Growing up in suburban Toronto, I had a big pink wardrobe in the corner of my bedroom that stood about 8 feet tall. By the time I was 16, the closet was so filled with women's magazines that my parents worried the floorboards would crack under its weight.
Back then, I was particularly vulnerable to fashion and teen monthlies targeted at women, like Seventeen and Vogue. Their glossy pages offered an escape from dreary suburbia, and I couldn't get enough.
But when I revisit the health articles in these magazines now, I notice that the overwhelming majority of them are insane, aimed at fearmongering and totally science-free. I regret the time and money I dedicated to these books because of something I now know to be true: They almost never offer evidence-based advice, but instead celebrity-centered nonsense.
A friend of mine recently asked whether I thought these magazines were a vast conspiracy to make women dumb because so much of what's in them is frivolous, unhelpful, false, and even harmful. I'm not prone to conspiracy theories, but if I could go back in time, I would have saved my time and money. Today I’d tell my 16-year-old self to ignore the health advice in their pages — and keep these eight lessons in mind.
1) You won't achieve a healthy weight through buying a particular product or going on a crash diet
Again and again in women's magazines, you can read that losing weight fast or maintaining a healthy body size involves buying into some new product or trend — whether it's supplements like green coffee beans or fad diets like the Bulletproof Diet.
Just take a peek at a few issues of Women's Health magazine. "Hot body express!" "Bikini body now!" "Have the baby, keep the body!" These are actual claims on their covers. The magazines purport to help readers flatten their bellies and get ready for the beach in diets as short-lived as seven days.
Of course, these are lies.
But then again, if these magazines told the truth about what scientists know about weight loss, they'd be out of business — because what we know is actually pretty simple and only takes a few paragraphs to spell out.
What works is simply watching what you eat every day, over a lifetime. No magic diet. No miracle pills. Just a long, careful slog.
More specifically, we live in environments that encourage us to eat more and eat worse, and researchers have found that people who manage to keep off extra weight tend to develop habits that help them avoid the traps: keeping nothing more than almonds to snack on at home because they don't want to deal with the lure of unhealthy foods designed to make us overindulge; rarely ordering more than appetizers in restaurants to avoid the calorie deluge eating out often involves. (We typically consume about 20 to 40 percent more calories than we’d eat at home.)
Some diet researchers told me that they never leave unhealthy food on their countertops at home, or that they never drink sugary beverages. Still others have made a career out of studying how to rearrange our environments to promote health.
If I had known all this when I was 16, I might have stayed away from the high-protein, low-fat fads that were popular then but left me hungry and unsatisfied. I would have remembered that every body responds differently to different types of food, and that we weren't all designed for the same convoluted diet some fashion model or celebrity touts. I would have tried to find the foods that made me feel good and figured out how to avoid the stuff that didn't. It's really that simple.
2) You don't need to be super strict about your diet
Having said that, there's no need to aim for perfection in your diet 100 percent of the time. The truth is, few people can live on kale smoothies and steamed fish every day for their entire lives. Really restrictive diets aren’t sustainable and more often than not backfire.
Yet women's magazines fixate on strict eating patterns. Paleo, gluten-free — whatever the trend, you'll find it in the pages of these glossies. The implied message is that you need to adhere to a really rigid diet to lose weight or maintain a healthy body size.
This notion may make for compelling magazine covers, but it's just not true. If you have healthy habits most of the time, and quickly regroup for your next meal or the next day after a big indulgence, over the long term you won't gain weight. But again, programs designed for short-term perfection probably sell better than boring old ideas about grinding along to achieve long-term health.
3) Exercise doesn't have to be annoying or overly complex
In many women's magazines, exercise is depicted as a daunting task — something you need to do excessively to achieve a perfect body or even body part. Exercise often requires fancy gym clothes and lots of time and discipline.
Cosmopolitan recently featured "11 exercises that will make your booty pop." If you do every move to exhaustion, Cosmo promises, "You'll be DTF — down to flaunt — your awesome body wherever you go."
It took me years to figure out what exercise really is: something that gives you energy, lifts your mood, and makes you feel strong and healthy. It’s a gift, not a hardship. Part of realizing this involves understanding that exercise doesn't necessarily require gym clothes or running shoes. You can do it throughout the day, every day.
I like how Mike Evans, a doctor in Toronto, frames this kind of workout — he calls it "making your day harder." Schedule walking meetings or walk during your lunch hour. Get off a stop early on your commute to work. Park far away. Try a soccer game or yoga class with friends over the weekend in addition to (or instead of) going out for lunch.
You don't need an expensive gym membership or tiny workout shorts; you don't even need a lot of extra time. And the more you do these little things, I'd venture, the more likely you'll be to enjoy more vigorous activities, too.
4) Gwyneth Paltrow and other celebrities aren't good sources of health information
Many stories in women's magazines uncritically tout faddish health advice from celebrities. Recently Beyonce has been held up as the go-to authority on the vegan lifestyle. According to InStyle, it's the reason behind her "#flawless" looks and "killer curves." Katy Perry made the rounds with her diet secret on Twitter: "that vitamin and supplement lyfe."
Some advice is even more extreme — such as Gwyneth Paltrow's suggestion that women steam their vaginas. (Her other popular gimmicks include detox cleanses and special workouts that will supposedly firm up one part of your body.)
Let me save you time and money here: Almost every celebrity-driven trend I’ve investigated over the years has fallen apart under even modest scrutiny. These fads are usually motivated more by a celebrity's business interests than by any sort of research about how to be healthy.
