ANSWERED: Your 20 Biggest Health Questions

Nothing changes faster these days than science and medical advice.

That’s why, when it comes to your general health, it’s hard to know what information is right, wrong, and somewhere in between.

To find some of the most common health questions that people have, we turned to a book called “Your Health: What Works, What Doesn’t” published by Reader’s Digest in June 2010.

The book consulted dozens of experts and culled through hundreds of studies to bring readers a definitive answer to controversial questions about diet, fitness, disease, and medicine.

We’ve supplemented these answers with our own research to present a bottom line.

Keep in mind that new research continuously changes our understanding of “good and bad” health advice. We’ve done our best to provide answers based on the most current scientific evidence.

Does olive oil prevent heart disease?

Short answer: Yes

The health benefits of olive oil come from the presence of polyphenols, antioxidants that reduce the risk of heart diseases and cancers.

But to get these healthy compounds, consumers should buy good-quality, fresh 'extra-virgin' olive oil, which has the highest polyphenol content. Most commercially available olive oils have low levels of polyphenols associated with poor harvesting methods, improper storage, and heavy processing.

Do cough syrups work?

Short answer: No

In 2006, the nation's chest physicians agreed that the majority of over-the-counter cough medicines don't actually work. These colourful syrups typically contain doses of codeine and dextromethorphan that are too small to be effective.

Only cough suppressants that contain older antihistamines seem to relieve coughs. That includes brompheniramine, an active ingredient in Dimetapp.

Do sugary soft drinks lead to diabetes?

Short answer: Yes

The majority of health research is stacked against sugar-sweetened soda. A large 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women who drank one or more sugary drinks per day increased their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 83% compared to those who consumed less than one of these beverages per month.

Do I need sunscreen with more than 30 SPF?

Short answer: No

Sunscreens with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 block about 97% of ultraviolet rays, while sunscreens with an SPF of higher than 30 block 97%-98%.

It's more important that you choose 'broad-spectrum' sunscreen, meaning it protects against both UVB and UVA rays. Sunbathers also need to apply a generous amount of sunscreen in order to get the full benefit of the SPF.

Is the MSG in Chinese likely to give you a headache?

Short answer: No

A review of 40 years of clinical trials, published in the journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners in 2006, found that all previous research 'failed to identify a consistent relationship between the consumption of MSG and the constellation of symptoms that comprise the syndrome,' including headaches and asthma attacks.

The misconception spawned from several poorly-done small studies in the 1960s that seemed to connect MSG with a variety of maladies that people experienced after eating at Chinese restaurants.

Learn more about the MSG myth here »

Do nuts make you fat?

Short answer: No

As much as 75% of a nut is fat. But eating fat doesn't necessarily make you fat. The bigger factor leading to weight gain is portion-size. Luckily, nuts are loaded with healthy fats that keep you full. They're also a good source of protein and fibre.

One study even found that whole almonds have 20% less calories than previously thought because a lot of the fat is excreted from the body.

Does coffee cause cancer?

Short answer: No

Coffee got a bad rap in the 1980s when a study linked drinking coffee to pancreatic cancer. The preliminary report was later debunked.

More recently, health studies have swung in favour of the caffeinated beverage. Coffee has been linked to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's disease, liver cancer, and even suicide.

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