10 unproven health fads

We run the rule over 10 health fads science says are a waste of time.

20mar 10 unproven health fads hero

Can you vibrate your way to weight loss? Does wearing a bra cause cancer? Is hydrogen water really a cure for ageing? Assorted influencers and Instagrammers would have you believe the answer is “yes”. Science tells a different story.

Here’s our take on the latest health fads doing the rounds and what you need to know.

Crystal water

Aussie model Miranda Kerr, who’s chalked up 12.2 million Instagram followers, endorsed the latest crystal fad last year – Glacce’s water bottles with a crystal inside. The crystals are claimed to have various “healing” and “positive energy” properties. For $158, you can get a Black Obsidian Bottle that allegedly “harnesses confidence, strength and unleashes infinite possibilities”.  

Ads for Glacce and other crystal waters (also known as “gemstone water” or “gem-water”) routinely pop up on Facebook as traders try to cash in on the hype.

Crystal healers allege the practice has roots that go back 6000 years to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. However, scientific evidence of any “healing power” remains to be found. We recommend you look for your infinite possibilities elsewhere.

Hydrogen water

Transparent water molecules.

Another case of hyped-up H₂0 is “hydrogen water”, which is regular water with added hydrogen gas. You can buy it in cans (a four-pack costs $19) or add hydrogen tablets ($59 gets you 60 tablets) to plain water. If you have a spare $4100, you can buy a machine that lets you make your own.

Sellers of this hydrogen-boosted water aren’t shy when it comes to making claims. They say the liquid can act as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent, boost athletic performance and slow the ageing process.

There have been a handful of small trials involving hydrogen water. But these studies haven’t produced good evidence to back the health claims being made. We suggest you get your water from the tap.

Segmented sleep

Struggling to get enough shut-eye? You’re not alone. In 2019, a study by the University of Auckland School of Psychology found more than a third of New Zealanders don’t get enough sleep (less than seven hours a night).

An unconventional approach touted by some wellness gurus as a fix for night owls is “segmented sleep”, also referred to as “biphasic sleep”.

Instead of having one block of sleep, you have two lots of slumber with a break in the middle. For example, starting sleeping at 9pm, waking up at midnight for a couple of hours, then back to bed and sleeping through until 7am. Advocates of this snoozing style claim you’ll get more quality REM sleep and feel more rested, while also enjoying a block of quality time in the middle of the night.

There are no clinical studies that back up the benefits of segmented sleep. Sleep experts warn that interrupting your natural sleep pattern can be dangerous especially if you sleep less, which can affect learning, memory and raise the risk of accidents.

Whole-body vibration (WBV)

Sellers of whole-body vibration machines, which cost from $200 to $3300, claim they help with weight loss, increase muscle strength and reduce the appearance of cellulite through a passive workout.

Basically, you stand on a platform that can vibrate up to 30 times per second, with the shaking causing your muscles to contract and relax.

However, claims these machines can deliver a quality workout without you having to actually do anything are on shaky ground.

The research that has been done on the potential benefits of WBV has been conducted in small-scale studies with inconclusive results. Much better evidence is needed for benefits and risks before any claims can be made.

Hi-tech horoscopes

Freemium apps such as Co-Star, which sends daily updates to users with “hyperpersonalised” advice based on their star sign, are booming. In 2019, Co-Star had more than five million registered accounts.

Phone with horoscope app.

While these apps are free to try, it costs when you want “hyperpersonalised” content. Co-Star charges $4.99 if you want to enter specific birth information. The Astrology Zone app by popular horoscope practitioner Susan Miller costs $89.99 for a one-year premium content subscription. Another popular app TimePassages costs $1.69 for each natal chart, or $16.99 for unlimited natal charts.

While some people swear by their sun sign, unsurprisingly there’s no science backing it up. One prediction we can safely make, whether or not mercury is in retrograde, is your finances will improve by not forking out for forecasts.

Red light therapy

Proponents of red light therapy claim the treatment is capable of doing some pretty amazing things, from reducing wrinkles to helping treat Alzheimer’s and arthritis.

It uses low-wavelength red light that’s absorbed by skin cells, which then helps the cells produce more “energy”. This energy stimulates the healing of damaged cells or helps produce more collagen. Salons offer treatments for $90 a session or you can buy an LED spectrum face mask for $900 to use at home. There are also portable LED lamps starting at $466.

While there have been small clinical trials that conclude red light therapy could help improve the skin’s appearance, experts agree more research needs to be done. We reckon you should think twice before paying for these expensive treatments. There’s also the risk using a device incorrectly at home could damage your eyes or skin.

Whole30

Fad diets are nothing new. The Whole30 diet is among the latest to join the list.

Woman weighing herself on bathroom scale.

“Your only job is to stick to the Whole30 rules for 30 straight days,” states the Whole30 website. The rules are you have to abstain from certain foods – sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes and dairy – for 30 days. Claims on the site include that the diet can curb cravings, rebalance hormones, cure digestive issues and improve medical conditions.

If you slip up and consume so much as “one bite of pizza, one spoonful of ice-cream, one sip of beer” within the 30-day period, you must start over.

Whole30 has a range of pricy add-ons. You can buy a raft of “Whole30 Approved” products as well as books ranging from Whole30 Day by Day ($26.40) to Whole30 Fast & Easy ($44.10).

You can also hire a Whole30 coach. Coaches don’t need to be registered dieticians. Instead, they pay $1590 to become certified, with annual renewal fees of $238.

Health experts have criticised the diet as being unsustainable and overly strict, with its cure-all claims leading dieters down a disappointing path.

Dopamine fasting

The newest fad in Silicon Valley, dopamine fasting is touted as an “antidote to our overstimulated age”.

Dopamine is a complex neurotransmitter associated with motivation. Your brain releases dopamine when you do something enjoyable, such as eating delicious food or working out.

In a dopamine fast, you abstain from anything that brings you pleasure – TV, social media, food you enjoy, or sex. Advocates say this “resets” your brain’s dopamine levels.

There are obvious flaws with this theory. Research has found dopamine levels can’t be reset, and, even if they could, neuroscientists don’t know what would be a base level of dopamine.

Whole-body cryotherapy

A favourite with assorted high-profile athletes and actors, whole-body cryotherapy might look cool, but the science doesn’t back the hype.

Man in cryotherapy chamber.

It’s not cheap trying out this wellness fad either – a two- to four-minute session in a cryotherapy chamber, which goes down to -160ºC, costs about $100.

Advocates claim the hi-tech treatment helps burn calories (800 calories per session according to one retailer) to enable weight loss, reduce the appearance of cellulite and boost collagen. There are also claims it can help medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, depression and anxiety.

We haven’t found any good clinical studies to back up these claims. We have found a slew of injury reports – including frostbite and burns – associated with the practice.

Bras and breast cancer

The claim that underwire bras cause breast cancer by blocking the drainage of lymph fluid has certainly made the rounds.

It started back in the 1990s but the theory is still being floated by popular sources, such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s wellness site GOOP (according to Ms Paltrow, GOOP has 2.4 million visitors per month), which suggests women avoid wearing or sleeping in bras.

However, the theory has no scientific evidence supporting it. Our advice: don’t be duped by the goop.

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