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Sensationalized Health Stories: Diet Soda, Bipolar, Antidepressants and More

sensational-healthTired of fads, lawsuits and plain old sensationalism? So are we!

Here are our picks for the most sensationalized health stories from 2007, as recounted (and mostly suggested) by a few ever-so level-headed medical experts.

What do you think? Did we get it right or miss your favorites? Sound off in the comments section below.

Get articles like this delivered free, in our monthly health newsletter!


Claim: "Everybody's Bipolar!"
by Scott Haltzman, M.D.

sensational-health-scarednewsletter-graphicI felt great this morning. Then, as more people came into my office with magazine advertisements, my mood plummeted. With this shift in my emotional state, I must have bipolar disorder, right?

You'd think so if you did a quick read of these "public awareness" ads. With queries like, "Are you more self-confident than usual?" and, "Did you do more things than usual?" anyone with a pulse would endorse enough yeses to think he or she had bipolar disorder.

Doctors may also be guilty of overdiagnosis, as a study in September's Archives of General Psychiatry suggested. Between 1994/1995 and 2002/2003, there was a 40-fold increase in this diagnosis among youth! Adult diagnoses increased by 85 percent. Granted, this could be because of better awareness—at least in part. So the ads probably do some good for some people, but for the rest of us, we really need to understand the requirements for this diagnosis.

True bipolar I disorder (to which ads like these refer) requires that you shift into a distinct mood state—not be caused by drugs or alcohol—in which your whole personality changes for at least one continuous week. If this doesn't happen, you might just be moody. Join the club!


Claim: "Cruises Are Dangerous!"
by Andrea V. King, M.P.H.

sensational-health-scaredCruises provide a wintry weather escape, but hype surrounding nasty illnesses and sick passengers frightens many would-be vacationers.

Most cruise ailments are caused by common strains of norovirus, which you'll find everywhere from schools to pools. Often billed as a major infectious disease, norovirus is contagious, though not as much as people might think. It causes unpleasant yet fairly mild symptoms (usually vomiting and diarrhea) that are gone within one to two days.

By washing your hands frequently and keeping away from anyone who has the "stomach flu," you'll have a great chance of staying healthy and enjoying your next cruise.


Claim: "Diet Soda Causes Metabolic Syndrome!"
by Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.

sensational-health-scaredI can't imagine that diet sodas cause metabolic syndrome. After media reports suggesting just that, I've been asked if they raise blood sugars and blood pressure, cause obesity and more (potential signs of metabolic syndrome).

If you read it carefully, that's not exactly what the study, published in the July 31 issue of Circulation, said. Something being linked to disease does not mean it causes the disease. When I was first learning about these types of studies, my professor posed this scenario: More women in New York than in Nigeria wear pantyhose. More women in New York than in Nigeria have colon cancer. Does pantyhose cause colon cancer? Of course not.

My experience tells me that people who drink a lot of soda—even diet—eat more fast food and fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Metabolic syndrome is far too complex to be caused by a single dietary component.


Claim: "Antidepressants Cause Suicide!"
by Susan Louisa Montauk, M.D.

sensational-health-scaredThe black box could be—often is—a great tool. The FDA uses it to outline information about a high-risk drug. They put it at the top of the drug's label—the paper that contains all the information the FDA feels a doctor must know to prescribe it.

But sometimes I wonder how helpful that information really is.

In May, the FDA added young adults to those considered to be at increased risk for suicidal thinking and behaviors after beginning antidepressants. The pills already had a black box with similar warnings for adolescents and children, placed there in 2005.

Research has shown there was a very high correlation with plummeting prescriptions and soaring suicide rates after the 2005 warnings came out. The two may or may not be related, but they're certainly cause for concern. And the truth is, a very small percentage of people become suicidal after starting the drugs. Let's not err on the side of more harm than good.

How about instead, we try an eye-catching circle that reads: "These medications have great potential for both good and harm in all ages. Use only after a thorough patient history, with close follow up, and with care."

More information: Do antidepressants cause suicide?


Claim: "Your Body Is Toxic!"
by Susan Moores, M.S., R.D.

sensational-health-scaredFor reasons I have yet to understand, detox diets are en vogue. To "cleanse," you have to eat and drink some pretty unpleasant things, then experience even more unpleasant side effects, including plenty of time in the bathroom. 

Experts say we can save ourselves the trouble (and the toilet paper) because our bodies naturally detox every day. And common sense would say we might be able to ease the "toxic" load through how we live. Eat smart foods (less-processed ones, plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, lean sources of protein and rich sources of fiber such as beans and whole grains). Wash it all down with several refreshing glasses of water, and stay active.

Surprise, surprise. Things will move along quite nicely.


Claim: "You Can Lose Weight Without Even Trying!"
by Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., C.D.E.

sensational-health-scaredYou've seen those advertisements that assure you that you can lose tons of weight without any effort. Not a chance! Permanent weight loss takes hard work and lifestyle change. Unhealthy weight loss comes back with a vengeance anyway.

"Paying for fad science is a good way to lose cash, not pounds," said Federal Trade Commission chairman Deborah Platt Majoras in a press release earlier this year. Ridiculous claims got so common and deceptive that in January, the makers of four so-called weight-loss aids agreed to give the FTC at least $25 million in cash and assets to settle claims against them. You go, FTC!

More information: "Do Diet Pills Work?" Plus: "Weight-Loss Tips From the Experts"


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Last updated and/or approved: April 2011.
Original article appeared in November/December 2007 former print magazine. Bios current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.
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