Top 10 Medical Myths | Psychology Today
Medical myths illuminated.
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Medicine and psychology are riddled with myths and misperceptions. In the era of fake news, it’s more important than ever to sort fact from fiction. Share these tips with anyone living with depression, anxiety, pain, trauma, or issues with self-esteem.
1. Fat isn’t ugly.
Q: How does the diet industry make money? A: By making you feel bad about yourself.
If you feel unattractive and ashamed of your body, you’ll spend money attempting to “fix” it. However, if you love the skin you’re in, you won’t give them a cent. Idealized body types are arbitrary, as evidenced by how they’ve changed throughout history: Centuries ago, only the wealthy could afford rich foods and minimal activity—while the less fortunate worked the fields and struggled with famine. As such, fat was equated with wealth and beauty, while thinness was associated with poverty and unattractiveness (Ferris & Crowther, 2011). Indeed, Renaissance artists like Botticelli exclusively featured round, plump models.
Over time, economics changed: Now, only the wealthy can afford diets of organic kale and personal trainers, while the less privileged often rely on more affordable, less healthy options, like fast food. Hey, presto, a flip: Thinness is now associated with wealth—which is now equated with beauty. “Fat” as a body type has absolutely no inherent value and is actually rooted in socioeconomic status and classism. Please tell everyone you know.
2. Depression is not due exclusively to a “chemical imbalance.”
Big Pharma has spent billions of dollars promoting the idea that depression is simply a “flaw in chemistry” that can be magically cured with a pill. Medications can be helpful, even lifesaving for some, but they are not a panacea. While depression has biological components, it’s never purely genetic. Rather, like all health issues, depression is biopsychosocial—created and maintained by a combination of factors: biological (genetics, neurochemistry, diet), psychological (thoughts, emotions, unhealthy coping behaviors), social (isolation, divorce, family conflict), and environmental (poverty, a pandemic!) (Kwong et al., 2019).
We all experienced firsthand the depression and anxiety triggered by COVID-19, as isolation canceled work and social lives, kept us from loved ones, and restricted human touch. Does that make everyone mentally ill…? (Answer: nope.) Trauma also contributes to depression; for example, women with histories of childhood abuse are four times more likely to develop depression than those with no abuse history (Felitti et al., 1998; Saveanu & Nemeroff, 2012).
The fact that events and situations can trigger and maintain depression means that depression is not a sign of a broken brain! Lifestyle factors like sleep, nutrition, and exercise; environmental stressors like abuse and pandemics; cognitive factors like thoughts and attention; socioeconomic factors like finances and race; social factors like abuse and family estrangement; and coping behaviors—like actively seeking therapy and increasing physical activity and social support—all contribute to mood and health.
3. Pain is not a purely physical problem.
You may believe that pain is a purely physical problem that requires purely biomedical solutions, like pills and procedures. However, this isn’t true. Pain is constructed by multiple brain sites, including your limbic system—the brain’s emotion center. This means that pain is both physical and emotional 100 percent of the time.
Indeed, science indicates that pain is produced and reduced by a combination of biological, cognitive, emotional, behavioral, environmental, and sociological factors (Mackey & Martucci, 2018). Thoughts, emotions, and coping behaviors always contribute to the pain you feel. Not surprisingly, depression, anxiety, and trauma make pain feel worse, while treatments targeting both brain and body, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and biofeedback, can help lower pain volume.
4. Emotions aren’t just in your head—they also come out in your body.
Have you ever experienced butterflies in your stomach when nervous, racing heart when excited, tension headaches, or feelings of heaviness when sad? This is because emotions are physical or physiological: a biological cascade of neurotransmitters, hormones, and muscular responses that impact both brain and body. Indeed, negative emotions like stress can trigger body pain, suppress the immune system, and exacerbate underlying health conditions.
The idea that your emotional health, or “mental health,” is somehow separate from your physical health is a myth. The brain is connected to the body 100 percent of the time!
5. Body Mass Index (BMI) is not an accurate indicator of health.
The BMI—an index measuring weight adjusted for height—is an antiquated tool used by many physicians as a proxy for health. Low BMI is erroneously considered an indicator of “good” health, while high BMI supposedly indicates “poor” health. Here’s why this isn’t true: The BMI fails to distinguish between fat, muscle, and bone mass (CDC, 2021).
Indeed, many healthy individuals have high BMIs simply because muscle weighs more than fat! Athletes and Olympians often have a high BMI, while individuals with anorexia score a low, “good” BMI. Needless to say, anorexia is not an indicator of good health: It can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, reproductive and cardiac issues, even death. The BMI is not diagnostic of how fat you are, nor how healthy. This is a myth.
6. Going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re “crazy.”
Just as going to the gym to exercise your body doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your body, going to therapy to exercise your mind doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your brain. Rather, it’s the opposite: Exercising your body makes you stronger and healthier, just as therapy, or brain exercise, makes your mind stronger and healthier. Imagine how much better a place the world would be if everyone invested as much time in their emotional health as they did in their physical health…?
7. Family issues are never “all your fault.”
Gaslighting, scapegoating, and finger-pointing are hallmarks of unhealthy family systems. It can be easy to believe the guilt trips and difficult to set boundaries with the people you love. However, family conflict is ALWAYS the result of “dynamics”—patterns of interactions shaped by a complex interplay of personalities, family roles, communication styles, and circumstances—that require at least two people. No matter what family members tell you, the entire mess of dynamics cannot possibly be all your fault. This is a myth.
8. You don’t need eight glasses of water a day.
It turns out that there’s a “complete lack of evidence” for this myth (Vreeman & Carroll, 2007). According to the Mayo Clinic (2020) and other medical sources, you should drink water when you’re thirsty. Every human body is different, and we all require different amounts of hydration depending on overall health, diet, environment, how much we exercise, etc. Moreover, we get a significant amount of water from the foods we eat, particularly fruits and vegetables and other liquids like milk. Carry a water bottle to stay hydrated, but no need to count your ounces.
9. Sports drinks are not superior to water.
Purple drinks loaded with sugar and chemicals don’t hydrate the human body better than water. This is a myth. Water is the perfect hydrator, and you get all the electrolytes and glycogen you need from the naturally occurring salts and carbohydrates in the foods you eat (Aschwanden, 2019; Chodosh, 2020).
Moreover, the synthetic dyes used in Gatorade and other so-called “sports drinks” are often made from petroleum and contain a variety of chemicals and carcinogens linked to higher cancer risk (Kobylewski & Jacobson, 2012). Don’t believe the hype: Water is ultimately better for you than any artificially-flavored beverage endorsed by paid athletes.
10. Fat isn’t bad for you.
Fat has been the number-one enemy of fad diets for years. It turns out fat isn’t actually bad for you. Fats, or lipids, are an essential source of energy, help you feel fuller faster, and are the primary building blocks of your brain. In fact, your brain is 60 percent fat (McKinney, 2021)!
Moreover, eating less fat doesn’t magically lead to weight loss: The low-fat fad has contributed to increased obesity rates as people consume more carbohydrates and sugars to feel full. While limiting processed, fatty foods like donuts and Doritos is a decidedly good idea, science has established that not all fats are evil. Johns Hopkins (2021) reports that focusing on a low-fat diet for diabetes and heart disease is “outdated,” and Harvard Health (2019) agrees, reporting that certain types of fats can even prevent and treat heart disease and stroke. If you’ve jumped on the nonfat bandwagon, consider reintroducing fish, eggs, whole milk, avocado, nuts, nut butter, seeds, olive oil, and even dark chocolate back into your diet.