The Truths Behind Eight Common Old Wives’ Tales

The Truths Behind Eight Common Old Wives’ Tales

Whether from friends, family or random Faceboom posts, you’ve probably heard things that sound either too good to be true, or like complete bull crap. Here is a collection of some of the most popular old wives’ tales that go both ways.

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Chicken Soup Is Good for You When You’re Sick: Mostly True

When you’re sick, nothing tastes better than a warm bowl of chicken soup. There are plenty of benefits that seem obvious — like keeping you hydrated and clearing of nasal congestion — but there might be more to it. In a study published in the journal Chest, Dr Stephen I. Rennard found an additional quality of standard chicken soups: anti-inflammatory capabilities. Inflammation is one of your body’s first responses to infection, and even though it’s an important part of the immune system, it can lead to acute bronchitis or sinus infections if left untreated.

Another study, in the American Journal of Therapeutics, investigated chicken soup and chicken breast extracts and their ability to help manage influenza. They found that carnosine and its derivative anserine, both available in chicken breasts, could contribute to treatment and prevention of viral infections like colds and the flu. Considering these benefits — and the fact that it’s oh so yummy — it seems like grandma was right about this one.

Starve A Fever, Feed A Cold: Mostly False

This saying goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Supposedly, you consume food to fuel your fight against a cold, and you don’t consume food when you have a fever. It was believed that eating made you warmer, and if you already have a fever, the last thing you want to do is increase your body temperature. At least one Dutch study, published in the journal Clin Diagn Immunol, has found some minor evidence supporting the ancient claim, but the study size was very small. Even Gijs van den Brink, one of the lead scientists on the study, suggests people not change their behaviour based on the results.

You require water and energy for your body to function properly, regardless of whether you’re sick or not, so the NYU Langone Medical Center has a different take on the tale:

Current medical opinion puts the “feed a cold, starve a fever” maxim in the same category as other medical advice from the Middle Ages — false and maybe even dangerous! An infection — particularly one associated with fevers — is no time to deny your body the nutrients and fluids it needs. Like any bodily system, the immune system requires energy to function properly. To provide an extreme example, severe malnutrition is the major risk factor for life-threatening consequences of serious infections in less developed countries. And, drinking fluids helps counter the dehydration caused by sweating and mucus production.

The bottom line is the concept doesn't make very much sense. The saying should actually be "feed a cold, feed a fever". Your body needs energy no matter how you're feeling. On the Duke Medicine blog, nutrition scientist and clinical trials manager Denise Snyder lays it all out:

I think it was always pretty much dismissed as folklore. If you break it out and really think about it, there is some immune response if you eat less during a fever. But as a nutritionist, I certainly wouldn't tell people to starve themselves.

So the next time you're not feeling well, follow these simple rules: drink lots of fluids, and -- even though you probably don't feel hungry -- eat whenever you can.

Being Cold Will Give You A Cold: Somewhat True

Being cold does not literally cause you to catch a cold, but being cold can make you more susceptible to getting sick. You generally spend more time indoors during the cold seasons, and that can translate to more time spreading each other's germs. There's evidence that supports some other factors at play, however.

Though most studies, like this one published in the journal Family Practice, and conducted by Ronald Eccles -- the director of the Common Cold Centre -- find very little relation between people being cold and developing cold symptoms, others have found indirect evidence to how the cold affects us. In this study published in the journal Pathogens, researchers Anice C. Lowen and Peter Palese found that air temperature and humidity levels can play a part in transmitting viruses. Keeping your room above 20C and at intermediate or high humidity can help keep the flu from spreading.

In another study from the Common Cold Centre, Ron Eccles suggests that lower body temperatures can cause blood vessels in your airways to constrict, possibly inhibiting your immune response while onsetting common cold symptoms. So, does the cold make you sick? No, but being cold may create the ideal conditions for infection.

You Lose Most Of Your Body Heat Through Your Head: Mostly False

This one comes from a few different places. Before central heating was available, homes would be pretty cold at night. To help keep warm, people would wear nightcaps, just like you see in old cartoons. It made sense, considering that your head is one of the only things sticking out of the covers. This eventually led people to believe that a great deal of heat would escape from your head without one.

