10 bogus health trends that waste your time

The truth about oil pulling, ear candling, and other health fads.
Health.com // Health.com

Help or hype?

Chances are, you've heard some pretty crazy stuff can help you lose weight or get healthier. While it's obvious that some trends are totally outrageous (like extreme fasting), you may not be so sure about others that seem legit (like going gluten-free). That's why we're cutting through the hype on 10 popular health trends. At best, they might be a waste of your time and money. At worst, they may be downright dangerous. Here's the scoop—plus what really works.

By Jessica Girdwain

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Ear candling

In this alternative treatment, a fabric tube that's been soaked in wax is inserted in the ear and set aflame as a way to remove ear wax. It gets a lot of credit it doesn't deserve, says Rachel Vreeman, MD, assistant professor at Indiana University School of Medicine and co-author of Don't Swallow Your Gum. "People often hear this creates vacuum-like suction that will pull bad stuff out of the ear canal, like wax, impurities, congestion from a cold, and toxins," she explains. Not the case. Research has shown that the candle doesn't create suctioning, plus ear mechanics don't allow for infections or impurities to be "pulled out." Risks include burns and a punctured eardrum. When you've got a wax buildup problem, see your doc—she has special tools that are designed to effectively and safely clear wax from the canal.

More: Your Ultimate Guide to Healthy Ears

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Avoiding GMOs

GMO stands for "genetically modified organism." Plants like grains and soybeans may be genetically modified to make them heartier crops. Many people are concerned about their safety risks—there are no long term studies that show they're 100% safe—but at the same time, there isn't good evidence that they are harmful or that the food is any different in your body nutritionally, says Washington, DC-based registered dietitian Katherine Tallmadge, author of Diet Simple. If you do want to avoid them, look for foods with the "Non GMO Project Verified" seal. But know this: Some companies use "non GMO" as a marketing ploy. Just because a cracker or cereal doesn't contain GMOs doesn't make it healthy. You'll still have to read the nutrition label and ingredient list to determine if it's a good choice.

Related: Which Internet Food Rumors Are True?

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Placenta pills

After giving birth, some new moms are getting their placenta encapsulated and popping the pills to boost energy, prevent postpartum depression, increase milk production, and balance hormones. If you're considering it, just know that there's no science to suggest that consuming placenta will stave off childbirth complications or depression, says Dr. Vreeman. Cooking or dehydrating the organ actually destroys any beneficial hormones and chemicals it might contain. Sure, there are anecdotes from women who say it works, says Dr. Vreeman, but others say the pills worsened their symptoms.

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Using E-cigarettes to quit smoking

E-cigs are touted as a safer alternative to smoking as well as a promising way to help you quit. Some research suggests they may be as effective as the patch, though a new study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that e-cig use didn't prompt people to change their smoking habits—one year later, they weren't more likely to quit or even smoke less. What's more, the FDA doesn't regulate the devices (the agency says it plans to do so soon), meaning you don't know what chemicals are really in them. Until longer-term studies show they are safe and can help you quit, use tried-and-true methods to quit. A combination of counseling and medication gives you the best chance at success, according to smokefree.gov.

Related: The 10 States Most Addicted to Smoking

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Beloved by celebs like Jennifer Aniston, this ancient Eastern medicine treatment involves small glass jars that are placed on the skin (often your back) to create suction. Think of it like a big hickey—it breaks flood vessels underneath the skin to leave a bruise, explains Dr. Vreeman. The practice is said to stimulate blood flow and tap into your lymph system to help remove toxins. However, blood vessels and your lymph system aren't actually connected in this way. (Translation: it won't remove toxins.) "Though some studies show cupping may have some effect, the science isn't good and the trials are at a high risk of bias. We need more research," says Dr. Vreeman.

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Going gluten-free to lose weight

A gluten-free diet might be necessary for people with celiac disease (who have an immune reaction to the protein found in grains like barley and wheat), but it's become a trendy way to lose weight. The diet often backfires. "My clients who have gone gluten free are all constipated and nutrient deficient," Tallmadge says. "When we get them back on grains, they feel better." Like any other heavily processed food, gluten-free products are often low in fiber, lack vitamins and minerals, and contain a lot of calories. Overeating these foods can make you gain weight. Eating natural gluten-free foods, like quinoa and vegetables, is healthy for anyone—just skip the gluten-free muffins, please.

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Oil pulling

This Ayurvedic practice—where you swish a tablespoon of oil (coconut, sesame, sunflower) around in your mouth for 20 minutes—is gaining steam as an at-home remedy. That may be because Gwyneth Paltrow and other stars are fans, saying it keeps their teeth white, breath fresh, and mouths cavity-free. While a few small studies show it can help reduce mouth bacteria as well as regular mouthwash, it's not a replacement for brushing, flossing, and routine dental visits, says Rana Stino, a dentist at Water Tower Dental Care in Chicago. As for other reports that it can pull toxins out of the body, there's no evidence that supports this benefit, notes Dr. Vreeman.

Plus: How to Keep Your Smile Pretty and Healthy

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What could be more popular than the juice cleanse? Touted by detox-loving celebs and regular folks alike, cleanses require you to consume liquids (and minimal or no solid food) for a few days or even a week or more. There's no doubt that this low-calorie, liquid-only diet will help you lose weight in the short-term. But the number on the scale doesn't tell the whole truth, says Ronni Litz Julien, RD, author of The Trans Fat Free Kitchen. "It's all water weight that you will regain as soon as you start eating again," she says. Even worse, you may also lose muscle mass, which will decrease your metabolism. Your body doesn't need a break from digestion in order to get rid of toxins. In fact, it's a self-cleansing machine—trust that your liver, kidneys, and intestines will get the job done.

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Extreme fasting

Going to extreme measures to lose weight—such as trying a water fast for a few days (or more)—is, hands down, extremely dangerous. The risks? Dizziness, fatigue, or cardiovascular problems (even fatal ones) from electrolyte imbalance that can affect your heartbeat, says Julien. And, like juice cleanses, extreme fasts can prompt your body to break down calorie-burning muscle. Less restrictive fasts (like eating normally for five days and severely limiting calories for two) can work, but there are easier and more pleasant ways to lose weight—like eating a healthy, whole-foods-based diet, for one.

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