. "While the xylitol or erythritol bases are better choices, we prefer pure stevia extract," she says. That means "stevia rebaudiana" is the only ingredient.

Final verdict: Try it.

Coconut Oil

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Coconut oil, just one of many products of the coconut, is used in a wide range of culinary delights and as an all-natural base for beauty products. And yet we've all heard the horror stories of coconut oil slathered on movie popcorn. So which is it: wonder food or diet woe?

Does it work?
"Coconut oil was falsely crucified back in the 70s and 80s," Dr. Lopez says. "That's because they were testing partially hydrogenated coconut oil, instead of unprocessed, virgin coconut oil. Any partially hydrogenated oil is bad for you because they contain trans-fats, which are known to be bad for your health and heart."

Dr. Brar adds that coconut oil is often recommended as a "fat-burner" because of it's high content of medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are metabolized more like carbohydrates than fats (they can be used directly by working muscles and the brain as an energy source), and they're less likely than other dietary fats to be stored as body fat.

Is it safe?
Our experts were unanimous in their love of all things coconut. Dr. Lopez explains that not only does it burn belly fat, but it can handle high-heat cooking without oxidation. Calton swears by coconut oil for her skin, saying, "while it may feel greasy, it actually reduces acne because MCTs are antibacterial and antiviral."

Dr. Talbott suggests adding a shot of coconut oil to your pre-workout smoothie to enhance both brain function and muscle performance. But he adds one caveat: Oil is still oil when it comes to calories, so moderation is key if you're trying to lose weight.

Final verdict: Try it.