A study conducted in the '50s may also have contributed to this belief. Anahad O'Connor from The New York Times spoke about the study with Dr. Daniel I. Sessler, an anesthesiologist and expert on hypothermia at the University of Louisville medical school:

In those studies, he said, researchers dressed subjects in Arctic survival suits and exposed them to frigid conditions. But the suits only covered the subjects from the neck down, he said, so naturally most of their body heat escaped through their heads. That isn't a fair comparison, Dr. Sessler said. If you did the same experiment with someone wearing a swimsuit, only about 10 per cent of the heat loss would come from the head.

Dr Sessler explains that the body areas of the face, head and upper chest are simply more sensitive to temperature changes than other areas. It might feel like putting on a hat makes you warmer, but the reality is adding any additional clothing to another part of the body will reduce just as much heat loss.

Carrots Are Good For Your Eyesight: Somewhat True

It's long been thought that eating carrots will make you see better, but can a vegetable really help improve your vision? Yes and no. Carrots won't magically improve your vision, but they are good for maintaining eye health. The real roots of the "better vision" tale actually lie in some bizarre WWII propaganda about Royal Air Force soldiers being able to shoot down Nazi planes in the dark. That being said, carrots are still beneficial because of their high beta carotene -- or Vitamin A -- content.

Vitamin A is a fat-soluble retinoid that is involved in your immune function, vision, reproduction, and cellular communication. The US Department of Health & Human Services explains its eye health benefits:

Vitamin A is critical for vision as an essential component of rhodopsin, a protein that absorbs light in the retinal receptors, and because it supports the normal differentiation and functioning of the conjunctival membranes and cornea.

In terms of what you need on a daily basis, a half-cup of raw carrots will give you more than enough Vitamin A at 184 per cent of your daily value. If you're not big on the orange roots, you can also find high concentrates of Vitamin A in liver, fish oils, milk, eggs, leafy green vegetables, and tomato products. If you can keep up on your Vitamin A intake, you'll likely have fewer issues with eyesight later in life.

Sitting Too Close To The TV Is Bad For Your Eyes: Somewhat False

If you haven't heard this one, you must not have ever been around a television as a kid. At least this one is somewhat rooted in some truth. Back in 1967, General Electric warned customers that some of their CRT colour televisions were emitting excessive x-rays, and they recommended keeping children at a safe distance while watching. This led to some minor hysteria and created the notion that sitting close to any TV could be bad for your eyes.

Soon after, the US Congress and the FDA stepped in enacting the Radiation Control for Health and Safety Act of 1968 (now known as Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act - Subchapter C - Electronic Product Radiation Control). Since then, television sets had to be built limiting x-ray emissions as much as possible, and modern LCD and Plasma screens don't emit x-rays at all. When it comes to watching TV, sitting close to the screen isn't going to do eat away at your eyes, but it's still possible to encounter serious eye strain when you're looking at a screen for too long. Make sure you take plenty of screen breaks and you'll be fine.

Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal Of The Day: Somewhat True

Everyone has heard this one at some point in their lives, either from parents or cereal commercials. Breakfast is what starts your day off right, right? Well, it depends on what's actually important to you.

There are health factors to consider with breakfast. A study published in the American Heart Association Journals found that eating breakfast was associated with significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease. The study looked at men from 45 to 82 years old with 16 years of follow up. Another study -- this time focused on women -- from the Endocrine Society, suggested that skipping breakfast may make obese women insulin resistant, which could lead to diabetes. In regards to children, a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that omitting breakfast interferes with cognition and learning, especially in nutritionally at-risk children. Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education John L Ivy, PhD at the University of Texas at Austin, explains why he thinks it's the most important meal, regardless of sex or age:

Breakfast immediately raises the body's energy level and restores the blood glucose level to normal after an overnight fast. It also raises the muscle and liver glycogen stores. Carbohydrate is the preferred fuel for muscle and the nervous system. Low carbohydrate levels result in poor performance and rapid fatigue during training and other physical activities. ...breakfast has a significant effect on cognitive function during the day. If we fail to replenish our carbohydrate stores during the early morning hours, the resulting low blood glucose levels can adversely affect our ability to concentrate and perform mental tasks. Studies have shown that children who eat breakfast perform at a higher level in school and are more physically active than those who skip breakfast. Also, breakfast helps increase the ability to focus and reduces declines in attention and memory over the morning hours.