There are really only a few things that scientists can truly say for sure will help us look good and stay healthy: Don’t smoke. Don’t drink too much. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Watch your weight. Exercise. And get a good amount of sleep. That’s pretty much it. The rest is noise.
Don't just take my word for it. Timothy Caulfield, author of the book Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?, spent several years looking into the science (or, more typically, the lack thereof) behind celebrity health and beauty tips to better understand the impact famous folks have on us. Generally these health and beauty tips, he found, have zero science behind them. I'd recommend reading his book to understand exactly how celebrity health culture works — and why it's so harmful.
5) Expensive creams and potions won't make you more beautiful
In his book, Caulfield also looked into the science behind beauty products. What he discovered was astonishing and should make you think twice before you believe what you read in the next fashion magazine you pick up, or buy into expensive lotions and creams that promise to keep you wrinkle- or pimple-free. He found that most of the dermatologists in this field were not independent scientists but business people who profited off the thriving industry. He found that many beauty products had either no data behind them or very small and unreliable studies to back up the fantastical claims they carried on their labels. In the Atlantic, he writes:
To make matters worse, the popular press is rarely critical of new beauty products. While I found many excellent and balanced media stories on beauty treatments (usually panning them), the vast majority of articles simply trumpet their alleged value, using vague descriptors such as revitalize and radiate. Rarely did I find any real evidence or expertise beyond personal testimonies (which I don’t need to remind you are not evidence). The so-called experts who are quoted in these stories are often part of the beauty industry or individuals with no research background.
Many women buy beauty products — which are much more expensive than similar products made for men — not for any rational reason, but because they make us feel better or more beautiful. They're highlighted every month in periodicals aimed at women, like the $1,900 La Mer face cream Allure magazine suggested is something people must try before they die.
Don't get me wrong: I too have my favorite beauty products that are part of my daily routine. Just know that the promises they carry on their labels are probably bunk, and when the claims are really fantastical — with equally heavy price tags — you're probably getting ripped off.
6) You shouldn't aspire to look like Kim Kardashian. Not even she looked like Kim Kardashian without a lot of help.
Women's magazines are aspirational: They sell the idea that we can all look better, and part of this usually involves looking like someone other than ourselves — typically someone famous like Kim Kardashian.
You could probably wallpaper the Taj Mahal with the magazine pages that have been dedicated to tips on getting the Kardashian hair or eyelashes, or her workouts to plump your bum and whittle your waist.
But remember: Only Kim Kardashian looks like Kim Kardashian. And even she didn’t look like the present-day Kim Kardashian until after a lot of help.
Instead, look around you. You’ll see most people look nothing like Kim or Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt. Not only are these celebrities genetic anomalies, but they also dedicate their lives to beautifying their faces and bodies; their careers hinge on this. The rest of us have other things to worry about in our lives, and trying to look like Kim or Angelina is a frustrating exercise in futility.
7) Smoking isn't glamorous
If you needed evidence that the health advice in women's magazines is dubious, look no further than the advertisements. While these periodicals mostly refrain from promoting smoking in their editorial pages, they still carry ads from cigarette companies that depict smoking as a glamorous exercise for beautiful people. (An exception: Here's Gwyneth Paltrow on a promotional tour for her health cookbook, talking to Harper's Bazaar about how she indulges in a cigarette a week.)
Not only is this wildly irresponsible, given what we know about the harms of smoking, but it completely undermines all the other so-called health "advice" in these magazines. We now know that smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. It'll also make you less attractive.
Smoking makes exercise more difficult, it prematurely ages your skin and body, and it promotes many terrible illnesses, from asthma to various forms of cancer and lung disease. All this amounts to the most startling fact about smoking: People who do it tend to die younger. That's something no $100 cream or "belly-blasting" exercise routine can undo.
8) Unless you're a heroin addict, you probably don't need to detox
The pages of women's magazines are filled with diets and products that supposedly help you "cleanse your body," from clarifying shampoo to detoxifying salads and juices, and — at the more extreme end — supplements, enemas, and even colon cleanses. A recent issue of Women's World suggested that drinking detox tea could help readers lose 70 pounds, while Self featured Shakira's abs and a seven-day detox plan.
These types of incredibly persistent claims should be familiar to any avid magazine reader. But before you succumb to them, you should know that the idea of using some product to "detox" is gobbledygook.
Science-based medicine has long rejected the concept of a detox, unless it is being used to refer to situations where someone was poisoned or, say, is being weaned off a heroin addiction. This is mostly because scientists now know that through a range of organ systems — the liver, kidneys, skin, gut, and lungs — our bodies have evolved to do a pretty damn fine job of getting rid of harmful stuff by themselves.
Anyone who has nursed a hangover knows this to be true: You feel ghastly the next morning, but, sure enough, with a bit of time, your organ systems go to work. Your liver has enzymes that transform toxic substances like alcohol into more benign ones that you then excrete in bile or through the kidneys. Your kidneys, among other detoxifying functions, get rid of unwanted chemicals and waste through urination. In the absence of disease, these processes happen automatically, every second we live. No supplement, tea, or diet has been proven to somehow do the job instead or better.
After a period of overindulgence, there are a few things that can boost your immediate sense of well-being, and maybe even improve your long-term health outcomes. These things should be familiar by now: Get a good night's sleep, limit your alcohol intake, do some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. While you won't see these tips on a magazine cover anytime soon, they'll make you healthier and more beautiful than any magic supplement or detox regimen.