In an ideal world, the government would provide unbiased, science-backed health recommendations you could follow to live a long, healthy life full of happiness and probably lots of money, right?
Given the dismal amount of ice cream and beer that fits into a "healthy" diet, it's pretty clear that this isn't an ideal world. Outdated studies, sticky politics, and, worst of all, manipulative lobbyists have all contributed to a series of official recommendations that are less than accurate, to be generous.
It's not that you'll be sick if you stick to the FDA's nutritional guidelines and other recommendations, but recent studies and expert health advice point to better ways to stay healthy. Here's the truth behind five of the biggest health myths perpetuated by Uncle Sam:
Switch to low-fat or skim milk to reduce heart disease
Truth: The US government has recommended people cut saturated fat from their diet since 1977, after two decades of studies pointed to links between animal fats and heart disease. The official mandate states that dairy choices should be limited to reduced-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt. But how important is it to cut saturated fat from our diets? A meta-analysis of 21 studies revealed that there is "no significant evidence" that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. What's more, people who drink whole milk are LESS likely to get fat than people who drink skim or reduced-fat milk.
Dr. Jonathan Newman, an assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, says that while he still supports limiting saturated fat intake, there's a lot we don't understand. "As with many studies of diet and heart disease, the evidence is not always clear because of methodological limitations and problems with the way analyses are conducted … Sources of animal protein high in saturated fat may also increase heart disease risk through pathways unrelated to fat content, but this is new evidence." Bottom line: moderate saturated fat intake won't kill you, but if it's calcium you're looking for, maybe ditch dairy altogether and go for kale, white beans, or any of the other foods that are better sources of the mineral than dairy.
Americans should limit their salt intake
Truth: Ah, those ubiquitous, evil white granules that make food worth eating. The CDC's recommendation to limit daily sodium intake to less than 2,300mg might not matter as much as you've been led to believe. Experts agree that too much salt may cause heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, but there's no consensus as to what the upper intake limit should be. In fact, a 2014 study found that a low-salt diet may actually be "associated with adverse health effects in some subgroups."
"It's clear that there is no ideal amount of daily salt intake that would work for each and every American because we're too diverse a group," says Dr. Arefa Cassoobhoy, WebMD's medical editor. "And, for some people, cutting salt intake does not need to be a priority. They can focus on other dietary changes to improve their health."
Don't worry about table salt -- instead, limit your late-night munchies of processed food (which is loaded with more sodium than you might imagine, as well as dubious ingredients), and your body will thank you.
Adults should get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week
Truth: If all it takes is just 30 minutes of exercise five days a week to meet your needs, as current guidelines suggest, we should be doing our body enough good just by running to catch a bus, playing a game of basketball, and hitting up a yoga class or two each week, right?
While 150 minutes of exercise each week is the minimum you need to lower your risk of heart attack, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and other diseases, Harvard Medical School says that people should up their exercise routines to 30 minutes of moderate activity each day (seven days a week) through a mix of formal workouts, sports, and functional movement (like taking the stairs).
Another study found that people who walked and exercised for 450 minutes a week were less likely to die prematurely than those who hit the gym less often. So how much time should you spend on the treadmill each week? "I tell patients not to get stuck on quantity of exercise, but rather focus on doing something regularly," Dr. Cassoobhoy says. "Each week, work your body a little harder and a little longer. The recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week is just a goal to get to and then surpass."
Cholesterol is bad for you
Truth: For decades, Americans have been told to limit their intake of eggs, red meat, cheese, and butter. Their high cholesterol content will clog your arteries, it was claimed. But a recent report from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee admits that the most current evidence demonstrates "no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol." In fact, it's not even "a nutrient of concern for overconsumption" anymore. Phew!
So does that mean you should load up on bacon cheeseburgers at your next barbecue? Probably not -- red meat, as well as other dietary choices, infections, and diseases, cause inflammation in the body. And chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease. So even though cholesterol isn't the culprit, high-cholesterol foods may ultimately kill you for other reasons.
There are no medical benefits to Schedule I drugs
Truth: To fall into the most severely controlled Schedule I list, drugs must have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse." So why do substances like ecstasy, marijuana, and magic mushrooms -- drugs that have shown promise in effectively treating addiction, pain, and PTSD -- still fall into Schedule I?
"The current DEA scheduling of these substances is based on politics, not on research," argues Brad Burge, director of communications at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. "Many of these compounds… were previously used for healing and therapy before they were made illegal 40 years ago."
Burge says that the scheduling of some drugs could change soon(ish), though. "Now, for the first time, government agencies, including the FDA and DEA, have approved clinical trials into MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, and anxiety associated with life-threatening illness; LSD-assisted psychotherapy for anxiety; psilocybin-assisted therapy for anxiety and addiction; marijuana for PTSD; and many other conditions." Until the medical use of these drugs is approved, though, tripping will still be considered a purely recreational (and completely illegal) activity.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.