Your schedule, lifestyle and job can all be factors for determining what's important, but it's clear that we need fuel. Breakfast is the first chance we have to fuel ourselves each day, and whether the benefits you receive are physical or mental, it's hard to completely deny it's importance. Especially when you consider what "breakfast" really means. The word literally refers to whatever the first meal you have that "breaks your fast" of the prior night. So whether you eat when you first wake up or wait until lunchtime, your first meal is going to be important.

There are other studies that suggest breakfast may simply be another meal. If your main concern is weight loss, there is no evidence to suggest that eating breakfast helps or hurts you. In one study from the University of Alabama, over 300 otherwise healthy overweight and obese adults were told to eat or skip breakfast. Over the course of 16 weeks, researchers found no significant evidence that eating breakfast helped participants lose or gain weight. The meal you have may not be breakfast in the traditional sense -- bacon and eggs and all that -- but your first meal of the day is important. Whatever your goals are, a nutritionally sound first meal of the day is beneficial toward your mental focus and long term health.

Knuckle Cracking Causes Arthritis: Mostly False

The sounds of knuckle cracking are caused by the fluid in your joints, not your finger bones. Arthritis, or more specifically osteoarthritis, occurs when the cartilage in between joints begins to decrease. It seems like it would be a reasonable assumption to think that arthritis could be caused by performing strenuous, loud actions with your fingers, but that's not the case.

A study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine looked at two large groups of people -- one group with osteoarthritis and the other group without -- to determine if knuckle cracking was more common among those with the condition. It turned out, 20 per cent of all the entire tested group cracked their knuckles regularly. A little more than 18 per cent of those with OA cracked their knuckles, and surprisingly, over 21 per cent of those who did not crack their knuckles had OA. Meaning more people who did not crack their knuckles had osteoarthritis. Other similar studies, like this one published in the Western Journal of Medicine, came up with similar conclusions.

Although there is little evidence out there to support knuckle cracking causing arthritis, there's still a chance it isn't exactly good for you either. A study in The Eular Journal from 1990 found that knuckle cracking can contribute to functional hand impairment, and possibly weaken grip strength. So it's OK to crack and pop, but don't overdo it.


  • The one about cracking knuckles is technically right. There’s no evidence to suggest it contributes or causes arthritis.
    However, a doctor spent 50 years cracking the knuckles on only his left hand every day to prove it did not cause arthritis. While he found that it indeed did not cause arthritis, he did find that the grip strength in his left hand was significantly worse than his right hand.

    And the carrots one I find fantastic. To cover up the fact that they had radar and had cracked the Germans’ codes and thus knew where the German planes were, the allies came up with the story about Allied pilots eating lots of carrots allowing them to see better in the dark and thus see the German planes at night.

    • I have osteoarthritis. While I don’t crack my joints (I can’t because my fingers are stuffed) – I do find that stretching causes joints to crack.
      Excessive cracking may not be a cause, but a symptom. Dissolving bone gives off nitrogen which builds up in adjacent tissue. Bend the joint, the nitrogen forms bubbles an pops, just like the cavitation sound submarine propellers makes…

  • The “feed a cold, starve a fever” maxim does hold some truth. A cold being a mild illness is easily resolved and doesn’t induce much change in body physiology. So there’s no need to fast.

    But a more severe illness is different. The fever is an adaptive response and the tip of the iceberg in terms of physiological changes. Other processes are now at play including activation of catabolism. This consumes stores of protein, carbs and fat to supply the immune system and other core organs with fuel … at the expense of less vital systems.

    Interestingly, catabolism persists despite adequate provision of food. It may be that our physiology evolved to sacrifice resourcing the gut at a time of peak demand. Or that the gut becomes less efficient in times of global inflammatory changes. But either way, we wind up with net catabolism regardless of intake. This is evidenced by the fat and muscle loss exhibited by patients with prolonged critical illness even if they are supplied with adequate nutrition. And the well-known phenomenon of loss of appetite when really sick.

    So, upshot – eat if you like during a severe illness but it probably won’t help as much as you think.

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