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Myths of the season

If there’s one thing science has taught us, it’s that just because “everybody knows” something is true, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

Just in time for Christmas, two doctors, Aaron Carroll and Rachel Vreeman, both associate professors of pediatrics at Indiana University and practicing pediatricians at Riley Hospital for Children, have published a study taking a hard scientific look at some of the things “everybody knows” about topics associated with the holidays…and finding once again that a lot of things “everybody knows” simply aren’t so.

At the top of their list? “Sugar makes kids hyperactive.”

I’m the father of a seven-year-old girl, and I’ve heard some variation of this belief more times than I can count. But in the words of Carroll and Vreeman, it is “without a doubt false.”

They write, “in at least 12 double-blinded, randomized, controlled trials, scientists have examined how children react to diets containing different levels of sugar. None of these studies, not even studies looking specifically at children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, could detect any differences in behavior between the children who had sugar and those who did not.” Even when the focus of the studies was children considered especially sensitive to sugar, there was no difference in behavior between children who ate lots of sugar and those who ate none.

At this point any number of parents are probably sputtering, “But I’ve seen the effect of sugar with my own eyes!”

Sorry, but it’s all in your head. In studies in which parents think their children have eaten sugar, parents rate their children’s behavior as hyperactive even if, in fact, no sugar was consumed. The difference in behavior is entirely in the parents’ minds; the children aren’t doing anything differently at all.

The sugar/hyperactivity myth isn’t the only one the doctors tackle. They also looked at the widespread belief that the number of suicides increases over the holidays. In fact, studies from around the globe show no such holiday peak. In fact, suicides are more common when it’s warm and sunny.

You’ve probably heard at some point that poinsettias are poisonous…but they aren’t. Of 22,793 cases involving poinsettias reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, none revealed significant poisoning. No one died, and more than 96 percent didn’t even require any treatment. And in other tests, no one has ever been able to feed rats enough poinsettia leaves or sap to poison them.

Have you heard that eating late at night–which we tend to do in the holiday season–makes you fat? No, eating more calories than you expend makes you fat. The time of day or night when you eat those calories is irrelevant.

Some people not only eat late at night, they also drink alcoholic beverages (shocking, but true). Sometimes they drink more than they should, and wake with a hangover. There are many “cures” for hangovers. In the opinion of Vreeman andCarroll, none of them work. Don’t want a hangover? Don’t drink enough to bring one on.

I had little or no personal belief invested in any of these myths (not even the sugar one, which I knew long ago had been debunked). But I confess I, like Vreeman and Carroll, was surprised to learn that you do not, in fact, lose most of your body heat through your head, no matter what you mother told you.

Apparently there was an old military study in which scientists put subjects in hatless arctic survival suits and measured their heat loss in cold temperatures. Since their heads were the only thing exposed, naturally they lost most of their heat through their heads. But if they had done that experiment with subjects in swimsuits, only 10 percent of their body heat would have been lost through their heads. It turns out all parts of the body lose heat at the same rate: the head needs no special attention (except for the ease with which ears freeze!).

I know it can be upsetting at Christmas time to discover that long-held beliefs have no scientific validity.

But hey, there are still plenty of things you can believe in: friends, family, warmth, music, beauty, laughter and love.

I believe in them all. Merry Christmas!

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    • Anonymous on December 22, 2008 at 6:37 pm
    • Reply

    I don’t know a good hangover cure, but a great prevention is a big glass of Gatorade before bed.

    James F.

    • Janet on December 22, 2008 at 5:58 pm
    • Reply

    Well, you opened my eyes on a couple. Most of them I never believed. Although I believed the heat loss through the head one, my head was still the last thing I covered, mainly because I don’t like hats and they don’t like me. My head gets covered when the discomfort of the cold exceeds the discomfort of a hat. Having the myth debunked will change my behaviour by nary a hair. But thanks anyway. ;o)

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